- “We Will Teach What Democracy Really Means By Living Democratically Within Our Own Schools” Lessons from the Personal Experience of Teachers Who Taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools
- Education and Culture
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 12, Number 1, Summer 1995
- pp. 24-42
- View Citation
- Additional Information
24 "We Will Teach What Democracy Really Means By Living Democratically Within Our Own Schools" Lessons From the Personal Experience of Teachers Who Taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools George W. Chilcoat and Jerry A. Ligon Introduction We begin this essay by posing a number of questions. Why does someone teach? What is the teaching act suppose to do for students ? the teacher? the community? What effect does a particular curriculum have on students? How do different kinds of instructional behaviors coupled with a particular content affect students? What are students to be, do, feel, and know during and after instruction? Are students suppose to experience some kind of change during and after some particular instruction? What differences, if any, should there be in students as a result of instruction? Is the teaching act a set of facts from textbooks, lectures, and controlled structured instruction only to be remembered on district, state, and/or national examinations? Or should instruction improve or preserve a particular culture, develp citizenship, and/or improve employment? This essay attempts to answer some of these questions by centering on a discussion about three volunteer/teachers as grounded in the everyday events and experiences of classroom life in the Mississippi Freedom School project during the summer of 1964. These teachers saw themselves as "agents of change" influencing the consciousness of African American students and the social and material conditions of their lives moving from the classrooms into the community and back again. "The education of that summer changed lives, revolutionized people. And it was meant to" (Howe, 1984, p. 51). Exploring these teacher experiences through the metaphor "agents of change" provides information about the nature of teaching and learning processes of empowering and changing the lives of students. The order of the essay will begin with a historical background including the freedom school proposal, how the curriculum and instruction were design in a curriculum conference, the recruitment and preparation of the teachers, and a brief description of the freedom school experience. Next, an in-depth description of the freedom school experiences of three teachers will be examined. The essay will conclude with what possible pedagogical lessons might be learned from the three teachers that might inform contemporary practice. Historical Background The Proposal for Freedom Schools In late 1963, a major civil rights incursionary project into the state of Mississippi was being planned for the summer of 1964 by two civil rights groups, the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and The Council of Federated Organization (COFO). The initial purpose of the project was to flood Mississippi with approximately 1,000 volunteers, mostly white, in a major political action undertaking designed to promote African American equality and basic democratic rights primarily through a massive voter registration drive among the disenfranchised African Americans (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] papers, 1982, Reel 38; State Historical Society of Wisconsin [SHSW], R. Hunter Morrey papers). It was hoped that the influx of white volunteers "would attract national attention to the Southern struggle, force the federal government to act as a buffer between organizers in the black community and repressive Southern governments, and compel Lyndon Johnson running for president to commit himself on civil rights before the 1964 elections" (Perlstein, 1980. p. 301). As part of the project, a six-week summer freedom school program was proposed. As an alternative to the existing, repressive public school system (especially for African American students) in Mississippi, the freedom schools were to provide students with a richer educational experience and, hopefully, would commit these students in becoming a force for social change (SNCC: Reel 67, 68; SHSW: R. Hunter Morrey papers). Those proposing the freedom school Education and Culture Summer, 1995 Vol. XI No. 3 W E W I L L T E A C H W H A T D E M O C R A C Y R E A L L Y M E A N S 25 program embraced a curriculum and instructional vision that was progressive and democratic rather than autocratic and authoritarian. Leaders in SNCC had implicit faith that progressive, democratic instructional methods involving active student participation centered in a civic issues curriculum emphasizing knowledge and experiences students brought to class...