Images of Struggle and Triumph: Using Picture Books to Teach about Civil Rights in the Secondary Classroom
Wilkins, Karen H., Sheffield, Caroline C., Ford, Martha B., Cruz, Barbara C., Social Education
Colored men and women traded in the five and dime all the time. They kept money in the bank and on some Saturdays were allowed to sit in the balcony of the theater to watch a movie. This all seemed normal to me. It's true that they couldn't drink out of the same water fountain as white folks or eat in the same coffee shop. They had to wait to be served in the stores until white folk had been served, but that's just the way things were. (1)
The African American experience prior to the civil rights movement is difficult for secondary students to grasp. The unabashed racism of the time is unfathomable for most students in twenty-first century America. While racism and other prejudice still exist, it is now more subtle and less obvious to the casual observer. The above quote, from the 2004 NCSS Notable Trade Book Mississippi Morning, conveys the pervasive nature of racism in the United States prior to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Mississippi Morning presents the perspective of a young white protagonist in this vivid picture book about Depression-era Mississippi, a place and time where the Ku Klux Klan dominated society. As a result of the Klan's dominance, African Americans lived in fear, forced to live in an atmosphere of prejudice and discrimination. The richly descriptive prose engages readers in a way that no standard textbook can. Fortunately, as social studies educators, we have a wealth of books that we can use to bring the past to life and to our students.
Why Picture Books?
As mentioned above, Mississippi Morning is a picture book. Traditionally 32 pages in length, with an image on every page or two-page spread, the picture book format enables the author to address the difficult and emotionally charged topics of racial discrimination and prejudice both visually and textually. This connection of picture and text creates a rich portrait of the period; the characters and the setting of a picture book are accessible to the student through the visual representation. (2) The use of selected images also enables the author to emphasize themes, emotions, and significant details that might otherwise be lost in a conventional text-only medium. (3)
Although picture books are traditionally associated with elementary level learners, they can also be utilized effectively without patronizing older students. The picture book format is not an indication of the reading level or content. It can be more accurately described as the medium that the author felt best captured the concept. In fact, many recently published picture books may be inappropriate for use in a younger class setting. (4) Mississippi Morning includes images and references to Klan-related violence that are not age-appropriate for students at the primary level. Comprehending many of the complex topics addressed in today's picture books--such as the civil rights movement--requires more background knowledge than most elementary students have. Additionally, the vocabulary and reading level of many recently published picture books are too advanced for the traditional elementary student. (5) The excerpt at the beginning of this article is written at a 6.5 grade level, well within the appropriate range for middle school inclusion.
Picture books are fun and visually arresting. We have found that secondary students clamor to see the illustrations, listen intently to the text, and enjoy the novelty of a read aloud. The format's concise text is enhanced through the use of vivid imagery. The images are often great works of art in and of themselves. All of the books highlighted in this article present artwork by award-winning illustrators who also display their works in formats other than picture books.
The visual-verbal connection of picture books also facilitates learning for a variety of special needs students: the English Language Learner (ELL), the exceptional education student, and the reluctant reader. …