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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sit Down and Be Counted: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement with Picture Books

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down

History is often made by ordinary people taking extraordinary risks.

Such was the case on February 4, 1960, when four black college students took seats at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, tells that story with same passion and intensity with which it took place.

The story is told with minimal yet factual narrative, with a delicious dash of figurative language salted throughout (Brian explains why in the video below). The narrative is also punctuated with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which not only guided the protesters of the time in their nonviolent methods, but may also help young readers of today understand how these crusaders could withstand such abuse and humiliation.

In this video, author Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrator Brian Pinkney discuss the events leading up to the sit-ins (these same events are detailed in an epilogue called "A Final Helping" at book's end). They also discuss the writing and illustration process, and close with a brief overview of the book.

Several segments of this video lend themselves to discussion and extensions for the book: 
  • Andrea and Brian discussed the food references used in the book. Why was food mentioned so often? Share a specific passage which employs a food metaphor and ask, What does that passage mean? Why not just come right out and say that? What other food-related metaphors did you hear? In our everyday language, what other metaphors are often used?
  • The author and illustrator talked about the need for conducting research using photographs from the time. Why would this be so important? What information might the photographs provide? If the author/illustrator team chose to create a picture book set in a time period before photography was invented, how might they gather information for their pictures? If we also say, "Write what you know," then why do research?
  • Toward the end of the video, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brain Pinkney discuss their own heroes. Why is that included in the video? How might their own heroes have affected their decision to create this book? Why is it important to have heroes? Who are some of your heroes? How could you find out more about them?
  • For additional ideas and extensions, check out the teaching guide from Hatchette Book Group, prepared by the very talented Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins

In Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, a young narrator describes her family's involvement in the sit-ins and protests which took place in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. This would serve as a terrific companion book to Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, since the two books chronicle the same event, but in very different styles and perspectives. Author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Jerome Lagarrigue take a much more linear storytelling approach to the event, and provide many more historical details in the actual narrative.

Once you've read Freedom on the Menu with students, 
  • Grab the excellent lesson plan outline, with lots of links to related resources, at author Carole Boston Weatherford's website
  • Encourage some theatrics with a Readers Theater Script based on Freedom on the Menu.
  • Check out some recommended activities for this book including an activity that compares the story of the civil right movement told in newspapers from 1960, a work of historical fiction, and students' own social studies textbook. You'll also found a download meant as a reading guide for Freedom Summer, aimed at parents but also a valuable resource for the classroom.
  • Show students this excellent dramatic interpretation of the Greensboro events. (Visit the Smithsonian's History Explorer for related lesson plans as well as transcripts of the video below). Consider having students create their own dramatic retelling of another Civil Rights era event.

Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer begins with this note from author Deborah Wiles:
In the early 1960s the American South had long been a place where Black Americans could not drink from the same drinking fountains as whites, attend the same schools, or enjoy the same public areas. Then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law and states that "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment" of any public place, regardless of "...race, color, religion, or national origin."

I was born a white child in  Mobile, Alabama, and sent summers visiting my beloved Mississippi relatives. When the Civil Rights Act was passed, the town pool closed. So did the roller rink and the ice cream parlor. Rather than lawfully giving blacks the same rights and freedoms as whites, many southern businesses chose to shut their doors in protest. Some of them closed forever.
In this fictional account, two boys, one white and one black, share all the joys of summer together: shooting marbles, swimming in Fiddler's Creek, and cooling down with ice pops, all beautifully portrayed in Jerome Lagarrigue's images (yes, he's the same guy who illustrated Freedom on the Menu). So the boys are excited to learn that the town pool, which previously catered to whites only, will be opened to "everybody under the sun, no matter what color."

But the next day, their eager feet skid to a stop when the boys discover county dump trucks backing up to the pool. The trucks pour hot asphalt where the water used to be. Rather than allow blacks to swim in the pool, the county has tarred it over. "I didn't want to swim in this old pool anyway," the white narrator offers bravely. "I did," replies his friend. "I wanted to swim in this pool. I want to do everything you do."

The title Freedom Summer refers to a movement organized by civil rights workers to register black voters in Mississippi. Even children, who might have been blissfully unaware of tensions before, began to notice the dangers of open friendships between the races.

As you discuss this book, you may want to ask
  • Why are these two boys friends? What qualities do you look for in a friend?
  • Do the changes happening around the two boys strengthen their friendship, or weaken it? Explain.
  • John Henry and his older brother, Will, are both black, yet his brother is part of the crew that fills the pool with asphalt. Why would Will choose to do that? How does he feel about it? How do we know?
  • What else could the county have done about the pool situation?
  • Does this book contain any heroes? What makes a person heroic?
The Other Side

A terrific comparison book to Freedom Summer is The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, with illustrations by E. B. Lewis. Students can compare the two protagonists of this book (two girls, one white, one black) with the two boys of Freedom Summer.
  • How were they alike? Different? 
  • How did the children in each book react to the changing times? 
  • What part did adults play in each book? 
  • In The Other Side, Mama says, "Because that's the way things have always been." Is a similar sentiment expressed in Freedom Summer? What evidence is presented in both books that times are now changing? 
  • In The Other Side, what is the fence meant to represent? Is there a similar symbol in Freedom Summer
  • Do the books seem to contain the same message?
  • See the lesson plan at Learning to Give for more activities and extensions. At that same site, another lesson plan on trust also uses The Other Side as a reference.
Below are three more titles you might want to consider as companion books in this discussion of the Civil Rights Movement:

The School is Not White: A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement

In 1965, seven children from one family signed up to attend an all-white school in Mississippi. Although school segregation had been declared illegal eleven years earlier, the schools in Drew, Mississippi were still separated by race, with black schools being far inferior in facilities and supplies.

Unlike the victory in Greensboro which was achieved in less than a year, the ordeal of the Carter family lasted much longer. "Every day, for five years, the children suffered constant humiliations, name-calling, and death threats." Even those white children brave enough to reach out to the Carters were chastised by teachers at the school. Read the story of their unbelievable bravery and ultimate triumph in The School is Not White: A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement, by Doreen Rappaport, with illustrations by Curtis James.

Rosa's Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights

Rosa's Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights chronicles the life story of bus #2857 from its birth in the General Motors Corporation factory in Pontiac Michigan to its brush with junkyard oblivion. Author Jo S. Kittinger provides a unique perspective on the oft-told story of Rosa Parks, and the book as a whole explains the Southern way of life circa 1955. Governed by Jim Crow laws, both black and white folks simply resign themselves to the situation, saying "That's just the way things were." Until Rosa, of course, refuses to give up her seat. Simple yet powerful illustrations by Steven Walker.

Download some comprehension questions written by the author herself.

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation

You might want to compare Rosa's Bus to Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. If you're seeking books to help students understand the concepts of boycott and nonviolent resistance, these two are perfect. Use the following questions to help students debrief:
  • What are the basic facts given in each book?
  • How does each book present those facts?
  • Why did the writer and author of each book choose their unique approach?
  • Where did each book begin? Where did each end?
  • What message can we take away from each book?
  • What questions are left unanswered?
  • Check out the Boycott Blues Teaching Guide at Harper Collins Children's Books.
Teaching Resource 

If you're looking for a teacher reference, or a book appropriate for readers in grades 6 and up, I can recommend none more highly than A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Well organized by year and event, with plenty of period photographs, this is the book that will help you answer all of your students questions (and your own!) about this tumultuous and important time in our nation's history Author Diane McWhorter provides fact in a beautiful tapestry that reads like a story, full of real-life human beings whose individual stories form the larger transformation that we call The Civil Rights Movement.

Web Links for Exploring the Civil Rights Movement

(some links inactive)


Lindsey said...

i love that i came across this blog! i love picture books and i can't get enough of them. my first graders LOVE them too! :)

Janice said...

Great post, Keith! I see we admire some of the same picture books. I've featured Carole Boston Weatherford in my latest post, the second of which features great African-American authors/illustrators. You can see it at

Keith Schoch said...

Dave and Linds: Thanks for coming by! Love your enthusiasm!
Janice: I think your blog and mine were separated at birth; so many like thoughts on books!

Jen Vincent said...

I just read Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and was really touched by it. Excellent artwork by Kadir Nelson. Also, recently read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phililp Hoose that was interesting. :)

Keith Schoch said...

Love Henry's Freedom Box! A student purchased it for me a couple years ago (thanks, Olan).

The other title I haven't heard of; I'll need to check it out.

Thanks for checking in!

Jenny at American History said...

Hi Keith,
This is my first visit to your blog, but I will definitely be coming back.
I work at the National Museum of American History, and we're really excited that you're enjoying our resources. We have a great Civil Rights collection, and it's a topic we think is really relevant for the classroom. And on a personal note, I wrote the OurStory activities you mentioned, so I'm especially appreciative of your compliments on those resources.
Also, I wanted to let you know that there is a super crisp (shot in HD) non-YouTube version of the Join the Student Sit-Ins video (halfway down this page If a teacher works where YouTube is blocked, try steaming these videos. We've also divided them into "acts" and have a teacher guide with suggested prompt questions (
Again, thanks for using our resources.

Keith Schoch said...

Jenny- I was really impressed by the OurStory resources! Sometimes the "resources" provided at sites are just busywork for students, but your stuff really extends the learning experience, as well as the value of the related books. Teachers feel like they've unearthed treasure when they see guides like these, and I guess, in a way, they have! Thanks for checking in.

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

Great post!! Thanks for sharing these titles!

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Carrie! Some of my favorites here as well.

Jeff Barger said...

Keith, this is a terrific post. I have posted a link on NC Teacher Stuff. Thanks for the resources!

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Jeff!

theartofpuro said...

Always a great moment to come here and discover all these great titles:)

Alexandra Thiessen said...

Fabulous blog! Just discovered it. I will definitely be using many of the books you featured in my classroom!!!!!!


Ashley said...

Keith, I am completing a 10 day unit on the Civil Rights Movement for sixth graders, and your blog was just the thing I needed to find some more great resources. Thanks!