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'She Stood Up for What Was Right'

Providence students learn civil rights history with Rosa Parks display.

A life-size recreation of the bus destined for Cleveland Avenue in Montgomery, Ala. 50 years ago stood in the hallway at Providence Elementary School. Students filed around it, peering into the seats and guessing what Rosa Parks was thinking Dec. 1, 1955, the day she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

"I think she was scared, but she felt happy inside because she stood up for what was right," said Ellyn Kennelly, who with the rest of her class helped construct the display. If she was Parks, said Ellyn, she would keep her seat on the bus, too.

Second-graders Mike Breslin, Hannah Smith and Kate Bonanni agreed. The display had allowed them to look into the famous scene and helped them understand the significance of Parks' stance, said second-grade teacher Diana Schmiesing.

"It makes students think about what [the civil rights movement] would be like," she said. The entire second-grade class worked on the project, said Gifted and Talented resource teacher Jamie Penney. The students spent several weeks designing a hall-wide interactive tour that included questions about the civil rights movement, a timeline and photographs as well as the bus display.

"A lot of kids were involved," said Penney. "They bonded together, all the second-graders worked together."

THE DISPLAY featured a bus constructed of painted paper, with life-size stuffed-paper figures sitting inside it. Dressed in clothing from the lost and found, the figures represented the different people who would have been on the bus that day. Suspended from the ceiling above the bus driver was a thought balloon bearing an actual quote from the driver of Parks' bus: "You four move. Empty those seats, I'm going to have you arrested." Parks' answer hung above her figure: "You may do that."

Other balloons read: "What is Rosa Parks thinking?" and: "You stay there. You have the [right]." For the thought balloons, said Schmiesing, the students spent time placing themselves in the position of the other passengers on the bus. The balloons reflected the students' perception of what other passengers would have been thinking, she said, and allowed them to see the various sides of the civil rights debate.

"I think they're saying, 'Why did Rosa Parks do that?' and then they thought for Rosa Parks and thought that she had the right to do that," said Hannah.

"I think [Parks] really, really got tired of giving up seats for white people," said Ellyn.

Teaching students to imagine themselves in a historical situation is an integral part of interactive learning, said Schmiesing. All the students know who Parks was, but the project gave them a deeper understanding of the effect she had on history.

"They know why [Parks] did what she did, but maybe this project allowed them to get more in step with what a risk that might have been, to really identify what courage it probably took in that time and age," said Schmiesing.

"The students think the civil rights movement was so long ago, but looking at the timelines, they start realizing it wasn't so long ago," said second-grade teacher Cindy Howe.

The project came to Howe one weekend morning. "I thought, 'Hey, let's try to recreate the moment, let kids step into the moment," she said.

"The students all talked about [Parks] being brave," she said. "They're asking questions … they're still going to talk about this after it's over."

The project taught Mike the meaning of the words "boycott" and "civil rights," which he said he had not known before.

"You have to believe in yourself instead of other people," said Hannah.

At Providence Elementary, said Schmiesing, classes learn civil rights by examining a different historical figure each year. These figures, who range from Parks to Jackie Robinson to Helen Keller, represent struggles for equality among races, genders and citizens with disabilities, she said.

"We always do a little bit about famous Americans who fought for the rights of all people," said Schmiesing.

Although the first grade studies Parks and the second grade studies Martin Luther King Jr., the bus project tied the two grades together, she said. At the end of the interactive tour stood a life-size cutout of King, along with the quote: "My feet are tired, but my soul is at rest."