Having an assigned core text can be a positive or negative experience for a Language Arts teacher, depending on the district's choice of book. The assigned text in the second quarter of New Haven's eighth grade curriculum in Language Arts is an important and engaging book called
Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case
. In general, there is a lot of good work being done around this text by my students, but it feels scattered, unorganized, and at times un-scaffolded. Students also do not have the background knowledge to approach this text without adequate preparation, and it's not always a simple job to provide that information in a coherent way without detracting from the work of reading, writing and analysis that should be the focus of teaching this text. This unit should solve these problems and offer suggestions for teachers using the book, or books like it, in their classrooms.
Getting Away with Murder
tells the story of Emmett, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who was murdered in Money, Mississippi while visiting relatives in 1955. He was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The book also explores the societal context that allowed Emmett's killers to be exonerated in a court of law. His trial gained national attention when his mother bravely advocated for justice and demanded an open coffin, as well as when his uncle took the daring step of testifying before an all-white jury. Despite their heroic efforts, lawyers for the prosecution worked with the local sheriff to ensure that a biased jury comprised entirely of white men would acquit Emmett's killers. This gross miscarriage of justice is often presented as the catalyst that sparked the Civil Rights movement. I have taught this book for two years now and have utilized many primary source materials from the Civil Rights movement, but have yet to write a unit that addresses both the text and its place in American history. Such a unit would be applicable to all 8th grade L.A. teachers in New Haven and anybody teaching Till's story. Some of the activities would also be useful to a Language Arts or history teacher approaching any part of the Civil Rights era.
While students certainly make an emotional connection to the text, I have found that some of the time we could spend thinking and writing about the big ideas in the book is lost due to lack of
context for my students. Students don't come into eighth grade with a strong background in Social Studies and I am not sure that the Civil Rights movement has ever been covered extensively in their previous educational experience. Students generally have Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as reference points, but cannot articulate much background knowledge beyond that. They do have a knowledge of slavery and Civil War era history, but often confuse Civil Rights with the Civil War. For example, students have said things like, "When Malcolm X escaped slavery...".
Due to this gap, some of my teaching has centered around building background knowledge and context. At times, the classroom has felt more like a Social Studies class than an English class. I usually advocate this interdisciplinary approach, but in this instance, we can lose sight of the Language Arts skills we are trying to build through the reading of this text. Assigning a research project early on in the unit has not been effective in remedying this problem. I haven't found a way to share/publish this work that creates a common core of background knowledge. While I ask each student to become an expert on one term or person from the Civil Rights era, even this work is done out of context. When they share their work as we come across it in the text, they are often unable to connect it to the larger Civil Rights narrative in a meaningful way. While I generally believe that new learning should come from student exploration and inquiry, in this case it can actually mean that we spend a good portion of the curricular time allotted to this unit focused on learning the history of the Civil Rights movement. Any teacher with a jam-packed curricular calendar knows that the few precious weeks dedicated to a class text need to be carefully planned in order to maximize student learning.
For this reason I believe that direct instruction in the history of the Civil Rights movement will be the most effective approach to building a context for the story of Emmett Till. Students will have the opportunity to expand upon this knowledge, but providing a common core of information will be essential before jumping into the text. Creating this context can be done through one or more PowerPoint presentations or assigned reading that provides background. This approach will help shift the focus in class from one of researching and learning basic American history to a nuanced approach to reading and writing about non-fiction. For example, instead of spending days in the computer lab researching, students can use the time to discuss the construction of history through written and visual documents.
Regardless of contextual knowledge, each time I teach this book, students connect to the text and become immersed in what happened to Emmett. My classes are comprised of largely African American and Hispanic students who are outraged by the Jim Crow environment of Emmett's world. They connect personally to his naivety in encountering the larger world and its bewildering norms. A few of my student also come from Cambodia and Thailand. Some have left destructive situations in their homelands to find a better life in New Haven. They can speak about the injustice of civil rights violations from a firsthand (or, when relating their parents' experience, secondhand) perspective. While their relationship to Emmett's experience is different than that of my African American and Hispanic students, it is no less intense.
In many ways my students are making the kinds of deep thematic connections teachers of English are constantly encouraging. In order to further enhance this notion of thematic connections, an additional aim I have started developing this year is to connect our work across quarters with our year-long theme of "Justice and Injustice." This thematic approach can also be done for a single quarter or abutting four to six week units. It's important that students think about what these words mean in multiple situations and time periods throughout their eighth grade year. For that reason, reading
Getting Away with Murder
can be followed up with reading novels and memoirs from other settings. This year, for example, my class tried social issue book clubs in which students read about Sudan, Iran and Sierra Leone. By the end of the year we also read books written about the Holocaust to broaden our conversation.
In order to make a successful transition from one historical setting to another, students will have to fully understand some of the concepts behind the larger year-long theme, along with the role of the individual in shaping history. A common vocabulary would help facilitate these connections. Students should understand words like
oppression, resistance, non-violence
, etc. We can also create a space to focus on the roles of martyr, victim, hero and writer within the Civil Rights movement. These roles are transferable to others times and places (as are roles like bystander and collaborator). Introducing and discussing these roles will also enable students to critically evaluate Emmett's role and encourage them to begin the process of argumentative writing. Emmett has been cast in each of these roles at various points, and students should be able to argue for their own view of Emmett at the end of our unit of study. This assignment will also fulfill persuasive writing requirements.
Also relevant is the district's approach to whole-class texts. For both fiction and non-fiction books, New Haven uses the shared reading method under a curriculum program called Plugged-In to Reading developed by Janet Allen. The primary notion of this program is that a fluent reader or recording reads the book aloud while students follow along in their own books. The theory behind this approach is that students can focus on comprehension/analysis of the text, while the decoding is done for them. By pairing the text with the spoken word, students can learn new words and improve their reading fluency. While the Plugged-In program comes with a CD on which an actor reads the text to students, the same methodology can be implemented with a teacher reading aloud. For example, many times in our fiction units, I read to students rather than play the CD. This approach is really successful with middle-school students, especially in heterogeneous classes in which there are readers of all levels. There is no question as to whether all students are actually reading the text as there might be when a text is sent home to be read, and the class has a shared reading experience. At the same time, however, this means that at least twenty minutes every day must be devoted to reading if the class is to finish the book in a timely fashion. Therefore, all classroom activities are transformed into one or more "mini-lessons." Mini-lessons are effective teaching units as they promote student-centered learning with minimal direct instruction from teachers. In short, we don't ask students of all learning types to stay focused on one teacher talking for an extended period of time. Rather, mini-lessons are short bursts of vital information and modeling so that students may then have success in independent practice. These mini-lessons can be scaffolded to promote the construction of skills over the course of the unit and promote student achievement. The exception to this format would be the one or two classes in which the teacher uses a more traditional lecture, a question answer session, or even the viewing of a documentary to provide a context for Emmett's murder.
In addition, each of our shared reads (called core texts) comes with a plethora of materials to support instruction as a part of the Plugged-In to Reading program. These materials include text connections (often primary source documents) and graphic organizers focused on reading and writing strategies. For the purpose of this unit, I won't include these materials. While I use many of them on a frequent basis, they too can feel scattered. It doesn't always feel as if we are working on a few skills over time. Instead it sometimes feels as if we are completing assignments almost randomly, and their only common element is the text on which they are based. Hopefully narrowing our focus to a few key ideas will also help deepen student understanding of the book and the Civil Rights movement.
In many ways, the different parts of this unit all point toward more cohesive scaffolding as an aim. For that reason, it may make sense to investigate what this term
means and how it might be accomplished. Jerome Bruner introduces the notion of scaffolded lessons in his argument for structure in education. He writes,
…the curriculum of a subject should be determined by the most fundamental understanding that can be achieved of the underlying principles that give structure to that subject. Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical in several deep senses. In the first place, such teaching makes it exceedingly difficult for the student to generalize what he has learned to what he will encounter later. In the second place, learning that has fallen short of a grasp of general principles has little reward in terms of intellectual excitement. The best way to create interest in a subject is to render it worth knowing, which means to make the knowledge gained usable in one's thinking beyond the situation in which the learning has occurred.
What Bruner states so articulately is the great challenge of teaching a historical text: in our rush to explain everything about the
in the book, we sometimes lose its
. This unit will redirect the focus of this text away from events to deeper themes and more lasting skills.