Marshall George and Melissa Comer
As teachers try to integrate young adult literature into the curriculum, they frequently ask for suggestions of books they might read with their middle school students. A title that has been getting a great deal of attention, especially by middle school teachers and students, is Christopher Paul Curtis' (1996) The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. In addition to being awarded numerous accolades (1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, Newbery Honor Book, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, New York Times Book Review Best Book), the novel lends itself to a variety of instructional strategies and teaching styles. But, the biggest reason to use this book with students in grades five through eight is that teens and preteens love the book and seem to really enjoy getting to know Kenny and his wacky family.
Synopsis of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963
In this powerful novel, readers meet the Watsons: your typical "Ward and June Clever" household. There are, however, two differences in the famous TV Land family and the one created by Christopher Paul Curtis. The Watsons are African-American and the seemingly carefree 1950s era of Leave it to Beaver has been replaced by the turbulent 1960s. Told from the viewpoint of 12 year old Kenny, the story takes readers from a safe-haven in Flint, Michigan to a world turned inside out in race-torn Birmingham, Alabama.
As the Watsons drive South, with "Yakkity Yak, Don't Talk Back" blaring from the stereo, Kenny, brother Byron, and sister Joetta are blissfully unaware of the knowledge that Momma and Daddy possess about the racial tensions in the South. As the kids dream about the next stop in their adventure and meeting a grandmother who speaks a different language (Southern), their parents whisper about unrest and worry about violence.
Although the family's arrival at Grandma's house in Alabama is filled with excited hugs and kisses, an underlying sense of dread and foreboding hangs in the air. Racial tension and terror have manifested themselves all over the South. Fortunately for the Watsons, until this point, these tales of terror have remained stories on the evening news. However, the reality of racially motivated terrorism becomes all too real for the Watsons. A cheerful Sunday morning of worship turns into a day of horror. The church where Joetta has gone for Sunday school is rocked with an explosion. Searching through the rubble, Kenny finds his kid sister's shoe. Believing that Joetta is dead, reality slips away from Kenny; the shock of seeing young children mutilated and killed by the bomb takes its toll on his 12-year old mind. Kenny and his family struggle to deal with the events that not only terrified them, but that rocked our entire nation.
Teachers and Students React to The Watsons
Gallo (1992) encourages teachers to listen to the readers in their classes when selecting literature to teach. In talking with young adults (and older adults, for that matter) who have read The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 , we have found that they love the book and that Kenny Watson is just the kind of friend many of them would like to have.
A teacher in New York City read the novel with her seventh and eighth grade reading classes. When the students were asked how they felt about the book, positive comments abounded. Fourteen-year-old Ria says, "I like the book, because it is funny and sometimes you can relate their story to your own everyday life. In particular, I can relate to Kenny, because he gets picked on at school and I get picked on at home, because my sisters, just like Byron, don't have anything else to do with their lives." Another student, Christine, states, "I love this book! It is my favorite book I have read in school so far." Eighth grader Adam sums it up this way, "I really enjoy this book. At least it's interesting enough to keep on reading." Perhaps the most glowing comments come from Yasmine, a 12-year old seventh grade girl who says:
I think this is a really good book, compared with the others I have read. This book has changed the way I usually feel when I start reading a book. I usually think, 'Oh great, here is another book to read.' Now, when I pick up The Watsons to read every day, I think to myself, 'I can't wait to see what Kenny has to put up with today. This book mostly makes me laugh, but it also made me cry a couple of times. I guess it's my favorite book. That's kind of cool to have a favorite book, finally.
Yasmine's teacher agrees: I've tried everything with this class. They liked The Outsiders, but haven't liked anything else we read all year. I am so glad I have discovered this book. My only regret is that I didn't find out about it until the end of the year. If I could have hooked the students earlier in the year I might have had more success getting them to read on their own.
Ideas for an Interdisciplinary Unit
Smith and Johnson (1994) define interdisciplinary teaching as "a comprehensive learning experience that combines content areas by incorporating concepts, skills, and questions from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, situation, inquiry, or topic" (p. 200). Often, a piece of literature is selected to serve as the text around which the unit is built. As we, two former middle school teachers, talked about how we would teach The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 , it struck us that it is an excellent novel to build an interdisciplinary unit around. Following are some ideas that may be used to incorporate this book into various content areas in grades five through eight.
_ Students may conduct research on what the United States, particularly the South, was like during the early 1960s, especially the year 1963. In addition to library and Internet research, the students could conduct personal interviews to explore popular culture , including television shows, movies, music, theater, cars, etc. They could then create a time capsule for the year 1963 with the information they discover.
_ Using the library, Internet, and other resources, students may research the actual Birmingham church bombings and create their own news reports (newspaper, television, radio) giving the facts of the horrible event.
_ Students may interview parents, grandparents, neighbors, or teachers who remember the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Results of the interviews may be presented in written and/or oral reports.
Geography (map skills)
_ The Watsons' journey takes them down Interstate 75 from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama. As the students read the book, a class wall map can be used to chart the progress of the Watsons during their travels. Cooperative groups of students could be assigned states that lie on the travel route. As the Watsons enter each of the states, student groups could report on the interesting sites encountered along I-75, as well as the important facts of each of the states (capitol, major cities, etc.).
_ Momma has researched their trip to Birmingham from Flint. Students can reproduce her calculations including the mileage between stops (ties in with the geography/map activity), speed they will travel, etc. Teachers may develop word problems including travel time, distance, expenses, etc. After they have developed their word problems, students can give them to classmates to solve.
English Language Arts
_ To explore characterization in the novel, students may choose one of the characters from the novel and create a safety deposit box, hope chest, or just a place where that character stores things that are important to him/her. This box should include objects/artifacts that will reveal what the character is like. For example, in Byron's box students may want to include a mirror, a comb, etc. to symbolize his obsession with his appearance and his vanity.
_ Important to the study of literature is the opportunity for readers to reflect and respond about what they have read. Reader Response Journals, Reader's Logs, and Literature Logs offer students the opportunity to make personal connections with the book as they read. Dialogue Journals may also be used, providing students a forum to interact in writing with other classmates and/or the teacher about the book.
_ The novel contains a great deal of regional expressions. Class discussions may include examination of unfamiliar terms and phrases. Students can use context clues in conjunction with a dictionary of regional sayings to discover the meanings of unfamiliar words and expressions. (As a follow-up activity, students could interview a speaker who uses some of these regionalisms and/or create a dictionary of expressions they use.)
We believe in alternative assessment strategies. Traditionally, students take written tests to show that they have read and comprehended a book. In lieu of the final written unit test, we like to have students complete projects based on the book we have studied. By doing this type of "alternative" culminating experience, students have the opportunity to not only demonstrate their reading and comprehension of the book, but to also show how they have interacted with it, and what their own personal response to it is. Gardner (1988) has suggested that human beings have a variety of intelligences, and that teachers should provide opportunities for students to use their own strengths to demonstrate what they have learned. In order to do this, we have come up with some possible end-of-unit projects. It is our hope that by completing projects such as these, students can reflect on their reading of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 and engage in higher level thinking about the book.
End of Unit Projects
Students may select from the following list or propose a project of their own; they may work individually, in pairs, or in small groups:
1. This book is set in 1963, both in Flint, MI and Birmingham, AL. How would the story be different if it were set today, in your own hometown and one you are not familiar with? (Choose a city you know nothing about it, research it, and then include it as part of the setting). How have things changed since the 1960s? Write an essay in which you address these questions.
2. Imagine that MGM has decided to make a movie version of The Watsons. You have been named the casting director and have the power to decide who will play each of the roles. You may use famous movie stars as well as members of this class in the picture. Who will you cast in each of the major roles? You must explain your choices. Then, create a movie poster for the film.
3. Imagine that you are a talk show host. You have invited members of the Watson family to be your guests. Plan the show. What is the theme of this episode? Which characters will you invite to be your guests? With a partner (or partners), plan and conduct your interview. Record the interview on audio-cassette.
4. The Watsons traveled over 100 miles from Flint to Birmingham. Plan an excursion for today, following the same route. Make a travel brochure for your trip. Make it sound as exciting as possible. Plan your own itinerary for this trip. What interesting places might you stop along the way? Do some research using the Internet to discover what sight-seeing you might like to do on this trip.
5. Work with a team to create a mural highlighting your favorite scenes in The Watsons, or build a mobile representing the main characters of the novel. The mobile could include things cut from magazines or your own drawings, or items that represent the character you are portraying.
6. Write and illustrate a version of The Watsons for younger children to read. Be sure to tell the important things from the story, and capture each of the main characters' personalities. You could also create a comic book version of the book.
Although The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 is a relatively new novel, we believe it is one that will become a standard text in middle school classrooms. The characters are real people with whom fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will readily identify. Kenny and Byron experience the same feelings, have the same fights, and think the same things that today's kids do. They are, simply put, two teenagers trying to make sense of the world in which they live. And when you think about it, the 1990s are not so different from the 1960s in that respect. Growing up, regardless of the time period, is difficult. Each generation brings with it new obstacles, as well as new hopes for the future. The Watsons provides a forum for students to explore the obstacles and hopes associated with growing up.
Marshall George is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, in New York, NY. Melissa Comer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Cumberland College, in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Both are graduates of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Reference Citation: George, Marshall and Melissa Comer. (1999). "Bringing The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 to the Middle School Classroom." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.