Educators gather for annual conference, meet civil rights hero

2012-10-19T19:00:00Z 2012-10-19T21:49:39Z Educators gather for annual conference, meet civil rights heroBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Using a dozen volunteers and some folding chairs, John Stokes wanted to illustrate how segregation worked.

Teachers gathered in the auditorium at Skyview High School on Friday for the annual state educators conference and watched, taking notes with plans to take the activities back to their own classrooms.

It was a unique opportunity for the teachers. Stokes, in 1951 with his classmate Barbara Johns, led a strike against his school district in Farmville, Va., arguing that white students had demonstrably better facilities than black students.

The strike led to a lawsuit, which was wrapped up with a handful of similar lawsuits from across the South and taken to the Supreme Court. That led to the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that struck down separate-but-equal laws and ended segregation.

Stokes, now a retired teacher and administrator, recounted his experiences for the teachers and showed them innovative ways to teach the realities of segregation.

"It's living history," said Bruce Wendt, the social studies department chairman at West High and Montana's history teacher of the year.

Wendt helped bring Stokes to the conference, held annually by the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers.

Lessons from a man who lived through segregation and fought successfully to have it overturned carry so much more value than simple textbooks and lectures or what can be measured on a multiple-choice test, Wendt said.  

"How do you quantify something like John Stokes?" he said.

It's presentations like Stokes' that motivate teachers like Dillon Warn, Elaine Warn and Robyn Smith to make the long drive to the conference.

The Warns -- husband and wife -- teach in Bozeman. Smith is a high school teacher in Drummond.

"It's worth it," Dillon Warn said. "You get to come and talk to other teachers and see how they do things."

Warn is a fifth-grade teacher and sees the conference as his chance to learn from colleagues and find ways to improve in his own classroom.

Elaine Warn, a high school English teacher, agreed.

"One of the things I value about it is it really drives innovation," she said.

The MEA-MFT conference comes to Billings every three years and rotates around the state in between.

Smith, who teaches both English and history at her Drummond high school, doesn't mind road-tripping to attend wherever the conference is held. As a teacher in a small town, the conference is usually the best opportunity for her to find the widest range of professional development.

"You get lots of good ideas and it's just really nice to sit and talk to other teachers," she said.

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