Black History Month is an especially honored time in my inner-city, Deep-South classroom. The Civil Rights Movement comes to our doorstep in nearby Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and at the schoolhouse doors in Tuscaloosa. One of my favorite authors, Christopher Paul Curtis, helps bring history to a place my students can understand with his moving novels.
We usually begin reading Bud, Not Buddy in January. My students can relate to Buddy, the feeling of family and loss, and a desire to find where you fit in. The 1930s Depression fits right along with our history curriculum, and we use map skills to find Bud’s journey. Then, we tackle The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. The novel is powerful enough for middle and high school students, but accessible enough for my 4th graders when we read together.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 is one of the best summary lessons all year. After each chapter, my students and I work to write summaries. They are so amused by all the funny details that sticking to a meaningful summary takes real work. I hang the summaries on a large grid as we move through the book and add objects, such as gloves, parachute men, and pictures of the Brown Bomber. At the end, students can use the chapter by chapter summary as a guide to remembering the entire story. We take an assessment, but use a classroom response system to answer the multiple choice questions.
When Kenny encounters the Wool Pooh, we take a creativity break. I take the books away and give students paper and crayons. I read them the description of the Wool Pooh and challenge them to draw what it looks like to Kenny. When we compare drawings, we usually find variations of a similar figure. My students usually notice on their own how much our drawings look like the Grim Reaper. This lets students understand Curtis’s Wool Pooh as a symbol in the book in a way that even a 9-year-old can understand.
When we finish this novel that depicts the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, my students are usually stunned. They're growing up only a few hours from the site, but it is not one of the traditional events discussed in elementary school. My students know all about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but they have never heard that innocent children, not unlike themselves, suffered in the Civil Rights Movement. It is a powerful realization. We relate the events in the novel to the real life events of that day. Throughout the book, we look up information about life in the 1960s and discuss how Alabama might have been different from what we know today. By the time we get to the bombing, students are used to my showing them grainy black and white footage, and we spend time watching news reports and researching the four girls who died.
I ask my students to imagine turning on the news that evening and what they might see. We discuss major television news stories that they can recall and how they were reported. Students can usually generate a list of different news features, including interviewing an important person and showing clips while talking. Once we generate a list of typical news features and all the people or scenes that would be important to the bombing, students work in pairs or small groups to write a script for a newscast. They try to write as if they were giving the first news report for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I take their work and combine it into one longer and more complete script.
When the script is done, we hand out parts and begin filming. It might seem like a long process, but it typically takes an hour or so to write the script and an hour to film. Using digital recorders, students can film each other. The station reporters have copies of the script in front of them, so they don’t have to memorize anything. For other clips, students look over the lines and then try to get them right while we film. Live news is rarely perfect and neither are we!
I edit the clips together with public footage from the actual news that day. I use Windows Movie Maker because it is already installed on my school computer, but any simple editing software can be used. The filters in the program make our modern clips look grainy and old in black and white. We watch our finished “broadcast” in class and usually share it with the rest of the school and families in our Black History Program. I burn copies for my students so that they can keep a bit of their masterpiece. We have even shared it with a school that we Skyped with across the country!
The entire novel is an engaging read that is as funny as it is powerful. The real magic happens when students are asked to think like a reporter and put themselves back in time. They always amaze me with their ability to sympathize, discover quotes, and relate to a very adult event that happened fifty years ago. For more how-to tips on making your own classroom documentary, check out fellow blogger Christy Crawford's awesome post, "Kids, the Ken Burns Effect, and American Slavery — Students Become Documentarians."
What events in your class could be written as a script? What news could your students report on? Tying yesterday’s events to today’s technology is an effective, meaningful way to engage students.