With Black History Month underway, I wanted to share a successful lesson I delivered in a fifth grade class that might help your students understand the historical context of some African American literature.
In our fifth grade classes, our bilingual students are spending the whole day in English for the first time in their school careers. We have a wide range of levels of English acquisition, from students who just arrived from Mexico to students who have spent their entire school careers in our school.
To help the kids think about what they already know as well as develop their English speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills, one fifth grade teacher and I planned some specific activities for students while supporting their historical fiction unit.
If you haven't read this story, you should. It's a sweet story of a girl who wants to go someplace special by herself. Because of segregation laws, she isn't allowed in many places in her town. She finally reaches "someplace special," and it turns out that it's a library. Sob sob sob.
I figured that, if students didn't understand the historical context for a story, they wouldn't be able to explain how the event created the situation for the story. So to help students as we read Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack, we started out with some pictures.
I scoured the internet (it wasn't actually that hard) for photos that depicted segregation. I wanted actual photos so students could reflect on actual historical events and understand that this story was based on true events in American history.
We divided the kids into five groups and gave each group a specific colored marker. The photos were glued on to construction paper and taped to the walls around the room. Each group went to one of the photos and had three minutes to write everything they noticed and thought on the construction paper. They used these speaking and writing stems:
This makes me think of...
This reminds me of...
Then they rotated to the next chart and read what the previous groups said. After reading and discussing this, they added their thinking in their colored marker.
By the time they'd been through several charts, they started picking up language from each other! They were using each other's words such as "discrimination", "strike", and "privilege."
We gathered some very interesting and enlightening background knowledge. They had a lot of concepts and were able to connect historical events and people (such as segregation, Martin Luther King, Jr., strikes, Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks), but they didn't have specific vocabulary.
We worked on giving them words to express their specific ideas. A few that came up were "segregation," "African Americans" as a replacement for the outdated "colored people" phrase they were using, and "separate but equal".
After visiting each chart, I told them that the historical events pictured in the photos would be the context for our story, so we had to have a good understanding. The teams worked on writing a single sentence that would explain the historical event.
Then we started to read the book. Each student had a copy of the story and a post-it. I asked them to read to find examples of how the historical event was represented in the story. Students marked several places where we saw the conditions of segregation affecting our story.
Using the ideas that students marked with their post-its, we created a simple cause-effect map to explain how the historical events affected the story. Then students chose another event from the story and used the sentence stems on the bottom of the above chart to record their thinking about the historical event and the story.
Students were really able to explain how the historical events affected the story! The above student obviously has a stronger handle on English written expression with errors common to English Language Learners, but even our newcomers were able to produce some response.
One student even explained, "She wanted to get to the library because all were welcome there." Awww, what a message!