October 31, 2008

A legacy of social justice

Source: New York Teacher
Caption: Access complete lesson plans and additional resources at www.nysut.org/rfk.

"Bobby Kennedy hated bullies," said Ambassador William vanden Heuvel.

 A former colleague of Robert F. Kennedy who worked with RFK to further civil rights, vanden Heuvel was speaking to educators gathered at NYSUT headquarters on a common mission: to develop lesson plans conveying Robert F. Kennedy's social justice legacy. "Bobby hated bullies," the ambassador repeated thoughtfully, "and that informed everything he did."

rfk new york teacher coverInspired by those words and by their research into RFK's legacy, a group of 14 educators from around the state created a set of dynamic lesson plans in a unique public/private partnership launched this summer between NYSUT and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.

"Speak Up, Speak Out: Robert F. Kennedy, Champion of Social Justice," encompasses lesson plans for grades 4, 8 and 11 and a classroom poster highlighting Kennedy's belief that speaking up and speaking out is necessary to achieve social justice.

"As a union, we understand our responsibility in advocating for social justice," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "I was a student at CUNY's Brooklyn College in 1968, the year of Kennedy's presidential bid, and I remember being energized and inspired by his passion for speaking up for the disenfranchised and the poor. He was an inspiration to me and to thousands of others who learned that one individual could make a difference in the world."

The lesson plans, being mailed to fourth-, eighth- and 11th-grade teachers, principals and superintendents in mid-November, are designed to help students achieve state standards in social studies and English Language arts in three grades that focus on New York state history: fourth grade on local history and government; eighth grade on U.S. and state history; and 11th grade on many Kennedy-era issues, such as civil rights.

The project has the support of Gov. David Paterson and state Education Commissioner Richard Mills, and was underwritten in part by a donation from The Rockefeller Foundation.

NYSUT hosted a summer lesson plan development conference and has contributed resources, staff support, web hosting and other services "to advance this inspiring initiative," Iannuzzi said.

The lesson plans, along with supplemental classroom materials and primary source interviews, are available on NYSUT's Web site, www.nysut.org/rfk.

"The lessons they impart, and the issues they address, are as relevant and important today as they were 40 years ago," Iannuzzi said.

Kerry Kennedy, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Speak Truth to Power, said: "I am proud to work in partnership with Governor Paterson, the New York State Board of Regents and NYSUT to introduce my father's commitment to social justice to a new generation of students. Robert Kennedy's legacy lives on in the countless individuals who continue to fight for justice around the world - and in every child who is inspired to 'speak up, speak out' on behalf of individuals in need."

A teacher-led collaboration

"Social justice is a big focus of my classroom teaching, as the child of parents who lived through the civil rights era," said Walter Robertson, Dunkirk Teachers Association, who took part in the project. "As a teacher of color, I feel it's my duty to make sure this history gets taught."

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees the union's Research and Educational Services division, praised the educator team for devoting countless hours to develop the lesson plans on a tight timetable.

"Their commitment to scholarship and research was exemplary," said Neira, whose staff provided support for the development team (see Page 17 for list of participants).  "The lesson plans are both thoughtful and creative, and are aligned with New York state standards." State Education Department staff also provided invaluable assistance, Neira said.

"RFK's work offers many great examples of citizenship in action," said lesson developer Art Jacoby, a member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

Stephanie Curraro, also a UFT member, called the project a valuable learning experience. "This kind of collaboration gets to the core of what teaching is all about," she said.

RFK's mission

Robert Kennedy furthered the civil rights legacy of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in working with President Lyndon Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped end Jim Crow laws in the South.

Kennedy supported the desegregation of busing, the integration of all public facilities, and anti-poverty social programs that increased education and offered employment opportunities and health care for African-Americans. To raise awareness of poverty in America, Kennedy journeyed into urban ghettos, Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta while serving as a U.S. senator from New York.

Kennedy was campaigning for president when he was assassinated in 1968. He was 42.

"I remember waking up, hearing about it and feeling terribly for his family," said Cliff Huen of the Hamburg Teachers Association, a member of the development team, who was teaching then.

Commemorating his work

The RFK project began with a phone call to Iannuzzi from Kerry Kennedy, the seventh of RFK's 11 children, who asked NYSUT to take the lead in working with the RFK Memorial to develop lesson plans on RFK's legacy.

With the 40th anniversary of his death this past June, and the renaming of the Triborough Bridge in New York City in his memory this November, historians and educators were revisiting the impact of his contributions in civil rights and education.

"RFK has always been one of my heroes, so I was tremendously honored and excited to take part in this project," Iannuzzi said. "Kennedy has a tremendous legacy of social justice and we're thrilled to help students throughout New York state learn about the many ways he advocated for those who were unable to advocate for themselves."

The project underscores NYSUT's commitment to social justice, particularly the union's leadership in support of ending the achievement gap. "As a union, we are dedicated to ensuring that all children, whether economically disadvantaged or privileged, receive a sound, quality education," Iannuzzi said.

First-hand accounts

In support of the lesson plan project, Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel Kennedy, reached out to her husband's colleagues, with the result that teachers had the opportunity to hear directly from primary sources such as Ambassador vanden Heuvel, Kennedy's former special assistant and the author of On His Own Robert F. Kennedy: 1964-68.

Vanden Heuvel, who captivated educators with his reminiscences of working side by side with Kennedy during the 1950s and 1960s, told them RFK "had a passionate sense of right and wrong … he hated the arrogance of those who thought they could push others around."

Vanden Heuvel was instrumental in Kennedy's successful move as U.S. attorney general to reopen schools in Prince Edward County, Va. Schools there had been closed by local officials in an attempt to avoid the desegregation required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"We created a federal school system," said vanden Heuvel. "Teachers came from all over the country to teach in this district." Kennedy, he said, viewed it as one of his greatest achievements.

John Seigenthaler, a Kennedy aide, and Peter Edelman, a legislative assistant to Kennedy, also shared their memories through in-depth telephone interviews; audio of both interviews, as well as video of vanden Heuvel's remarks, are available at www.nysut.org/rfk.

"I hope educators will use the November renaming of the Triborough Bridge as a catalyst to incorporate these lessons into their curriculum," Iannuzzi said. However, he noted that the lessons have a timeless quality that should ensure their relevance for years to come.

- Kara Smith