I have included three lesson plans. The first is considerably longer than the other two and has more specific goals. The other two are shorter but serve more as culminating projects for the entire unit, gathering together the elements of pride, protest, and poetry that have dominated the rest of the unit.
Lesson One: A Close Look at Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. "Did justice prevail?"
Through the use of two poems, a newspaper article, and a novel, all focused on the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in which four young African American girls
were killed, this series of activities attempts to develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the event and its connections to the present, as well as, developing an appreciation of two similar, yet contrasting, poems on the subject. It examines some of the techniques used by each poet as he presents his view and provides students with an opportunity to express themselves relative to the bombing.
Subject Matter Areas:
reading, language arts, and social studies
There are many vocabulary words in these works that will need some introduction or reinforcement for my students. Older students or an advanced group might need less preparation. Specific words will be suggested here as we examine each piece.
Develop a clearer appreciation and understanding of the events surrounding the 1963 bombing.
Develop and appreciation and understanding of the positive and negative aspects of the recent conviction (2001) of one of the bombers.
Develop an increased understanding of vocabulary used in the poems, story, and newspaper article.
Develop the ability to identify rhyming lines, internal rhyme, repetition, metaphors, and descriptive vocabulary in poetry.
Develop the ability to compare and contrast the two poems and to relate their content to historical events.
Provide opportunities for pupils to express their feelings relative to the bombing by creating an "I wish ___" and an "I am proud ___" poem.
"Ballad of Birmingham," by Dudley Randall (Randall,
The Black Poets
, p. 107.)
"Birmingham Sunday," by Langston Hughes (Hughes,
The Poetry of the Negro
, p. 200.)
"Church Bomb Suspect Guilty,"
New Haven Register
The Watsons Go to Birmingham
- 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (optional)
The number of days needed to achieve these objectives could vary greatly, probably from two or three days to two or three weeks, if the novel is included. I have previously written an institute unit (89.02.08) based on only "Ballad of Birmingham" which teachers might wish to refer to on the Institute's web site: http://www.yale.edu/ynht/. The lesson covers the poem's content well, but an examination of the poetic elements, which help make it so effective are not examined.
When the group first hears the two poems, they already will have traveled along the path of African American history leading to this period of the Civil Rights Movement. They will have knowledge of Jim Crow laws and the history of prejudice that inspire them. They will be aware that a resistance to the injustice of segregation was growing and that this resistance drew desperate, violent act of retaliation from those who would not change.
After discussing the historical fact surrounding the bombings, the two poems will be presented. Since it more clearly recounts the events, "Ballad of Birmingham" will be discussed first. Discussion of vocabulary (sacred, fierce), rhyming lines (2nd and 4th), internal rhyme ("no" and "go"), repetition ("street of Birmingham"), voice (child, mother, and poet), metaphors ("rose petal sweet"), and descriptive language ("clawed") will be given attention here. The impact of the final two stanzas, after we are being led to believe that the girls might be safe, will lead us to the more overtly vivid description in "Birmingham Sunday." For my fourth graders, there are a number of words that will require discussion: scorched, ignite, Dragon Kings, implement, missionaries aeons, and Golden Rule. Since I believe this poem can serve its purpose without completely understanding the references to China, Red, and dynamite, they will be briefly explained but not dwelled upon. The descriptive language, presence of some repetition ("Four little girls…Four tiny girls"), and the implication of revenge and ultimate judgment mentioned in the poem's final section will receive more attention. This should lead us naturally to the newspaper article of 05/02/01.
Before that, I feel compelled to mention that some may feel that images of "spattered flesh" and "blood upon the wall" are too vivid for nine and ten year old students to read without causing harm. Certainly an unsupervised reading is not recommended, but if students are carefully led to this point, they know of the sacrifices made by African Americans from the past and are developing the pride for which this unit aims. Knowing that this event, as horrible as it was, helped to strengthen the resolve of the Movement, that it could not be ignored by the public and politicians, and that ultimately some justice was achieved through the enactment of laws and that some form of retribution for those responsible has occurred, might counteract the brutality depicted in Hughes' poem by replacing fear with pride.
Next, the newspaper article from the
New Haven Register
will tell us of the conviction of Thomas Blanton, after over 37 years, for helping other Klansmen to plant the bomb. Again, there are a number of vocabulary words that need varying amounts of discussion: galvanized, exterior, murky, segregationist, foul-mouthed, and in vain seem most necessary for fourth graders.
After reading the article together, the class will discuss various aspects of the piece: (How long ago did the bombing occur? Why did it take so long to convict Blanton? What was positive and what was negative about the fact that it took until now to achieve some justice for Blanton's acts?)
Possible questions for follow up discussion of poems
Explain which poem told the story best.
Explain which poem was the most vivid. How did you feel about reading this
Which poem did you like most? Explain why.
Explain how you think the four young girls would react to Blanton's conviction.
Students will be asked to create an "I wish ___" and an "I am proud ___" poem expressing their feelings related to the bombing, its effect on the Civil Rights Movement, Blanton's conviction, and, perhaps how they view the present state of affairs regarding equal rights and the threat of violence. From previous experiences, they will be familiar with this approach to writing poetry. (See section on writing poetry.) More than one poem will be welcomed, but emphasis will be placed on elaboration, descriptive vocabulary, metaphors, and repetition. Poems will be shared among class members and perhaps with students in other classrooms. Copies will go in their poetry folders. Some will be read during our culminating assembly.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The use of this novel is optional and probably would not work well with most classes beyond middle school. It tells the fictitious, but basically realistic, story of an African American family living in Flint, Michigan who travel to Birmingham where the children's grandmother lives. They go there to deposit the defiant, oldest son whose antics are being blames on life in a northern urban environment. Besides his almost immediate rehabilitation, the trip narrowly avoids disaster when young sister attends Sunday School in the very church and on the very day of the bombing. In a rather mystical chain of events, the girl escapes and the attitudes of all family members are altered forever. The story is both humorous and touching. It has much that fourth graders, and even older students, can relate to easily. Most importantly, it gives us insight into some of the feelings that must have been felt by those families directly affected by the blast. It should make the historical events, the two poems, and the article even more meaningful to students. I will read the novel to the class during our daily oral reading period. It should take two or three weeks to complete. Appropriate comprehension questions easily present themselves as the teacher reads, but the main emphasis will be on appreciating the story and its characters.
Suggestions for Use with Older Students
Though designed for upper elementary grade students, with slight changes in approach and emphasis, most of these activities seem quite appropriate for middle and high school students. An additional section on the conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing could result in some comparisons with the Birmingham, Atlanta bombing. The disregard for who was killed in order to emphasize the goals of each group involved seems to provide a valid comparison.
Lesson Two: Developing Expository Writing Based Through the Use of Poetry
Poem: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson
Subject Matter Areas:
reading, language arts, social studies, and social development
liberty, chast'ning, treading, and stray
This poem, which many recognize as the Negro National Anthem, talks of the pride African Americans should feel about their strength that sustained them through the difficult history of the past.
Develop the ability to recognize three events or individuals from African American history for which we should be proud.
Develop the ability to create a five paragraph expository essay on these events or individuals.
After most of the unit has been completed, the poem will be presented, read, and sung. Rhyme, repetition, metaphor, rhythm, and descriptive language will be discussed. The content stressing the recognition of pride and strength from the past will be discussed. Pupils, who will be familiar with the form of a five-paragraph essay (introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion), will be asked to write and expository paper in which they discuss three instances in African American history for which they feel we should "lift every voice and sing." The use of detail will be emphasized. Giving examples from the lives of those they know from history or those whom they are familiar with from their own experiences will be encouraged in order to illustrate how the strength of each example has affected the future. Possibilities include the value of being nonviolent (Martin Luther King, Jr.) or the importance of pursuing your own talents despite the barriers placed by others (Baseball players Jackie Robinson and Satchel Page). References to poems we have read will also be encouraged. Essays will become part of their folders.
Lesson Three: Connecting Pride in Yourself to Expository Writing and Poetry
Subject Matter Areas:
Language arts and social development
Since developing a feeling of pride in the protest which has occurred throughout African American history, an implicit goal of all activities in this unit, students will now be asked to focus on things about themselves for which they are proud. They will again be asked to use the five-paragraph expository form, a focus in grades 4-6, to discuss three things about themselves for which they are proud. They easily should be able to support their choices through the use of personal examples. Essays will be read and shared with others before being placed in their folders.
Finally, each student will develop a poem using the form "I am proud of myself ___" and/or "I feel proud when ___." More than one response will be encouraged, along with the use of descriptive language, repetition, and any other element of poetry that is appropriate to what they write. These poems will be shared with others and should be part of the team's culminating activity.