Roll of Thunder’s literary elements are on par with thought provoking classics like To Kill A Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) and The Color Purple, (Walker, 1982). Like these classics, it was critically acclaimed but stirred public controversy because of its confrontation of issues on race, racism, and inequality. These issues remain controversial and apropos to Milner’s observation that “some teachers don't consider race germane to their math or English syllabus. Others strive for colorblindness in the classroom, wanting to believe we live in a post-racial society.”iii As I was developing this unit, an internet search of ROT units and lessons shows this in action reinforcing the popular pervasive, yet incomplete narratives that “...on December 1, 1955, the modern civil rights movement began when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama...”iv In fact, a large body of research recognizes that the racial ideology of the pre–civil rights era is often untaught, unknown, or not fully understood. Historians caution, “popular narratives create the impression that a small group of charismatic leaders, particularly Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were primarily responsible for civil rights gains.v The caution is explained in greater detail:
“Often cast in a ‘Montgomery to Memphis’ frame that parallels the public life of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement has taken on an air of inevitability in the popular imagination. Images and film footage have frozen the movement in time as an era when people risked their lives to end the crippling system of segregation in the South, and to secure the rights and privileges fundamental to American citizenship. For many young people, it looms as a shining moment in the distant past, with little relevance to contemporary issues concerning race, democracy, and social justice.”vi
Taking a deeper dive into the curricular strategies for centering examinations on race and racism helps students to critically interrogate the text beyond conventional character investigation and avoids “reducing lessons about a handful of heroic figures and the four words “I have a dream.”vii This script is so well defined that it leaves students conceptually stranded. This unit creates a counter narrative and resources for pedagogical tools to unpack these dominant approaches.
I want students to fully understand the author’s position to “tell the truth about what life was like before the Civil Rights Movement,”viii which led me to rethink how I can teach this novel in a developmentally appropriate way for middle school students. I thought about best practices using comprehensible input, the deliberate teaching of content in way that is accessible for all students from diverse backgrounds and knowledge (this may include visual aids, gestures, and cognates), that confronts issues of race and racism through historical analysis of laws and social norms shaping understandings about how “racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage.”xi Thus, I approach this unit with renewed intention to build stronger agency between teaching and learning to spotlight that the movement, an ongoing intentional act of people working to advance shared political and social change, “was much bigger than its most notable leaders, and that millions of people mustered the courage to join the struggle, very often risking their lives in the process.”x This is at the heart of the characters in the novel expressed by Taylor upon accepting the 1997 Alan Award given by the by the National Council of Teachers of English to honor significant contributions to the field of young adult and adolescent literature. Taylor notes:
“I envisioned presenting a family united in love and self-respect, and parents, strong and sensitive, attempting to guide their children successfully without harming their spirits, through the hazardous maze of living in a discriminatory society. I wanted readers to know this family, based upon my own, and I wanted them to feel akin to them and to walk in their shoes.”xi