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the civil rights movement in american literature: activity ideas

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Note to Teachers: The first five activities are designed for students in grades 3-5. Two or three book suggestions are included in each activity. The first book in the list is at a lower reading level than the second or third. You also may choose other books in order to adjust the activities to your students' reading level.

  1. Portrait of the Main Character

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Social Studies


    • Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison
    • Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers

    Discuss the rights students have in the classroom, in the school, in the family and how they achieved those rights. How do they keep or lose the rights or privileges they have in their life and how does it make them feel when they lose some of their rights and privileges. Then discuss what are civil rights (the rights of full citizenship and equality under the law). Make a list of some of the civil rights people in the United States have and discuss whether all people have always had them (You could also introduce the Bill of Rights at this time). What does it mean to have or not have civil rights? Rights such as voting, housing rights, to be able to go to school are ones students may relate to at this age.

    Discuss how schools were when they were segregated and that some schools had more than others. Many students were not treated fairly, and had to overcome many obstacle to get an education.

    Two excellent books are Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers, a biography suitable for younger students, and Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison, a fictional account of the children who lived during the era of segregated schools. Read one or both of the books (or sections) to the class. Talk about the feeling the students have as they listen or read the books.

    Choose a character from the book. Students will draw only the face of the character.

    First teach the students how to draw a face. Draw an oval and divide that oval into half both vertically and horizontally. Next, draw the eyes on the horizontal line on either side of the vertical line. Then again divide the bottom half in half and draw the nose and ears. Divide the bottom in half and draw the mouth. Put the hair on the top half. Remind students to make the face look something like their character, but do not worry about their drawing. Students should think about the five senses and what the main character saw, heard, smelled and said in the book. Have them draw lines from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and write what their character was seeing, hearing, etc, in the book. Then make a cartoon bubble over the head and write what the character was feeling by the end of the book. Students can repeat this activity with their own face and their own senses in a situation where they have felt prejudice or discrimination.

    Online Resources

    WayBack - Stand Up For Your Rights:

    American Experience - Malcolm X:

    This Far By Faith - The Black Arts Movement:

    African American World:

    Voices of Civil Rights:

    Print Resources

    The Civil Rights Movement by Peter B. Levey
    The Civil Rights Movement for Kids by Mary C. Truck

    More Recommended Resources

  2. Footsteps

    Grade Levels: 3-5
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts; The Arts


    • Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues by Harriette Gillem Robinet
    • Take A Walk In Their Shoes by Glennette Tilley Turner
    • They Had a Dream: The Civil Rights Struggle from Frederick Douglas to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X by Jules Archer

    "Take a walk in my shoes" is an old American Indian saying that students can discuss before the beginning of the project or reading the recommended books below.

    Have the students make a list of all the groups they belong to in their life, such as family, classroom, soccer team, friends, etc. Ask what makes them a group (born into it, similar interests, skills, etc). Ask if there are different people in the groups and what makes each group different. Discuss what is are good aspects of belonging to a group such as friendship and loyalty. Talk about what some of the negative aspects of groups are such as exclusion of others.

    Stereotyping is often a hard concept for young children to understand. Start by making a list of characteristic of certain types of people: an athlete, a good student, a "real" American, a dancer, a teacher etc. Then discuss if these are always true and what are some of the dangers in putting people into groups.

    Talk about times in their lives when they have felt left out of a group and why they think that happened and how did that make them feel.

    Use the following books with this activity: Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues by Harriette Gillem Robinet Take A Walk In Their Shoes by Glennette Tilley Turner and They Had a Dream: The Civil Rights Struggle from Frederick Douglas to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X by Jules Archer. Brainstorm some of the challenges the characters in these books faced. Ask students if the characters felt included or left out of certain groups.

    After this discussion, have the students outline both of their feet on a piece of construction paper and cut them out. On one of the footsteps, write down or illustrate an important event, or challenge in the book when the character experienced either exclusion or inclusion from a group. On the other footstep explain some event or challenge that the student has faced when they felt included or excluded from a group. Display the pair of footsteps around the room.

    Online Resources

    WayBack - Stand Up For Your Rights:

    African American World - Race and Society:

    Civil Rights Movement Veterans:

    More Recommended Resources

  3. Graphing Highs and Lows of Different Characters

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts; The Arts


    • Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America by Sharon Robinson
    • The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
    • The Return of Gabriel by John Armistead

    Write the word "bias" on the board and define it. You can be biased about many things such as the type of food to eat or books you like to read. Have students generate their own list of items or things that they are biased about.

    Now write the work prejudices and define it for students. Let them know that everyone has prejudices. Again make a class list of prejudice that you or your students may have in the classroom (do not be judgmental and write items down that students name and then you can discuss them later).

    Choose two main characters of a book and assign a different color to each one. Make a list of ten major events in the story (looking for times when they faced challenges that show discrimination, racism, biases, and prejudices these characters faced).

    Create a graph and choose two words such as strong/weak or happy/sad, or courageous/scared. Put one word at the top and one at the bottom on the left side of the graph. On the bottom of the graph write the ten events students have chosen from the book. Then plot the feelings of each character in a different color as they go through the events of the book (can also be done with the lives of the students). Then talk about why the characters had those feeling at that time. You might also talk about what might have changed in society today, and if the characters would have the same graph today as in the past.

    Online Resources

    WayBack - Stand Up For Your Rights:

    Teaching Tolerance:

    Print Resources

    Women of the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965 by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, editors
    Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement With the People Who Made it Happen. by Linda Barrett Osborne

    More Recommended Resources

  4. Acrostic Poems

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts


    • If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King by Ellen Levine or
    • Black Eagles: African Americans in Aviation by Jim Haskins

    Discuss with your students how it takes courage to become what you want to in life, and that you need to think and act in ways that make you and the people around you proud. Sometimes that is standing up for what you want and sometimes it means compromising your needs. Have students give examples in their lives when they had to do both of stand- up or compromise on something important to them.

    Depending on which book you read and how it is read, either as a class or small group, discuss the ways the students are the same and different from the characters they have read about. Talk about the ways the characters needed to stand up for what they wanted and when they needed to compromise on something gain harmony for a group.

    Teach students what an acrostic poem is (taking the first letter of a name or word and making it into a poem) and then create a classroom or small group acrostic poem for words such as same, different, and/or compromise.

    Some people
    Make sure
    Everyone get to play!

    As students read their books, have them come up with words to go along with a character, the plot, and/or a concept of the book for their poem. They could also illustrate the poem as well.

    Example: Taken from the book Black Eagles: African Americans in Aviation by Jim Haskins. Bessie Colman was the first back American women pilot received her license on June 15, 1921.

    Believed she could fly
    Everywhere in the
    Surrounding the
    Islands and the
    Equator of the earth and
    Old and new
    Lands. An
    Eagle flying

    Online Resources

    WayBack - Stand Up For Your Rights:

    PBS Parents - Sharing Poetry:

    Acrostic Poems for Children:

    Acrostic Poems:

    Print Resources

    Mother Teresa: In My Own Words by MotherTeresa
    Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography by Kathryn Spink

    More Recommended Resources

  5. Finger Paint Emotions

    Grade Levels: 3-5
    Subjects: The Arts; Reading & Language Arts


    • The March on Washington by Jim Haskin
    • Mississippi Trial 1955by Chris Crowe

    Discuss color with your students, specifically what colors come to mind when they think about emotions such as love, hate, fear, sad, happy, excited, stress, etc. Discuss the words discrimination, racism, bias, and prejudice. What colors and emotions do these words make them see in their minds?

    Pass out finger paint paper and distribute finger paint in a variety of colors. Have students experiment with color and design using the events and characters' emotions from one of the recommended books that illicit a strong response.

    Have students choose specific words from their reading that best demonstrate these emotions or examples of discrimination, racism, biases, and prejudices. Either write or type the words large enough to read from a distance, and paste them on their picture in different areas.

    After students have finished their paintings, have them write a letter to the character or author of the selected book to explain the class project, why they chose the colors, design, and words they did, and how the book made them think differently about civil rights and discrimination. The students may then present their paintings to the rest of the class. (This activity works well with all ages of students).

    Online Resources

    WayBack - Stand Up For Your Rights:

    African American World - Race and Society:

    Civil Rights Movement Veterans:

    More Recommended Resources

  6. The Power of Great Speeches

    Grade Level: 6-8; 9-12
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    The power of speechmaking by leaders prominent during the Civil Rights Movement cannot be understated. Historic speeches both promoted and rallied against equality. There were those who articulately supported the movement, promoting freedom and equal opportunity. Others were vehemently against giving rights to people of color, and publicly stated so. The speeches were carefully crafted language used to inspire, empower, enrage or, as A. Phillip Randolph stated, to "to arouse the conscience of our land." One might consider these speeches as literary pieces in their own right.

    Have students read and/or listen to the following speeches (either in small groups or as a class):

    Instruct students to analyze the speeches, referring to the following criteria:

    • Who has made the speech?
    • Who is the orator's intended audience?
    • What is the purpose of the speech? What is its primary message?
    • What aspect(s) of the Civil Rights Movement does the speech address?
    • What does the speaker encourage the audience to do and/or consider?
    • Is the speaker pro Civil Rights? Anti Civil Rights?
    • Whom is the speaker supporting or advocating for? Or rallying against?
    • What type of language does the speaker use to convey his or her message?
    • What was the impact of the speech? Or, how do you think the intended audience and other listeners received and reacted to the speech?

    (If students have listened and/or read the speeches as a class, they can comparatively analyze them.)

    Invite students to assume the actual role of leaders who played an important role during the Civil Rights Movement. (Or, they may take on fictitious roles.) Ask them to take a stance regarding equal rights and to write and present a speech that, in the voice of the actual or fictitious figure. (If the former, students will need to conduct research about the individual and read existing speeches, if any, to understand the person's character, thoughts and position.) Students should present their rehearsed speeches to one another.

    Online Resources

    American Experience - Citizen King: Primary Sources:

    Civil Rights:

    Print Resources

    A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King
    Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by Malcolm X and George Breitman

    More Recommended Resources

  7. Voices of Experience: Civil Rights through Oral History

    Grade Level: 6-8; 9-12
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    The impact, struggles and successes of the Civil Rights Movement are probably best understood through those who lived and breathed this historic period. Oral histories are important and poignant vehicles for recording this first-hand experience.

    Explain to or discuss with students what an oral history is and does. The following description from the Oral History Society offers this definition:

    • Oral history is the recording of people's memories. It is the living history of everyone's unique life experiences.
    • Oral history records people's experiences on sound and videotape. It is a vital tool for our understanding of the recent past. No longer are we dependent only on the written word.
    • Oral history enables people who have been hidden from history to be heard, and for those interested in their past to record personal experiences and those of their families and communities.
    • Oral history is new and exciting because it is interactive: it is shared history and a rare chance to actually talk to history face to face.
    • Oral history preserves everyone's past for the future.

    Have students brainstorm, from their general knowledge of what occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, what types of stories people might tell about their experience during this timeframe. For example, what if they marched with Martin Luther King? Or were among the African American or White citizens who witnessed the integration of high schools? Or were among the influential movement leaders?

    Divide students into small groups. Distribute 2-3 oral histories to each group (each team's oral histories should also be different). If recordings accompany the oral histories, provide the online URLs and give students the opportunity to listen to them (computers and Internet access must be available, as well as relevant software, such as Real Player.). Find such oral histories at the following sites (others found in the Online Resources section):

    Students should make notes on each oral history, noting:

    • The person interviewed -- name, where he or she lived during the movement, his or her involvement, how the movement affected him or her
    • A particular event that influenced the interviewee
    • The interviewee's reactions to the period, the event
    • How the interviewee fared -- how he or she worked toward equality, how he or she became involved in the movement, how he or she survived during the movement, how he or she came out of it in the end

    Students can discuss as a class what they have learned about the Civil Rights Movement through these personal stories. They can then conduct oral histories of adults in their community who perhaps lived through these times.

    Online Resources

    The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow - Oral History Overview:

    Oral History Association:

    Civil Rights Movement:

    Civil Rights Movement Resources:
    http://cybersleuth-kids.com/sleuth/History/US_History/ ...

    Guides for Using Oral Histories with Students:

    Print Resources

    Voices of Freedom : An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s by Henry Hampton

    More Recommended Resources

  8. The Poetry of Struggle

    Grade Level: 6-8; 9-12
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    A range of poetry exists that focuses on the Civil Rights Movement. Some poems emerged during the movement itself; others came later with reflective pieces that invite people of color to remember the period during which people fought for equality. Some of the more well known poets/writers include: Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Michael Harper, Amir Baraka, and Abiodun Oyewole.

    The following are poems by some of these writers that students can analyze to determine how they reflect the Civil Rights Movement. For example, to what to people of color aspire, how are people of color treated, the status of the United States with regard to equality, pride and protest, how individuals effected change, etc.

    Students can analyze other poems reflecting the movement and create an annotated compilation of the poems. Or, they may write poems reflecting key moments in the Civil Rights movement.

    Online Resources

    NOW with Bill Moyers - Poet Naomi Shihab Nye:

    Big Apple History - Langston Hughes:

    Langston Hughes and His Poetry:

    Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement - Poetry:

    Print Resources

    The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes and Arnold Rampersad (Editor)
    Blacks by Gwendolyn brooks

    More Recommended Resources

  9. The Study of Civil Rights: Children’s Literature As a Vehicle

    Grade Level: 6-8; 9-12
    Subjects: Reading & Language Arts; Social Studies

    A myriad of children’s books focus on the Civil Rights Movement, including works centered on events that occurred during this era and the people involved, whether great leaders or ordinary individuals. Using the bibliographies in the Online Resources section, select grade 3-6 titles that are readily accessible to you (school or local library, textbooks) and make these available to students. Instruct each student to select two titles, and to read and review them. (You may also select from the titles recommended in activities 1-5 on this page.) Their reviews should include:

    • Title, author, recommended ages
    • A brief content synopsis
    • How the book reads: its level of engagement and interest, whether the story is clearly shared, what messages it delivers, if any
    • Ideas for introducing the book to young readers

    Students can compile their reviews to create an annotated bibliography for their school or local library.

    Students should then write grade 3-6 children’s book on the Civil Rights Movement, using the books they have reviewed as references and models. Brainstorm with students the various subjects about which they can write (preferably topics with which they are familiar and have studied in class.)

    Online Resources

    Top 8 Children's Books about African American Freedom Fighters:

    African-American Bibliography Books for Children:

    Books for Black History Month:

    More Recommended Resources

Published: February 2005