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Common Core Standards and Black History Month
A Thematic Guide to Black History in Literature and Informational Texts for Middle School Educators
By Pat Scales
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Black History Month is a time when all Americans celebrate the rich African American culture in our society. It was Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian, who began a weeklong celebration, called Negro History Week, in 1926 as a way to honor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Now schools, libraries, churches, and communities find special ways to honor the contributions of African Americans during the month of February. One of the best ways to celebrate is by reading books by and about African Americans. Virginia Hamilton's works are among the many children's books that call upon readers to think about slavery, freedom, and heritage. Through her stories, she instills cultural pride, as well as a sense of family and the importance of friendship. Black History Month is a time to help young readers realize that these universal themes transcend race and that through the power of story, all races are truly united.
Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, conveys the vibrancy of Harlem, a New York neighborhood that claims artists such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Aaron Douglas, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, and Miles Davis. Set during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the period illustrations and rhythmic text celebrate writers and entertainers who have defined African American culture.
Set in 1854, Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave is a nonfiction work by Virginia Hamilton that chronicles the story of twenty-year-old Anthony Burns, an obscure Virginia slave, as he escapes the Suttle plantation and makes his way to Boston where he hopes to gain freedom. Though most people in Massachusetts are against slavery and are sympathetic to Anthony, the Fugitive Slave Act states that a runaway can legally be captured in a free state. Burns is jailed and tried in Boston, but ultimately makes it to Canada. He suffered an untimely death at the age of twenty-eight, but earned his way into the history books as one who became a symbol of freedom for many slaves.
In The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, Thomas Small turns thirteen on the very day his family moves into the Dies Drear house in Ohio. Mr. Small, a historian, has taken a new position at a local college and is excited about the idea of living in the home of a former abolitionist. Thomas isn't so sure about the move given some strange occurrences in and around the house. What is the meaning of the triangles left on the floor for the Smalls to find? Is the house haunted? Who is the caretaker who lives in a cave, and what is he up to? When Thomas meets Pesty Darrow, the adopted daughter of a neighbor, the strange events gets weirder and Thomas, along with his father, sets out to find answers.
The Mystery of Drear House is the sequel and conclusion to The House of Dies Drear. The Darrows believe that there is gold on the Dies Drear land, and they are determined to make the discovery. They must first make the Smalls so uncomfortable in the "haunted" house that they will leave. It doesn't occur to them that Mr. Small may actually know about the gold. In a strange turn of events, Mr. Small, with the help of Mr. Pluto, outsmarts his neighbors and a surprising friendship unfolds.
M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton is set on Sarah's Mountain in the heart of Appalachia. Fifteen- year-old Mayo Cornelius (M.C.) Higgins understands his father's deep desire to preserve his family's rich heritage on the land where his grandmother, a runaway slave, found freedom, but things are changing. Now everything is at risk as the remains of strip mining threatens to destroy the Higgins' home and the surrounding area. When two different strangers offer propositions that could change the Higgins family, M.C. is faced with a dilemma: Does he fight for his family's land, or does he encourage his family to leave?
In Zeely, Virginia Hamilton's first novel, Elizabeth and her brother, John, spend the summer with Uncle Ross on his farm just as they have in previous summers. Since this is the first summer the two have traveled alone by train, Elizabeth, who has the gift of a vivid imagination, decides they should have nicknames—Geeder and Toeboy. There are many things to like about the farm: sleeping outside under the stars, attending bonfires at a neighboring farm, and drinking cool water straight from a pump. When Geeder sees Zeely, tall and regal, strolling down the road at daybreak, she is convinced that the woman is a Watutsi queen. But Geeder's idea of queen changes after a conversation with Zeely reveals that she is simply a pig herder. Uncle Ross and Toeboy note a change in Geeder when she appears at dinner in a dress, and she knows that there are plenty of changes happening on the inside as well.
Read aloud and discuss the meaning of "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173467). Who is the we in the poem? Take into consideration that the poem was first published in 1896. How does the poem reflect the racial climate of the time? What does the mask hide? What does it reveal? Have students write a brief response about the importance of this poem in African American history.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Key Ideas & Details RL. 6-8.1; Craft & Structure RL. 6-8.4; Language: Knowledge of Language L. 6-8.3; Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.1.
The Mystery Writers of America awarded Virginia Hamilton an Edgar Allan Poe Award (an "Edgar") for The House of Dies Drear. Discuss the significance of the award. How is the mystery in the novel solved in The Mystery of Drear House? What other mysteries might the tunnels hold? How does mystery play a role in the conflicts of M.C. Higgins, the Great and Zeely?
Explain Thomas Small's dream at the beginning of The House of Dies Drear. Debate whether it foreshadows events to come. How does Geeder's imagination in Zeely resemble a dream?
Family plays an important role in Hamilton's works of fiction. Compare and contrast the Higgins family in M.C. Higgins, the Great with the Small family in The House of Dies Drear and The Mystery of Drear House. Describe Thomas Small's relationship with his father. How does it change as the mystery is unveiled? What is M.C. Higgins's relationship with his father? Identify the major conflict between the father and son. Describe the Darrow family in The House of Dies Drear and The Mystery of Drear House. What is the nature of the father's influence on the children? Debate whether their mother's mental illness causes struggle within the family. Discuss what the illustrations of Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood say about family life in Harlem.
Extended family is celebrated in many of Hamilton's works. How does the presence of Thomas Small's great-grandmother contribute to the plot and ultimate solution to the mystery in The Mystery of Drear House? Discuss how Mr. Pluto becomes part of the Small family. What is Uncle Ross's role in Zeely?
Why does M.C. Higgins keep his friendship with Ben Killburn a secret? Explain what might happen if their friendship were revealed. How does this change by the end of the novel? How does Ben make M.C. feel bigger and stronger? Describe the friendship that develops between Thomas Small and Pesty Darrow in The House of Dies Drear. Trace the relationship between Thomas Small and Mr. Pluto from the beginning of The House of Dies Drear to the end of The Mystery of Drear House.
Many of Hamilton's characters are loners. How is being a loner different from being lonely? Identify the loners in each of Hamilton's fictional works. At what point in Zeely does Geeder feel lonely? Debate other characters that might suffer from loneliness. How do they handle their loneliness?
Heritage is important in all of Hamilton's works. Discuss Mr. Pluto and Mr. Small's desire to preserve heritage in The House of Dies Drear and The Mystery of Drear House. Why does Mayhew Skinner resent his father's interest in heritage? How does pride in heritage contribute to the conflict in M.C. Higgins, the Great? Explain how Uncle Ross's farm is about heritage in Zeely. Take a look at Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood. How do the characters mentioned in the book contribute to a rich African American heritage? Discuss how pride in one's heritage is important.
Discuss the symbolism of the following: the "night traveller" in Zeely, the forty-foot pole and the ravine in M.C. Higgins, the Great, and the mask and the triangles in The House of Dies Drear. Debate the symbolism of the tale that Zeely tells Geeder. How does Anthony Burns become a symbol of freedom?
In M.C. Higgins, the Great, the dude proposes to change the fate of the Higgins family. Debate the motive behind his proposal. Discuss how meeting Zeely changes Geeder. Explain what Geeder means when she says that Zeely is "the best kind" of queen. How does Thomas Small change in The House of Dies Drear and The Mystery of Drear House? Who is most responsible for his change?
Explain the concept of the Underground Railroad. What is Anthony Burns's underground route in Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave? How about M.C. Higgins's great- grandmother Sarah? Compare and contrast the danger that all the slaves faced as they journeyed north. Explain the role of Dies Drear in helping slaves to freedom.
Anthony Burns displays courage when he flees Virginia in search of freedom in Massachusetts. From whom did he gain his courage? At what point does fear almost overtake his courage? How does Anthony Burns's courageous struggle earn him an important place in African American history?
Explain how Anthony's idea of freedom changes when he gets to Boston. What is the allure of Canada? Why does Anthony feel that his place is in Canada? Zeely Tayber is from Canada; brainstorm possible reasons why she and her family chose to leave Canada and come to the United States.
Setting refers to time and place. Contrast the time period of Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave with those of The House of Dies Drear, The Mystery of Drear House, Zeely, and Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood. Explain how the Underground Railroad paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Key Ideas & Details RL. 6-8.1, 6-8.2, 6-8.3; Craft & Structure RL. 6-8.6; Speaking & Listening: Comprehension & Collaboration SL. 6-8.1, 6-8.2, 6-8.3; Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas SL. 6-8.4, 6-8.6; Language: Conventions of Standard English L. 6-8.1; Reading Informational Text: Key Ideas & Details RI. 6-8.1, 6-8.2, 6-8.3.
Writers often create stories from what they know. Ask students to locate biographical information about Virginia Hamilton (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/biography/) and write an essay that discusses how her childhood is woven into either Zeely, M.C. Higgins, the Great, or The House of Dies Drear. Encourage peer editing for spelling, grammar, and clarity.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.1; Production & Distribution of Writing W. 6-8.4, 6-8.5; Research to Build & Present Knowledge W. 6-8.7.
Ask students to select a paragraph in which the characters speak in dialect in each of Hamilton's works. Compare and contrast how Thomas Small, M.C. Higgins, and Anthony Burns speak. Then ask students to rewrite their selected paragraphs in Standard English. How does this change the authenticity of the books? Allow time in class for students to share their paragraphs orally.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Key Ideas & Details RL. 6- 8.3.
In Zeely, Elizabeth and her brother travel by train to spend the summer with Uncle Ross on his farm. This is the first time they have traveled alone. Elizabeth, who calls herself Geeder, has a vivid imagination. Write a letter that she might write to a friend that describes the train ride and the characters they meet along the way. Allow time for students to read aloud their writing in class.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.3; Language: Knowledge of Language L. 6-8.3.
Ask students to explain the difference between third-person limited and third- person omniscient points of view. What is the point of view in each of Hamilton's works? Have students select a favorite passage from one of the novels and rewrite it in first person. How does this change the way the characters and events are revealed?
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Craft & Structure RL. 6-8.4.
Virginia Hamilton is known for her poetic style of writing. She uses simile, metaphor, and personification to illuminate her writing. In Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood, Carole Boston Weatherford uses rhyme, rhythm, and figurative language to bring to life the Harlem Renaissance. Explain the meaning of the following:
Simile: "In the morning, she was mad as a bull at having fallen asleep and had no recollection of the dream." (Zeely)
Metaphor: "And give them wings to touch the sky." (Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood)
Personification: "A sudden gust of wind made the trees moan before it died." (M.C. Higgins, the Great)
Have students find other examples of figurative language in Hamilton and Weatherford's works. Then have students write a simile that describes Thomas's great-grandmother's reaction to the moving wall in The Mystery of Drear House; a metaphor that explains Anthony Burns's decision to go to Canada; and, personification when Geeder sees the night traveller in Zeely.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Craft & Structure RL. 6-8.4.
A ballad is a poetic narrative often set to music. Ask students to use books in the library and sites on the Internet to find an example of a ballad. Have them share it in class and discuss why the work fits the genre. Then divide the class into small groups and ask them to use the knowledge they gained from reading Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave and write a six-stanza ballad about Anthony Burns. Allow them to perform it as a choral reading or sing it to the tune of a familiar ballad.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Reading: Literature: Key Ideas & Details RL. 6-8.1; Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.3; Speaking & Listening: Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas SL. 6-8.4, 6- 8.6.
Ask students to use books in the library or sites on the Internet to find out how many slaves managed to escape to the North with and without the aid of the Underground Railroad. Have students construct a bar graph that compares these two figures.
Correlates to Common Core Standards in Language Arts in Writing: Research to Build & Present Knowledge W. 6- 8.7.
Music plays an important role in Hamilton's work. Anthony Burns often preached to the slaves on the plantation in Virginia while they sang "sorrow songs." Pesty Darrow sings in church in The House of Dies Drear; Banina Higgins, M.C.'s mother, sings in M.C. Higgins, the Great; and Geeder wishes she could play music to fill the room in Zeely.
Divide the class into small groups and instruct each group to research African American songs from one period, anytime from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. Ask each group to perform at least three songs and offer an oral narrative about the meaning of the songs and what they reveal about African American history.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.3; Speaking & Listening: Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas SL. 6-8.4, 6-8.6; Writing: Research to Build & Present Knowledge W. 6-8.7.
Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the works of Virginia Hamilton. Then ask students to pick a chapter in the book and write it as a one-act play. Open the play with a work from one of the artists mentioned in Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood. For example, the group working with Zeely might create a dance in the style of the Nicholas Brothers, or students working with M.C. Higgins, the Great might paint a backdrop in the style of Faith Ringgold.
Correlates to Common Core Language Arts Standards in Writing: Text Types & Purposes W. 6-8.3; Production & Distribution of Writing W. 6-8.4; Speaking & Listening: Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas SL. 6-8.5.
Excerpted from Common Core Standards and Black History Month by Pat Scales. Copyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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