New Supplemental Civil Rights Curriculum Inspires Tomorrow’s Leaders

Published September 16, 2022


Helping kids start the school year off on the right foot with Operation Backpack®

In 2019, Dr. Devin DeLaughter posed an interesting question to a group of sixth graders at an independent school in Tennessee: What if you could recreate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on TikTok?

As they listened to the speech, the students discovered a freshness and urgency in the words and realized they carry as much weight and power today as they did 56 years before.

“I had a number of students start to ask questions like, if this speech happened so long ago, why are we still having a very similar conversation right now?” remembers Dr. DeLaughter, who served as head of school at the time. “And so now they’re thinking, if my grandparents dealt with this, and my parents are dealing with this, and I’m having to deal with this, how can we make it so the next generation doesn’t have to? I never thought the conversation would go to that point. But it became this opportunity to really help them understand from their historical perspective the gravity of the movement, but also the opportunities to continue the work.”

From those reflections came short videos that were powerful, introspective and impactful. These, in turn, led to robust class discussions that stretched on for weeks. Students even brought the conversation home to their families and talked about it with friends outside of class. “I never thought the assignment would do all of that,” he says.

Dr. Devin DeLaughter

The ripple effect was a promising sign for Dr. DeLaughter. The TikTok assignment was part of a new civil rights curriculum he co-authored with Dr. Matt Daniels of the Institute of World Politics and Anthony Jones M.Ed. of Bethune-Cookman University. Dialogue, reflection and empathy were all desired outcomes of the program, and if the videos and resulting conversations were any indication, the co-authors were on to something that many schools and educators have been looking for.

The supplemental curriculum, Civil Rights: A Global Perspective, launched this fall and is geared toward middle and high school students. All-digital lessons center around the nonviolent principles espoused by Dr. King. They also weave in texts from other influential human rights activists like Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai and Sojourner Truth, which help learners better understand the struggle for civil rights globally. In total, there are 75 lessons that promote empathy, diversity and civic responsibility through the principles of freedom, perseverance, hope, justice and conscience.

Students are encouraged to think critically, ask tough questions, write persuasively and engage digitally in the broader community. That last part—digital engagement—is key. “At its core, the idea of the curriculum is, how do we create Digital Samaritans who are equipped with the ability to impact the world in similar ways as leaders of the past have done?” Dr. DeLaughter explains.

Here's an example of what that may look like in the classroom. Let’s say learners are reading a case study of the Tiananmen Square protests. In addition to reviewing the facts, they’ll have a holistic discussion about the events in China leading up to the protests—including how students and young people fought on behalf of protestors—and how these events figured into the larger geopolitical picture. Underpinning that robust discussion is the “so what”: If Tiananmen Square happened today, how would learners harness the power of digital media to advocate on behalf of the rights they feel passionately about?

The civil rights curriculum also aims to help students develop compassion and empathy. Dr. DeLaughter hopes learners infuse both qualities into their work as Digital Samaritans and, in the process, discover their unique voice as advocates. “We want them to feel comfortable handling this heavy material, this curriculum,” he explains, “but also communicating it in a way that makes sense to them and that expresses their passion and compassion for the situation.”

At the end of the program, students turn in a “portfolio of advocacy.” This collection of work shows how a student’s thinking has evolved, the questions they’ve wrestled with and where they’ve potentially changed positions. It’s a glimpse at how their writing and critical thinking skills have advanced and can even help inspire real action. “You have this road map that you can look back at and see how you’ve grown and progressed as a writer, as a thinker, as a Digital Samaritan,” he says. “The idea is now that you have this information, you’re equipped to then go do something with it.”