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Teaching Guide: Exploring The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. In chapter fourteen Kenny says, “I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching, I walked past people squeezing each other and shaking. I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go. I walked past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds coming out.” What does the author’s use of repetition reveal about the aftermath of the bombing? How were people impacted by the event? Consider the evidence presented in Federal the FBI records regarding the bombing (page fifteen). What do we learn about the aftermath of the bombing from this document? If you illustrated the scene using Kenny’s description and evidence from the FBI report, what would the scene look like? (Illustrate the aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Church Bombing as an additional activity.)
  2. What are the similarities and differences between the experiences of Emmett Till, as described in FBI records regarding the murder of Emmett Till, and Kenny? How was the Mississippi Delta similar to Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement? In what ways did the southern journeys of Emmett Till and Kenny affect their childhood innocence?
  3. In what ways does Martin Luther King Jr. use rhetorical strategies in “Letter From a Birmingham City Jail” to engage his audience? For example, in what ways would King’s audience have been affected by the rhetoric of statements such as, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? How does King’s letter reflect the sentiments expressed in the Epilogue of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963? What were strategies used by civil rights activists to end racial injustice? What were the risks all civil rights activists had to face?

Classroom activities

  1. The Civil Rights Movement Station Activity: This activity will be useful in frontloading information about the setting and conflict of the novel; therefore it would be most effective before students read the novel. Teachers can set up various learning stations using the primary sources in this set. Students should spend at least ten minutes at each station to engage with the resources, respond to teacher created questions, and develop their own insights. Some recommendations for organizing the stations are:
    • Station 1 The History of the Oppression of African Americans: At this station students can read the letter to President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham City Jail” and create a list of historical injustices that African Americans have experienced, especially in the South. Students can then use their findings in a discussion about the motivation behind the Birmingham civil rights protests.
    • Station 2 School Segregation: At this station students can read the legal complaint in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and begin to unpack the legal history of segregation. Students should identify the key components of the Fourteenth Amendment, explain how school segregation was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and define the role of Plessy v. Ferguson in the school segregation debate.
    • Station 3 Alabama and the Civil Rights Movement: At this station students can closely examine the severity of the racial turmoil in Alabama. They should read the description that accompanies the image of Alabama Governor George Wallace, they should watch the news clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the news clip of President John F. Kennedy, as well as read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” Students should be able to explain why Alabama was considered the most racist state in the country in the early 1960s during that era.
    • Station 4 The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing: Students should examine the images of the church and critically analyze the FBI’s examination of the church bombing. Students should closely read the letters in the file that suggest that the pastor of the church, as well as the Nation of Islam, should be considered as possible perpetrators.
    • Station 5 Youth Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement: The assorted newspaper clippings on school segregation serve as an excellent resource for students to examine the ways in which young people advocated for their rights during the civil rights era. Students should identify the obstacles young people faced, as well as the successes they had, and the reasons for those successes.

Once students have completed station activities, ask them to make predictions about what the novel will be about. Show students different covers for The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, and ask them to make connections between the images on the covers and the information they learned from the station activities.

  1. Writing Prompt: In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” King states, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. . . Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” Write an expository essay in which you respond to the following questions: How does this quotation relate to Kenny’s experience with the church bombing? How is Kenny impacted by the injustice that occurs in Alabama? How does the trauma of the bombing “follow” the Watsons back to Flint, Michigan? Consider Kenny’s behavior and his discussion with Byron in chapter fifteen, “The World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital.”

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