Ruth M. Wilson
This unit is a continuation of a unit which I wrote in 1985, Against the Tide (Vol. V). In the first unit, I discussed three contemporary native New Haveners who became successful world renown individuals: New York Judge Constance Baker Motley, Raymond St. Jacques (late actor), and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (late Congressman from New York).
The previous unit discussed their achievements, education, religion, and strong family ties that were guiding influences in their lives. Classroom activities were devised around these objectives for a seventh or eighth grade Remedial Reading Class.
The unit which follows uses the term “Amazing Grace” which the above individuals certainly had or acquired. The two units may be used separately, as wall as together.
This unit will present two individuals, one female and male, who are considered famous for their acts, works, words or deeds. The two individuals are Maya Angelou and James Comer. Students will be introduced to the formative years of these personalities: where they lived, the events and people who molded their lives, and the place of religion as an anchor in their lives will be discussed. The term “Amazing Grace” will be introduced, at this point, and how the term applies to the individuals will be assessed.
Seventh and eighth grade Remedial Reading Teachers may use the selections included in this unit to reinforce reading skills. These particular selections are of events in the lives of the two individuals and may be used during Black History Month (February). The students will be able to use the skill lessons located at the end of the teaching unit to enhance a specific skill in reading. These exercises will consist of
Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)
(choosing the correct meaning among several words displayed to give the selection meaning), finding the main idea or topic sentence of a specific selection, story mapping, comprehension and oral discussion.
The students whom I teach are mainly Hispanic and African-American and have poor academic skills and are low achievers. They are aware of their ranking in school which may contribute to the negative behavior. In the article “They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different,” author Sheila Tobias states that teachers can get rid of these feelings and labels and help students come closer to using their skills by understanding others who have achieved inspite of the odds against them.
In the 1980’s a study reported that two out of five Hispanic-American children lived in poverty, and nearly half of all African-American children were among the working poor. Low income, poor access to adequate health care, poor nutrition are variables that effect a student’s performance in school. “The more things change the more they stay the same” is a saying known to many Blacks.
will be beneficial for my minority students to understand that they can be rich in spirit while poor in material possessions. This has been true of the lives of James Comer and Maya Angelou who had very little material wealth but had an over abundance of spiritual wealth. Under the nurturing eyes of their kin folk they blossomed. Students may associate someone in their family who is the “Amazing Grace” character which is their “rock.” For the purpose of this unit, the term “Amazing Grace” is used to denote the special qualities of particular people who have, inspite of the system, survived and flourished.
The unit will begin with understanding the term “Amazing Grace.” What does it mean? Have you heard it before? If so, where and under what circumstances? Next, the students will discuss the difference between a biography and an autobiography. Why do people write autobiographies? This section will introduce the authors, Maya Angelou and James Comer, to the students. The author’s short biographies will help the students understand the rationale for this unit.
Next, the students will be reading excerpts taken from
by Maya Angelou and
Maggie’s American Dream
by James Comer. These selected excerpts will focus around a specific theme: a strong family support system, buttressed by a meaningful church life, can prove invaluable. During the presentation of the lessons, students will draw conclusions, make comparisons, use inferential thinking to see similarities, and cause and effect to understand particular circumstances.
Some children of today are not aware of the term “Jim Crow,” for this term was used in another time and another era. It is important for them to visualize human beings living under such abuse . . . especially Black men. Since the students that I teach are of the “Here and Now” generation, the terms “apartheid” in South Africa and “Jim Crow” need to be compared and discussed. This lesson will not be taught to cause friction between the students, but to teach young Black students a pride in their heritage. Also, to have them see how far they’ve come despite the obstacles put before their ancestors. Hopefully, they will come to the realization that “intestinal fortitude” was and is the foundation for survival then and now.
The southern way of life was designed to divide the races and to separate Black people from the benefits of mainstream American life. Poor education, limited opportunities, reduced income plus low standards of living, and a shorter life span was the legacy handed down to the African-American. This custom was brutally enforced with intimidation, violence and lynching. This occurred with the real or imagined refusal of a Black man to observe the “Jim Crow” rules. To give a case in point, an attempt to vote or join a union, or perhaps showing disrespect to a white woman or man, or not being subservient.
This was the south of Maya Angelou and of any other Blacks who happened to live below the Mason-Dixon Line. From cradle to the grave, both races lived separate lives: one race having the comforts of life (by accident of birth), and the other race the discomforts of life (by accident of birth). Although James Comer did not live in the south, he lived daily with the same problems. The major difference between the two types of “Jim Crow” was that in the north it wasn’t as blatant as the south. African-Americans in the north had access to better paying jobs; however, they still remained on the bottom ladder of the economic scale.
Both Ms. Angelou and Mr. James Comer were victims of this “American tragedy,” yet they survived and thrived because of positive role models in their lives. The Johnson family and the Comer family had strong female “oaks” to lean on. Mrs. Henderson, Maya’s grandmother and Jim’s mother, Mrs. Comer were both semiliterate in book learning, but rich in “mother wit” and common sense. This “Grace,” I think, was a key ingredient of these strong woman which they passed on to their children. Mrs. Maggie Comer, who worked for white families, always observed her surroundings which enabled her to become more knowledgeable. With this information, she was able to take what she could use and discard the rest. Eventually, when she had her children, she used this knowledge to raise her them. Mrs. Henderson, living in Stamps, used another technique: she just taught her granddaughter to be extremely careful and to be proud of her heritage and never take a back seat to anyone. The philosophies of these strong woman prevailed and, in later years, they produced two outstanding individuals. Strength, endurance, common sense, and “mother wit” was their “Amazing Grace.”
During this pre-civil rights era, white schools were bad but Black schools were even worse because the people in power did not see fit to encourage a learning atmosphere. It was the belief of southern whites that schooling of Blacks was simply a waste of time. This was the legacy which the African-American inherited. From slavery to the 1950’s this was the common practice.
STRATEGIES AND OBJECTIVES
In order to attain the objectives of this unit, the students will participate in large and small group instruction, as well as oral and written activities. This will encourage active involvement from the student which in turn will help the quiet retiring student as well as the talker.
: To learn and understand the meaning of the term “Jim Crow.” How this term originated, when it was used, and did it serve its purpose?
Many students have no idea what the term “Jim Crow” means. They know about the Martin Luther King era but minimize it to “the not being able to sit in the front of the bus” syndrome. They know of Ms. Rosa Parks who refused to take a back seat which initiated the boycott and that’s about it! Because my students are of the “Here and Now” generation, it is important for them to realize the pain and the agony which was endured living daily with “Jim Crow.”
: The teacher will introduce the term “Jim Crow” by writing it on the chalkboard along with the names of James Comer and Maya Angelou, the authors presented in the knowledge they may have about the authors. The teacher will write the student’s thoughts on the chalkboard. At this point, the teacher may ask the class if any have seen the movie or video
The Long Walk Home
. If not, or very few have seen it, the teacher may show this video. This movie depicts the life style, social, and economic problems of the Black race prior to the Civil Rights movement. After viewing the tape, the students and teacher will discuss the attitude and actions of both races.
: The students are to follow directions on their worksheets. They are to read a brief description of “Jim Crow” and then complete their assignment.
: The students will reed two short biographies of Maya Angelou and James Comer. The students will be aware that both authors had strong family support systems which was beneficial for survival.
Many inner-city children do not have strong family support systems. Many of their support systems are found in their peer group relations. Students need to belong and if they don’t have a place at home they will certainly find a place in the streets. Although today’s students have different problems, these problems are as devastating to them as problems were to the two individuals being studied.
Sociologists have invented various names for today’s troubled youths: “culturally deprived”, “culturally deprivated” and “culturally disadvantaged.” Notice the term “culturally” is being used with negative implications. Fortunately, the students are not devoid of a culture, but some are lacking a strong support system which would teach them the social skills they need to know in order to navigate in today’s society.
Excerpts from the two author’s lives, and the short biographies, will help the students see that growing up Black in the north and in the south, during the precivil rights era, was not a pleasant experience. Pain, injustice and intimidation was used to keep the African Americans in their place.
: The teacher will discuss with the students the short biography of the individuals. Using a map of the United States, the students will locate the two states where the authors lived during their formative years. The students will (hopefully) come to the conclusion that regional distance made no difference in the treatment of African-Americans.
: The teacher will pass out the worksheets containing today’s assignment.The students are to skim silently the material to prepare for oral reading. After class discussion, the students are to complete the assignments working in pairs or individually.
: To compare and understand the terms “financial poverty and spiritual poverty.”
Usually when the word “poverty” is used or discussed students automatically think of no funds or being broke. Through readings and discussions, the student will recognize the difference between the two “terms.”
: The teacher will print the words “financial and spiritual poverty” on the chalkboard for discussion purposes. The teacher will then ask for definitions for each of the words. Next, the students will read and interpret specific paragraphs which focus on the these being studied. By way of class discussion in small groups, the students will make a determination regarding the types and causes of poverty. In this lesson and in others, the teacher may use mapping. This method helps to stimulate participation and does liven up a class.
: Worksheets will be passed out to the class. The students are to read the directions and complete the assignment individually or with a partner. Students may use their own mapping skills. Some students might choose to become actively involved in social action work such as Farnam House which addresses both aspects of poverty. Other students might write an account of how he/she would feel if he/she lived as young Maya for a day in Stamps, Arkansas, or do a 20/20 interview with James Comer. This type of student participation can be fun, enjoyable and educational.
OBJECTIVE IV: To understand that the church and religion had an important role in the lives of the individuals.
PROCEDURE: In large group discussion, students will discuss the importance of religion as it pertains to the authors and to themselves. The students may share any experiences (similar or otherwise) they may have had while attending church services. This exercise is purely voluntary so those students who do not wish to participate may just listen. The students will take up questions such as: How did the characters view religion? Did religion give them inner strength? Why do you think the hymn “Amazing Grace” is such a universal hymn? The above questions will be open ended to enable the students to continually add information. For example, students who have a strong religious background might enjoy reading excerpts such as the Mrs. Monroe episode by Maya Angelou, or the “Amen Corner” by Jim Comer. I’m sure many students could relate to these incidents which are visually rich with colorful language.
ASSIGNMENT: The teacher will pass out the selection for today’s reading assignment. After reading the selection, the students, through discussion, may compare any similarities they may have had with those of the authors. At the teacher’s discretion, the hymn “Amazing Grace” maybe introduced and to show its relationship to the unit.
Along with Mrs. Comer, Mrs. Henderson, other individuals were positive role models for Maya Angelou and Jim Comer. These models were Ms. Flowers, and Hugh Comer. Ms. Flowers played an important role in Maya’s formative years. Mr. Hugh Comer, father of James Comer, showed his son there was dignity in work. All of the above mentioned had “Amazing Grace.” This “special grace” was an aura, a mantle which they passed on. Hence the title of this unit “Amazing Grace” will mean achieving inspite of the odds.
It is interesting to note that the author of this hymn “Amazing Grace” was once the captain of a slave ship. This captain, James Newton, had a revelation one day which revealed to him the evilness of his profession. He took heed and ended his slave trading and studied for the ministry. He became an ordained minister of the church of England. It was during this time as a pastor, he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Because both families’s lives centered around the church and religion, they must have sung this hymn numerous times. The words are inspirational and have helped many individuals through trying times.
Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
Through manly dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come; “Tis grace has brought me
safe this far, And grace will lead me home.