05/23/2011 06:19 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

Dawn and Claire Have an Idea

I was visiting with Dawn Sumner and Claire LaMothe, Hofstra alumni and social studies cooperating teachers at Hempstead Middle School the day after my Huffington Post blog, "Don't Know Much About -- History, Geography or Civics," appeared online.

Dawn and Claire teach eighth grade and find that their students, who learned about the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights the year before in seventh grade, remember very little about what they were taught about American government. Unlike many in the media and in authority in the American educational system, they do not blame the teachers, who they know and respect. They decided there had to be a better way to promote civic knowledge and understanding, and in the course of a one-hour discussion they came up with two good ideas that I am going to help them implement.

The first idea is to promote active rather than just academic learning about the meaning of citizenship and the struggle to expand and defend human rights in the United States. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who traveled through the South in racially mixed teams to racially integrate public transit in the United States. Many were attacked and seriously injured, but they maintained their commitment to non-violent civil disobedience and ultimately succeeded.

Few people realize that the struggle for civil rights and racial integration also had a northern component and many battles were fought in the New York metropolitan area. Palisades Amusement Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey would not permit African Americans in its famous saltwater swimming pool until 1961. Levittown on Long Island originally required home buyers to sign a contract that they would not sell or rent to Blacks.

Many local battles of the Civil Rights era took place in Hempstead on Long island, so Dawn and Claire will have their students learn about these struggles. Curriculum material about the Civil Rights Movement on Long Island is available online.

One newspaper article they found in the curriculum package is a New York Times (August 24, 1963) report on a unanimous vote by Hempstead School Board on a motion requesting that the Hempstead school district merge with neighboring Garden City schools to "end racial imbalances." At the time, Garden City schools were nearly 100 percent White while Hempstead schools were 89 percent "Negro." The merger never took place and almost fifty years later, the school districts remain racially segregated. According to the New York State District Report Card, Garden City schools are 95 percent White, one percent Black or African American, and four percent Other. While Hempstead has changed demographically, the student population is now 46 percent Black or African American and 53 percent Latino or Hispanic; there are almost no White children in the district. To highlight racial segregation in the area, Dawn and Claire plan to lead students on a walking tour of Hempstead and Garden City that will help students examine the differences and disparities between the neighboring communities.

The second idea to promote civic literacy can be applied in any classroom in New York State and probably in any classroom in the United States. On the wall of Dawn and Claire's classrooms are signs listing the New York State Social Studies Standards. These signs are supposed to help students link the subject matter to the standards, but the standards are so broad (1. United States History; 2. World History; 3. Geography; 4. Economics; 5. Civics and Government) that they are meaningless.

Instead, next year Dawn and Claire plan to post large signs with key points from the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights. At the end of lessons they will ask students to identify which Constitutional principles were examined that day and why they think those principles are important to us as citizens.

I think these are both great ideas. By the way, in case you didn't get the poetry of the title of this post, only in New York do Claire and idea rhyme.