NOTE TO TEACHERS
A Message From the Author
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 is the story of an ordinary family, but a family caught in an important moment in American history. By telling the story through the eyes of ten-year-old Kenny, I hope the book can be a tool for teachers to help students understand that history does not happen to strangers but to people just like them.
What a thrill the publication of The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963 has been for me! I've been asked many times what the highlight of this experience has been and I don't have to think at all before answering. It occurred on February 15, 1996 at a reception given by the Flint Public Library when, to my complete surprise and delight, I was introduced by my third-grade teacher, Ms. Suzanne Henry. It wasn't the fact that in her introduction she gave me a gold star and told everyone that I was Room C's "Good Citizen of the Day" that affected me so--it was the surprise I felt on realizing that she had always been such an important and powerful part of my life. I hadn't seen Ms. Henry for more than 35 years, and I had spent only nine months of my life with her when I was 7 or 8--yet as she told everyone gathered in the library how proud of me she was, I found myself near tears.
What is it about some teachers that leaves such an impression? Why have I carried Ms. Henry and Mr. Alums and Mr. Nash and Ms. Davidson around with me for all of these years? I think children have a sixth sense about unconditional love and understanding and subconsciously store that feeling and thrive on it. With the sometime exception of family, that feeling of being deeply cared about comes earliest and most indelibly from teachers.
I'm thrilled that this book can be used in the classroom as teachers have always been such an important and powerful part of my life. I am honored and proud if I have in some way made the profession of teaching easier. Your gold star will be worn proudly on my forehead next to Ms. Henry's.
Christopher Paul Curtis
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Introducting The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, a hilarious, touching, and tragic novel about the civil rights movement and its impact on one African American family.
Teachers coast to coast have embraced the critically acclaimed book that has already been nominated to 18 state award lists!
Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, The Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who's 13 and an "official juvenile delinquent."
When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other.
They're heading south to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.
In the Classroom
Using The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 in the Classroom
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 easily lends itself to various teaching styles and strategies. This guide suggests interdisciplinary connections to science, history, and geography, and provides instructional strategies (via reading and writing activities) that will allow you and your students to explore the basic elements of the novel: character, setting, plot, and theme. Students will identify naturally with the Watson children as they get to know them and will reflect on their own peer interactions. We hope you will find this guide useful in introducing your class to Christopher Paul Curtis' The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963.
Suggested Classroom Activities
Recreate the period of the novel, having students list what they know about the early 1960s (how people dressed, the mood of the country, people who were in the news, music that was popular, etc.). Then have them create a time line of events that took place from 1960-1970 so a historical connection can be made to the time during which this novel takes place. Ask who has records or tapes of 1960s music (especially African American music) that can be shared with the class. Later compare the music that has been brought in to music mentioned in the novel.
Humor--Humor is woven throughout the book. Examples include Byron's lips getting stuck to the side mirror of the car (pages 12-14), Daniel mimicking Moses Henderson (pages 4-5), and Byron's frozen people story (pages 51-54). Have students reread what they feel is the funniest passage. Then have them write a funny passage they would like to add to this novel. Artwork can be added and pages laminated and bound into a book.
Friendship -- Kenny becomes a real friend of Rufus, but realizes that he has damaged their relationship the moment he joins in laughing at Rufus on the bus (pages 43-46). Have students write about a situation in which they slighted someone without just cause, how they felt afterward, and what they did about it. How does Kenny's acknowledgment of his injustice help to correct it (page 45)?
Family and Relationships (Siblings) -- Have students compare and contrast the three Watson children by using a Venn Diagram or a web. What are the class's impressions of the three? How would you describe Kenny and Byron's relationship? How do Kenny and Byron change in the course of the novel (especially after the church bombing)? Have students write about their own sibling relationships and compare them to the ones depicted in the novel.
(Parental) Byron's mother threatens to set him on fire if he continues to play with matches (pages 66-74). This is an unbelievable punishment that she almost carries out. Was Byron's mother correct to choose such a harmful punishment? Was she bluffing to frighten Byron? How would it be viewed today? What should she have done?
Getting along with others -- Have students examine Kenny's passage about bullying (pages 58-63) and discuss alternatives to bullying. When should mediation intervene? How do you avoid such situations? See if the class can brainstorm to develop solutions.
History (Civil Rights)–Life in 1963 was quite different for African Americans than it is today, especially in the South. The '60s were turbulent times in America. After reading the novel, have students find inferences that blacks and whites were treated differently (pages 5-6). Check reference books in the school media center for historical details of the Birmingham church bombing and look for the names of the young girls listed on the “In Memory of” page. Probe the question raised by Kenny (p. 199), “Why would they hurt some little kids like that?” Have students create a class book on What America Was Like When the Watsons Went to Birmingham in 1963.
Language/Language Arts–Kenny often refers to his mother and father as “talking Southern.” Consult your media center to secure tapes of language patterns of various regions. Have students tape-record the speech of relatives with regional accents. Provide a preset passage for each speaker to read. In a listening activity, play the tapes for your students and see if they can detect the different speech patterns.
Geography–Wilona plans to discuss all the states she and her family drive through on their trip from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama. Use pushpins and yarn to chart the trip on a class map, down I-75 beginning in Flint and ending in Birmingham. Have students research each state that the family passes through and the major cities along I-75. Discuss what the Watsons might have seen.
Science–Throughout the novel there is a continuous discussion among family members about the merits of Michigan and Birmingham winters. As the novel opens, Kenny describes the day as being “a zillion degrees below zero” (p. 1). In a funny episode, Byron gets his lips stuck to the side-view mirror of the car in subzero weather. Discuss what could have caused Byron’s lips to stick to the mirror. How does skin freeze to ice? Have a dialogue with students about some of the properties of water–i.e., its freezing point being 320 F (00 C) and its expansion as it freezes. Have students conduct the following simple activities:
The Sticking Ice Tray–Needed: a tray of ice just out of the freezer. Note that the tray will stick to your fingers. Here’s why: If the tray and ice cubes are below the freezing point of water, the warmth of the hand will melt a thin layer of frost. Then, as the hand is cooled, the layer of water will freeze again. It is possible that the hand or finger can freeze so tightly to the tray that a little skin is torn as it is pulled loose.
Freeze with Fingers–Needed: two ice cubes. Press the cubes together, one flat surface tightly against the other. They will freeze together. Here’s why: The increase in pressure lowers the melting point and some of the ice melts where they are in contact; then the water freezes again as the pressure is reduced.