I was super excited when I ran across these perfect-for-middle-school English class middle grade novels set in 1955, right before and after the Emmett Till murder.
These books are perfect historical fiction, full of empathy and feeling, to show students what it was like during the Jim Crow era in Mississippi. Both align well with 8th grade CC Social Studies and ELA standards.
There I found a teaching guide of sorts, for much younger grades (not something I'd use in a middle school school classroom), but it did have a great author interview.
Caution: If you're teaching either book, you will need an introduction to the "N-word" in class, after sending home a letter to parents explaining how the author and characters use it. It is time-period (Jim Crow era) specific and is used several times (more in Stars than in Moon). Your students need to understand it should never be used outside the classroom or teacher- or parent-led book discussions. It's a great opportunity to urge parents to continue discussions of racial prejudice and fairness and justice at home. As always, you know the maturity level of your classes best and should choose the materials you feel are best to teach your district's standards and curriculum.
Set in 1955 Mississippi, after the beating death of Emmett Till, Rosa Lee Carter has to decide whether to stay in her family home, with her bullying grandmother, kind and gentle grandfather, older cousin Queen (who acts like one, despite being pregnant and not married and only 16), and her reluctant-to-talk younger brother Fred Lee, or flee her family to go to Chicago to live with an Aunt.
In the second book, Stars (which I liked better than Moon, actually), after she's made her decision to stay, she has many an honest conversation with her 16-year-old cousin, Shorty, and the local preacher's son, Hallelujah, about why she's staying, and how to be courageous in these terrifying times. She acknowledges her fears, both about being killed and about failing to live up to others' expectations.
Through it all she finds ways to uplift her family -- planting the seed of Aunt Ruthie's cake business, protesting against segregation with Hallelujah, getting Queen out of Mississippi so she can raise her baby away from Ma Pearl's black strap of terror, and bringing her father back into her and her brother's lives.
Both books lay the foundation and provide the necessary scaffolding for teaching the following 8th grade Common Core Social Studies Content Standards:
S3.C4.PO5: Describe the impact that the following had on rights for individuals and groups: a) Jim Crow Laws - literacy test, poll taxes, Grandfather Clause b) Civil Rights Movement (i.e. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks) c) desegregation - military, schools, transportation, sports.
S3.C3.PO7: Summarize the significance of the following Supreme Court Cases a) Marbury v. Madison b) Plessy v. Ferguson c) Brown v. Board of Education.
S3.C3.PO9: Describe the impact that the following Acts had on increasing the rights of groups and individuals: a) Civil Rights Act of 1964 b) Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Recommended Additional Reading
Before finding these two books, I had my students read this excellent NPR article about the execution of George Stinney Jr., a decade before Emmett Till's murder, and discuss the injustices of Jim Crow Laws and prejudices toward African-Americans, to help students today understand the intense, horrific racial attitudes that permeated the era.
Also, next week I'm recommending teaching Stars with another book (written in 2002 and often taught in US classrooms) set during Jim Crow era Mississippi, during and after the Emmett Till murder and subsequent trial. But you could just as easily substitute Moon for the writing assignment.
I'll offer two essay writing prompts, one comparing and contrasting the choices made by the main characters in the two novels, the other arguing which of the choices by the main characters was "right," along with graphic organizers and blank outlines for student scaffolding. I'll link back to this review, as well.
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