As part of our social and emotional health curriculum, we were recently doing an activity in which students considered about 25 different core values, such as honesty, perservance, and empathy, and brainstormed examples of people or characters who exemplified these values. Students then considered which of these core values were most important to them personally.
Through several rotations of eighth grade students, the examples they came up with were remarkably similar- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were mentioned repeatedly. On one hand, it’s great that these names were on the tips of students’ tongues. On the other hand, I groaned internally a bit each time the names came up because it fet like students were just parroting familiar answers.
I was reminded of the lesson when listening to the NPR-produced American Chronicles Civil Rights collection of interviews a few days later. The story of Georgia Gilmore was one of those featured. Mrs. Gilmore was the owner of back door restaraunt whose food helped fuel the Civil Rights movement of which Dr. King and others were the more public faces. She was also an organizer and fundraiser for the movement who lost her job after testifying in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
As I was listening, I thought that’s the kind of example I want students to be aware of. Not that I want to say “Ugh, no” when students offer the example of Dr. King or Rosa Parks, but I want to say “Yes, Dr. King was a great example…. and so was Georgia Gilmore…. “Yes, Rosa Parks was a great example, and so was Claudette Colvin…”
This is the great work of teaching history and character education- offering students stories to help envision the ways they might participate in their communities. If we only talk about Dr. King and Rosa Parks, we might suggest to students it’s only the big contributions that are praise-worthy. I hope that I teach students who go on to do great, memorable things, but I also want students to know that the less grand contributions are also important.