Below are explanations/rationale for classroom activities and assignments. I do not think it is advisable (or possible) to do all of these activities in a given year, but each classroom makeup is different, as are students' needs, and one can select accordingly from the choices below as needed.
Context Building: Teaching students the historical information they will need
BKWLQ with Primary Documents (Pre-reading)
The KWL Chart is a common activity in which students create three-columned charts titled "Know," "Want to Know," and "Learned." They then go through the process of writing what they already know about a topic, generating questions about the topic individually or in groups, and finally recording new learning at the end of a unit of study.
Literacy expert Janet Allen
has pointed out that this is problematic, as students often don't have the contextual knowledge they would need to fill in the "Know" column at the start of a unit and cannot express the curiosity necessary for the "Want to Know" column. She has suggested the simple modification of beginning by adding an article designed to build contextual knowledge. For example, when teachers want their students to understand the reality of segregation, they might give them a copy of common Jim Crow laws. Student would write what they learn from this document in the "B: Build Background Knowledge," column, then proceed to add additional information they know and generate questions for learning. After reading
Getting Away With Murder
, students can add information to the "L: Learned" column and then generate addition questions for the "Q: New Questions We Have" column.
This is a quick way to introduce concepts to students, but still put the onus on them to generate their own learning. While the teacher provides the text, the students are responsible for teaching themselves the information contained within it. It's also an essential activity for generating student interest. The BKWLQ chart might be a good activity to combine with a lesson on the differences between primary and secondary documents as well, particularly if the teacher uses primary documents for background knowledge. This activity should be charted and left up in the room to remind students of their lingering questions as they progress through the unit.
Context building/poetry assignment (Pre/during reading)
One assignment that I have presented to students in the past is one in which they are assigned or choose a term related to the Civil Rights Movement. These subjects can be anything from "lynching" to "Martin Luther King Jr." to "Medgar Evers." Students research the term and fill in a graphic organizer. Usually the research is pretty informal— from Wikipedia or online encyclopedias. Then students use the information they find as inspiration for a poem that helps explain the term to the rest of the class. When the term comes up in the course of our shared read, students can then act as experts and explain their research. There are many poems written about Emmett Till that would make wonderful models for this assignment, including the picture book
A Wreath for Emmett Till
(see student reading list).
One issue that has cropped up with this approach is that students were still researching their terms out of context. So while each becomes an "expert" on a piece of the puzzle, so to speak, the entire picture of the Civil Rights Movement still remains fragmented. I think there are a couple of ways to solve this, but one will certainly be graphically. Students can actually write their term on a literal puzzle piece that then fits into a larger grid. The pieces can be arranged next to each other in a way that flows logically. A timeline may also be a traditional, and appropriate way to approach organizing these fragments of information.
Finally, for a spin on this assignment, teachers can highlight the visual history of the Civil Rights Movement by giving each student an iconic image. This variation can be combined with lessons on how to interpret images, and teachers can ask students to write poems based on their images without the background research. After they write the poems, teachers can give students a second, captioned, version of the image and ask them to compare their interpretations to the historical record. The poetry is the important part of this assignment, because it taps into students' creative, emotional and expressive side. In my experience, poetry unleashes reservoir of feeling that might be necessary for such an emotionally charged book. I've attached the assignment sheet for this exercise at the end of this unit.
Genre Comparison: Approaching Texts with Genre in Mind
Image comparison/Image analysis (pre/during reading)
For many of us, not just our students, our first and most powerful connection with the Civil Rights era comes from memories of powerful images. Whether it be Martin Luther King Jr. being carried off to jail or segregationists harassing young girls as they attempt to enter a recently integrated school, the images that survive from that era often tell the story as well as any written text. For many students, confronting these images can be a challenging experience. Some have personal connections to racism; others have visceral rejection to the kind of hatred they see. Rather than shy away from these visuals, this is an excellent opportunity for students to incorporate visual literacy and student centered discussion into the unit. Students should be encouraged to use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to encounter these images and attempt to create meaning before being given background information.
VTS is a teaching strategy available nationally. My personal experience and therefore the lesson later in the unit are based on a similar methodology employed by the Yale Center for British Art. I will include information on VTS below, but include a disclaimer that I have not experienced professional development on this methodology. The homepage for VTS lists multiple outcomes of using this visual analysis strategy. The first three are:
· Uses art to develop critical thinking, communication and visual literacy skills
· Asks educators to facilitate learner-centered discussions of visual art
· Engages learners in a rigorous process of examination and meaning-making through visual art
All of these are critical goals. In short, teachers ask students to simple look at an image with no introduction. The teacher can then ask, "What's going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you think this (ask for evidence)? What more can you find in there?" By going through this process, teachers ask students to find evidence within the image to support their notions of what a picture is showing. This doesn't take very long and can be a powerful introduction to the era, book, or new knowledge. The attached lesson plan shows how to use a modified version of this process in a lesson on images.
Enrichment: Compare/ Contrast with 'Mississippi Trial, 1955'
Chris Crowe, the author of
Getting Away with Murder
, had also written a historical fiction account of Emmett's murder called
Mississippi Trial, 1955
. A group of high achieving students can read both books simultaneously as enrichment for motivated students. They can analyze how an author approaches the same material from a historical versus fictional perspective. This comparison would open up many avenues for deep analysis of genre without changing authors, which helps student understand the difference between genre rather than point of view, writing, or writing style. Such an exploration would ask students to consider not only the author's choice of genre, but characterization in different genres and the relationship between writing and history. Students can begin to think about how authors are active in writing and re-writing the historical record. They may also consider how different genres evoke different responses within the same reader. Finally, this sub-group can discuss when an author might choose to write in one genre over another, and begin to tackle analyzing an author's purpose.
This multi-genre approach would also help remedy an on-going problem of differentiation within a classroom. Often, when we focus on differentiating instruction for struggling students we make sure to provide extra support when needed and offer them easier reading choices. We check in with them more often than high achieving students and modify writing assignments to suit their needs. However, we do not often remember to differentiate for our accelerated readers. They also need support in reaching their full potential; I could easily see a group of highly motivated students taking to this assignment. Their work could be completed through journal writing and meeting times set aside during the regular day or class session.
Approaching Larger Themes
Hero vs. Victim vs. Martyr Persuasive Essay (after reading)
One of the big ideas I want students to grasp through this unit is that history is really an interpretation of words and images from the past and about the past. That is, there is no one record of human history that is the "truth"; there are a series of attempts to record, sometimes faithfully and sometimes not, events as they happen. Recorders do this through writing or creating visual images. Throughout this process, historical figures, just like actors are cast in roles. They can be heroes or villains, sympathetic or hateful.
Sometimes these roles are clear. For example, Emmett's murderers were bad men, and while we could explore what racism does to peoples' values, on some level they are just detestable. At other points, a person's role in history is a bit more nuanced. I think students in eighth grade, are just becoming aware of a "shades of gray" approach to thinking, and they find it interesting to consider interpretation and perspective. I would like to point out to them that Emmett was thrust into the history books violently, and he himself had no authority over his "image control." We don't know how Emmett would like to be remembered, but we have seen him portrayed as many things throughout the years. Some consider him a hero for bravely defying social norms, while others see him as a hapless victim. Some see him as an innocent martyr, sacrificed like so many others in that great and ongoing struggle for equality. In an interview after the murder, the killers portrayed him as a wild boy who was abusive to women, while his mother wrote extensively about her loving, stuttering son who couldn't whistle if he wanted to.
Students should begin to make the distinctions for themselves and to consider just who they think Emmett was and why these conflicting views exist. This consideration is especially poignant because they themselves are generally thirteen or fourteen in eighth grade, and Emmett was fourteen when he died. In many ways, their own identity and sense of self are just forming. Students also need to start to develop the claim-and-support mode of argumentation. Usually this teaching is done through persuasive essay writing. I want to ask students to claim Emmett's role as hero, victim or martyr and support that claim with evidence from the book and from our study of the Civil Rights Movement.
Role of the individual: Bridge to social issue book clubs (after reading)
For much of the text of
Getting Away With Murder
, we focus on the role that society, oppression, and the legal system played in allowing two white men to murder a fourteen-year-old African American boy. However, it's also important to consider the role individuals played in Emmett's death. Of course, there are the murderers to consider. But one must also consider Emmett's actions, those of his Uncle Mose, and the sheriff's handling of the case. Within the Plugged In Materials that accompany the book, there is a graphic organizer that asks students to assign responsibility to members of the Money, Mississippi community for Emmett's death. This is an important exercise for encouraging students to understand the concept of personal responsibility. I would like to extend this from a single day to a larger project.
One way to enlarge the class's scope might be to ask students to assume responsibility in their own lives for community service projects or to identify injustices for which they were bystanders (or perpetrators). Understanding the roles of individuals in injustice will be vital to moving forward in our social issue book clubs and the text offers a great opportunity to explore the way in which we're all responsible for one another.
Author's POV (During reading)
Students sometimes struggle with understanding how an author's perspective will shape his or her writing and story-telling. They tend to think there is one "right" narrative, or some sort of underlying undeniable truth that guides all writers of non-fiction. It is often fascinating for a teacher and illuminating for a student to provide an alternative approach to understanding history.
Getting Away with Murder
offers innumerable opportunities to investigate these different perspectives.
Students can start with the primary voice available to them in this text, that of the author Chris Crowe. As a class, students can complete a brief author study (look at some biographical facts and perhaps an online video interview) and discuss and chart how Crowe's life might shape his writing. These questions can then be turned into a protocol for further use, and so students may want to be a part of that protocol's creation. Some suggested questions might be:
· Why do you think he wrote this book?
· What does he want us to know?
· What is his message about injustice?
· How does he view the events of 1955?
· How do you know? (This is a good opportunity to introduce using text evidence to support student answers.)
After discussing this secondary source, teachers can then introduce primary sources (another great opportunity to teach this difference). In the comprehensive volume
The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative
, Christopher Metress has compiled every essential document from the time of Emmett's murder, everything from Langston Hughes's response to the verdict to modern literary explorations of the themes of Emmett's death. That being said, two of the most powerful documents for students might be the interview of both the killers with
magazine after they were exonerated (in which they outline their recollections of the murder, protected from prosecution by double jeopardy)
and excerpts from the memoir of Emmet's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, as told to a reporter from
The Chicago Defender
. There is also amazing video of Mamie Till Bradley in the documentary
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.
Students will connect with the powerful emotions in these pieces, and teachers can guide them in similar discussions to that of Crowe's work, asking variations of the questions students investigated when exploring Crowe's point of view. Teachers can set their own protocol for what questions to ask and how to approach this process. Teachers can also extend this activity by using multiple primary and secondary source documents, perhaps starting class with a read aloud of a document and running through the protocol repeatedly throughout the unit. This will help reinforce the idea of author's point of view, as well as the essential concept that there are multiple narratives in history.