Holt High School, is located near the site where Governor George
C. Wallace made the famous stand in the schoolhouse door and an
hour away from the location of the church bombing at the Sixteenth
Street Baptist Church depicted in The
Watsons go to Birmingham--1963. Although Alabama
is rich with history from the events of the Civil Rights Movement,
many students do not have an informed understanding of the events
that were a part of their community history. At Holt High
School, a Professional Development School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama,
teachers and University of Alabama faculty decided to focus on
this topic drawing on community resources and experiences.
It was hoped the study of the novel would engage all participants
in an active process of reading responding, sharing, and crossing
borders as we studied the Civil Rights Movement.
In one classroom, Melinda Lake taught World Affairs, a social
studies elective for grades 9-12. She decided to incorporate
Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 into her class to illustrate
racism and discrimination. To introduce the book, the class
viewed the documentary 4 Little Girls directed by Spike Lee (Home
Box Office). This led to a class discussion of the students’ prior
knowledge of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.
Interestingly, there were some students in Ms. Lake’s class who
were unaware of the events that took place in their own state.
The preservice teachers observed Ms. Lake and her class in the
introduction to this unit of study. They continued
to observe other activities as they prepared for their teaching
activities. Prior to teaching their lessons, the preservice
teachers and their university instructor worked with Ms. Lake,
observed lessons, viewed historical documentaries on the Civil
Rights Movement with the class, and facilitated activities related
to the book. Ms. Lake used a variety of strategies
as students read the book (e.g., student and teacher reading aloud,
One strategy used in Ms. Lake’s class was the writing roulette
that was used to stimulate critical thinking as well as empathy
and emotion while they engaged in a creative writing activity.
In addition, this writing strategy can also serve as a reinforcement
for vocabulary knowledge. After students have read a reading
selection, the teacher divides the class into groups of three
and provides each student with a story structure that includes:
(a) a setting and characters, (b) a problem or goal, and (c) space
provided for a resolution as well as a word bank of vocabulary
words (Click here to obtain a printable
copy of the story structure).
To begin the activity, students are instructed to write focusing
on the settings and characters; students should use at least two
words from the word bank provided underlining them in their stories.
After an allotted amount of time (usually three to five minutes),
group members will stop writing and pass their papers to the group
member on the right. After reading what the previous author
has written regarding the setting and the characters, each person
is asked to write about the problem or goal. Since it will
be necessary to read what has been written, the time limit for
this and the following step can be extended. At the end of this
round, each writer passes the story to the right and each writer
begins to conclude the story. At the end of this round,
the three group members have contributed to all three stories.
They will probably find that they have written very different
stories; the formats might use different genres (e.g., letters,
editorials, stories). After the final step, the group members
should read all three stories and may select one to be read to
the entire class. The teacher can post all of the finished stories
for students to read.
This activity was designed to complement The Watsons go to
Birmingham to help students become more empathetic,
caring, and peaceful in their own home and school communities.
In examples 1 and example
2 writing roulette activity allowed four different writers
to create one story using a prompt that placed the writer at the
bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The biopoem is a writing strategy that can be used to stimulate
thinking about concepts, historical figures, and literary characters.
Students can use the format below (Click
for a printable version of the biopoem activity) or teachers
can adapt the format to suit the concepts selected.
First name of person assigned
Three or more characteristics of this person
A relative of __________ (mother, husband, etc.)
Lover of _____________ (people or things)
Who felt____________( 3 items)
Who needed___________ (3 items)
Who feared___________(3 items)
Who gave ____________(3 items)
Who worked to change__________
Line 10 Who
Last name of person assigned
As a means to review the characters in The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963,
the students in Ms. Lake’s class were divided into small groups
and assigned a character in the book. This activity allowed
the students to collaboratively explore the feelings, emotions,
and dimensions of the book’s characters. Each group presented
their biopoems on overhead transparencies projected on a screen.
The presenters covered lines 1 and 12 and the other students in
the class guessed the characters (Click here to see example
3 and example 4—biopoems for The Watsons
go to Birmingham).
As demonstrated by the student writing in the writing roulette
activity, students developed the capacity to empathize with the
characters in the novel as well as those individuals personally
affected during the Civil Rights Movement. The teaching
team worked diligently to facilitate honest conversations about
difficult topics including violence, racism, and discrimination.