After months of quarantines, cancellations and social distancing, the pandemic has disrupted countless connections. But it has forged some new ones as well.
One such bright spot recently emerged from a University of Virginia research project called “Teachers in the Movement.” Created in 2017 by education professor Derrick P. Alridge, Teachers in the Movement is an oral history research project, housed in the University’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, that explores how educators participated in the U.S. civil rights movement between 1950 and 1980, primarily by conducting and archiving interviews with former teachers.
When COVID-19 hit, with researchers stuck at home and interviews rescheduled, the researchers were suddenly left wondering how they could continue their work. So they decided to get creative. By experimenting a new series of webinars, they ultimately did much more than keep going; they uncovered new avenues of research and community altogether.
Building a Network of Scholars
Community has been a core part of the project’s ethos since the beginning. Through a website and social media, the team had spent years steadily building an online following of teachers and researchers. As the researchers considered how to safely continue their work, they worried about how to maintain the momentum.
“We wanted to keep people engaged with the work we were doing,” Alridge said. “In the past, we’ve conducted videotaped interviews in person and uploaded them to our website. The present situation provided us with an opportunity to do something that was more interactive.”
While the project focuses on the civil rights history uncovered during in-depth interviews, Alridge said he often fields questions from both students and educators interested in the process of conducting oral history research itself.
“We’re also interested in explaining our processes and helping people see that oral history is not just a research process, but I like to call it a spiritual activity,” he said. “It’s getting people to talk to you about their lives in intimate and personal ways.”
An idea was born: Why not host a webinar series? With an archive of recorded interviews and an established audience of curious scholars stuck at home, they decided to try something new.
The first webinar, held in mid-April, focused on a 2015 interview with acclaimed civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker. A panel of Teachers in the Movement researchers played clips from the interview and answered live questions from viewers, discussing the wisdom that Walker shared while giving a behind-the-scenes look at how the interview came together.
The concept was an experiment, but the team quickly realized they had tapped into a network of scholars and researchers eager to learn about oral history. Approximately 70 people attended the first webinar, with attendance growing from there.
“What these webinars have taught us, and what has crystallized for me, is that we’re not just doing research – we’re producing research,” Alridge said. “[These webinars] are artifacts in themselves. Collectively, they contribute significantly to our larger archive of oral histories.”
Strengthening Community Connections
What they did not expect was the new relationships that would develop.
One of the central goals of Teachers in the Movement, Alridge said, is to model how studying history can influence present-day communities.
“We are not just an ivory tower project,” he said. “We see ourselves as being very connected to the community, being a community-based oral history project, rather than a research project and archive that sits in academia and doesn’t engage the people.”
After the success of the first webinar, the team realized how a virtual space could both strengthen existing connections – and create new ones. In their second webinar, which focused on Virginia educators specifically, they added community leader Michelle Oliver to the panel. Oliver is president of the Richmond branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
“As a lover of history, I believe academic researchers offer a different perspective and viewpoints,” Oliver said. “When we all work together, we can find a common ground and reach more people with diverse backgrounds. There is so much value in building bridges and connections between academic research projects and local communities.”
The series has also strengthened research partnerships. Most recently, the team collaborated with the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History, as well as the Research and Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students.
From the start, Teachers in the Movement has worked to involve the families of their interviewees. However, by enabling family and community members to join conversations in real time, eliminating physical distances, and broadcasting directly into people’s homes, Alridge said their message has reached individuals that they would not have connected with before. They have even made new contacts with civil-rights-era teachers who may become future interview subjects.
“We approached [the webinars] thinking it would be a way to move the project forward and to keep us energized,” Alridge said. “But what has actually happened is that we’ve not only energized ourselves, we’ve energized teachers who are now interested in telling us their stories.”
Bridging the Gap Between Past and Present
Now, in the midst of historic nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, lessons from the civil rights movement have taken on new urgency. Alridge said the team wants to help bridge the gap between teachers of the past and the present – facilitating discussions directly between civil-rights-era teachers and teachers of today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Teachers in the Movement will continue this work during its third annual Summer Institute for K-12 teachers. This year, the event is going virtual, and the theme will be “Teaching in the Era of Black Lives Matter.” It will include interactive sessions on history standards, Black life and history, a screening of a short documentary on civil-rights-era teachers, and a workshop on using oral history as a method of teaching Black history. Scheduled for Aug. 25 through 27, the institute will be free and will enroll up to 150 participants. If you missed this professional development opportunity, the project will be releasing the videos from each session of the institute weekly throughout the fall so that teachers can self-pace through the content; visit the 2020 Institute website for more details.
The team also intends to use future webinars and virtual opportunities to bring more teachers into the conversations. They hope to show how teachers can use oral history in their classrooms to help their students understand the present.
Alridge said the virtual connections, indirectly created by the pandemic, offered his team a platform for this work. While they might have been skeptical about using online video platforms in the past, they now realize the opportunities they offer to build connections across physical distances.
“These webinars have really pushed us to think even more seriously about how teachers from the past – their ideas, their pedagogy, their thinking about race and racism – can inform teachers in the present,” Alridge said.
In this moment of reckoning, that work is more pressing than ever.
“It’s extremely relevant,” he said. “How can they inform teachers who are teaching right now in the midst of this movement? That’s the connection that the webinars help us make, and what we hope to do more of in the future. Conversations between teachers of the past and teachers today are key.”
Past webinars were recorded and are available to watch on the project website’s video library, and the summer institute opened for registration on Monday.
If you or someone you know was an educator who taught between 1950 and 1980 and would like to get involved with the Teachers in the Movement Project, email [email protected] or call 434-218-2403 for information. The team is continuing virtual oral history interviews.
The TIM Institute was a three day experience for K-12 teachers to gain inspiration and affirm our commitments to the teaching of Black histories. Grounded in historian Manning Marable’s notion of “living Black history,” the Institute encouraged teachers to view the history of Black Americans not merely as artifacts of the past, but rather as dynamic and ongoing moments intricately connected to the present. In doing so, we critically examined our curriculum standards, and used counter-narratives to learn from Black perspectives.
This Institute will be available online for teachers to view and self-pace their own PD throughout the fall! Visit the 2020 Institute website for more information: http://teachersinthemovement.com/2020-institute/