Delve into Discourse

One Text: Several Different Interpretations

Many times I give students very opened ended tasks. While I have an initial learning goal, I try to structure tasks so that the possibilities are never limited. I believe it is important for a teacher to help students learn how to think and not what to think. I always have at least one overall learning goal and in this lesson it was to work on explaining ideas or concepts in historical texts based on what is happening and why it’s happening using specific information and details given. (CCSS RA 4.3) I also wanted to help my students work with overall text structures so that they could describe whether the events, concepts, ideas, or information in a text or part of text is structured in chronological order, comparison structure, cause-and-effect, or problem/solution (CCSS RA 4.5). To achieve these goals, I gave my children a transcript of eight sections from the memoire, Through My Eyes written by Ruby Bridges in a random order. The only direction I gave my students was to read the sections and consider what order to rearrange the pages in. Beyond that I told them I just wanted to consider what thinking they had.

As my students read independently, and then began finding others to talk about the text with, I started to overhear a variety of thinking. One student wanted to know if segregation was legal at that time so I suggested they do a little research to find that out. Another student made a connection to an article we read and had digital discourse about: the “Birmingham Church Bombing” (We conducted an asynchronous discussion using NowComment). Yet another student started connecting to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wondered if he played a role in the events. I had others curious about the meanings of various words in the text and they began grabbing dictionaries to confirm the words. Two other students huddled together as they started to highlight some of the actions that caused emotional responses within them. Someone else began asking where the Mason-Dixon line was and had a fascinating train of thought that brought him to that thinking. What was extraordinary about this was I only gave them one task in the directions and the thinking they did independently transcended any thinking I could’ve suggested or required.

After a day to read and interact with the text we met again in small groups to have a discussion. I did need to facilitate the discussion more but in the four groups that I had conversations with the ideas came out of each differ greatly. Prior to the separate discussions, we read the preface to the book, touching on the Supreme Court decision in 1954 (Brown v. Board Of Education) and the “Little Rock Nine”.

I knew I was going to guide the discussions quite a bit because my teaching goal was to help students see connections between events, individuals, and ideas. I had hoped to also let students compare themes in this text in a text we read the previous week if we had time. We could have easily devoted multiple days to the examination of this text.

Preface to students in each discussion:

“As you were reading this I know that you all were taking different things away or you were thinking of different things and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t give you much of an assignment with this other than read it and think about the sequence. I can’t tell you what to think. I don’t want to tell you what to think. I simply want to help you learn to think.”

Group 1:

This group starts by asking about the word “Negroes”.  I am quick to clarify that I am glad that they are not familiar with this word because it is derogatory and has a negative connotation.  I give a brief mini-lesson about the use of the word in the historical context.  The students in this group have had a very different reaction to this text. Many were emotionally affected and bothered by descriptions of the protester’s actions.  We got into sharing our reactions and thoughts.

Mrs. Weber: “Alex, I know there were some things that came up as you were reading; things that you started questioning and asking about. Can you share some of the things this was making you think about?”

Alex: “The Mason-Dixon line”

Mrs. Weber: “What made you start thinking about that?”

Alex: “The Civil War and slavery, well this is all connected to slavery and that’s connected to the Civil War and I know the Mason-Dixon line was an important part of the Civil War.”

Mrs. Weber: “So how is this all connected to slavery?”

Alex: “well segregation of blacks was mostly after slavery but before that slavery was when they forced colored people to work, like be their servants and slaves. And to end slavery there was a Civil War and after the Civil War there was a lot of segregation.”

Mrs. Weber: “So you considered how this all happened after slavery”

Sage: “I’m thinking about what he said. It’s sort of like slavery well you know how in slavery they didn’t use people of their same race they use people of different race so it’s like this. They’re not giving rights to African-American people when they should have the same amount of rights because of the Constitution.”

Alex: “well segregation it wasn’t like a battle but it was sort of a war”

Mrs. Weber: “could you compare it to a war in the sense that there was conflict?”

Alex: “yes and it is not like now because there was a time of African-Americans and Caucasians fighting together.”

(Carissa points out Ferguson, MO. We have a side conversation about how unfortunately these issues still exist today, but return back to the text.)

Sage: “I feel really sad for them. I mean how could they stand being called those names. I think the marshals don’t want to be with Ruby I mean I doubt that they really thought they were protecting her.”

Mrs. Weber: “do you mean emotionally protecting her?”

Sage: “Yes. Why couldn’t those people have the same beliefs?”

(This question I left go. We could have had a deeper moral conversation, but for time and purpose of the learning goals, I let it stay with her.)

Mrs. Weber: “So it sounds like you had a very emotional response to this text. And I would hope that this tugged at your emotions a little bit. I’m going to try to move us from our emotional responses because if we talk about how this all makes us feel I’ll bet we going to have similar feelings. Courtney can you share you’re thinking about this text?”

Courtney: “I wondered why people would do things like this just because just because maybe someone is not the same color I guess. Like people threw rocks and bricks at passing cars or even tossed flaming bottles of gasoline and people drove through cities where there were flaming crosses as warnings.” (Courtney highlighted examples of things protesters did.)

Mrs. Weber: “So you had a very strong emotional response to the specific descriptions of what protesters did. I noticed a pattern in what you highlighted. You highlighted some of the horrible things that happened.”

Courtney: “like ‘I remember seeing a black doll in a coffin.’” (We looked at the photo of this in the text.)

Sage: “That’s just scary.” (Several gasps)

Mrs. Weber: “Definitely strong emotional reactions. How about you Ainsley? What were your thoughts?”

Ainsley: “it makes me sad to think that they would do something like this. Like people can’t really change. You can change your skin color.”

Sage: “Unless you like dyed it white. By why should you have to?”

Mrs. Weber: “So you definitely felt strongly about this. How about you Carissa?”

Carissa: “I really looked at different words for my word wizard.” (Students collect words each month as they read, inferring meaning in context and then later looking up the meanings.)

Mrs. Weber: “So you read through a word lens. What words did you find?”

Carissa: “I did segregated, integrated, segregationists, barricades, boycott and racist.”

Mrs. Weber: “now if I told everyone they had to read this through a word lens, would you Alex have considered slavery and the Civil War? Sage would you have considered protecting Ruby emotionally? Courtney and Ainsley would you have thought about how the protesters acted? This is why I often don’t give you specific directions. I don’t think I should tell you what to think. Drew I know you were incredibly reflective as you were reading! Can you share what thoughts you had? You are the deep thinker here.” (Drew spent so much time thinking and considering, he didn’t get past the first page.)

Drew: “it’s really not that deep but so on the first page in the first paragraph it says that they were throwing bricks and rocks and flaming bottles gasoline so I was thinking that if like so I know adults are doing this so I know kids wouldn’t do it… (he starts turning pages as he is frustrated; he always has complex thinking and it takes him time to express fully what he is thinking; he carefully annotates what he reads.)

Mrs. Weber: “you had a good comment there and I want to challenge your thinking a bit. If you look at the caption on this page it says ‘November 16, teenagers were gathered outside City Hall to protest integration.’ These are teenage boys high school boys. In the text you read that Ruby came home and repeatedly chanted while she jump roped. Well she was hearing chants and songs coming from white children as well as adults.”

Drew: “because if they were doing it then the only reason they were doing it was if kids were at school. But even if kids were at school it’s still terrible so if it were parents doing it I’m guessing that kids are learning to do it from the parents.”

Ainsley: “The parents are probably telling them that’s okay to do.”

(We have a side discussion about how families have influence on the beliefs and values of children.)

Sage: “What’s the difference between integration and segregation?”

(Mini-lesson on roots: sect/sec “to cut”; inter- “bring, among, between”; greg or gregate: “flock, assemble, come together”; compared to schema some already had about ‘congregation’; Carissa )

Sage: “Then her song doesn’t make sense! ‘two, four, six, eight…’we don’t want to get together!”

Mrs. Weber: “Well check the text again she was repeating what she had heard. She didn’t understand what it meant.”

Carissa: “I was thinking and I connected this a bit to the Ferguson thing because if they were breaking windows and setting fire to things they are… everyone in my family thought this was just going to end up hurting them in the end. I mean they were hurting their own neighbors.”

Mrs. Weber: “Carissa is referring to something that has happened recently and since I know we don’t all have schema about that event, for time purposes I want to go ahead and move us back into the text.”

(This group was very much into discussing the topic and wanted to really examine the photos and captions in the actual memoire; I had to convince them that they could look more carefully at this text at another time!)

Group 2:

Mrs. Weber: “In this text we have so many things going on. I thought it would help for us to look at ideas, individuals, and events. I thought it might help if we tried to examine these things and how they interact. Let’s look at the first section “One year in an All-Black School”.

(They locate the names of Ruby’s parents in the text. Landon points out that this is told in first person perspective, so they will be called “mom and dad”; but we find “Lucille and Abon”.)

Gavin: “Lucille was convinced that no harm would come to Ruby”

Quinn: “she also thought it was worth the risk”

Andrew: “Dad thought she would get hurt”

Sam: “well apparently he was right”

Mrs. Weber: “What event is causing this all to happen?”

Landon: “school integration”

Cole: “society”

Andrew: “people threatening to poison”

Mrs. Weber: “Well that happened after she started going to the school. I agree Andrew that is important, but what about this section of the text? If we think about cause and effect, why is Ruby going to go to the ‘white’ school?”

Quinn: “It’s because it was like a law or something”

Andrew: “The NAACP made her”

Mrs. Weber: “Let’s go back and re-read”

Quinn: “The NAACP had them take a test”

Mrs. Weber: “Was it the NAACP that made her take the test?”

(Andrew re-reads the paragraph about the NAACP to the group; after children chat with person next to them about new interpretations)

Andrew: “So if she didn’t pass the test, she wouldn’t have to go to the white school, nobody would know her…”

Cole: “or threaten her”

Mrs. Weber: “so Lucille and Abon had to make the decision whether or not to let Ruby go”

Sam: “so she wouldn’t have gone if she didn’t pass the test”

Mrs. Weber: “so what would the important event here be?”

Quinn: “I’m writing Ruby passed the test”

Mrs. Weber: “wouldn’t Ruby passing the test be how the individual in the event intersect? How can we connect to the ideas?”

Andrew: “if her mother was thinking the same way her father was, Ruby would have gone to the school. Her mother was convinced no harm would come.”

Mrs. Weber: “so because of the taking of the test Ruby’s mom convinced her dad she should go?”

Andrew: “yeah”

Mrs. Weber: “So what is the connection between the ideas and the individuals?”

Landon: “well the parents argue”

Mrs. Weber: “so does it cause conflict in the family?”

Quinn and Landon: “yes”

Andrew: “the test causes conflict”

Cole: “what’s the conflict between events and ideas?”

Sam: “well its about segregation so taking the test meant Ruby could go to the white school.”

Mrs. Weber: “So Sam, where does segregation fit?”

Sam: “Well isn’t it the important idea?”

Landon: “so everything overlaps because Ruby goes to the white school”

Cole: “Ruby gets to be qualified for the white school”

(Cole mentions that someone could sneak into the school but the others point out how she has to be brought in by marshals with guns; after a short side track, we wrap up our 3 ring Venn.)

Group 3:

In all of the group discussions, I made sure to clarify that I do NOT like talking about people with terms like “black or white”.  I don’t ‘see in color’. However for the purposes of the historical context, we would use those terms because that is what the text uses.

Evan: “I think this is intense. They had to get troops to protect the black people going in to white schools and like at one point another first grader who got their house hit by eggs and stones… that’s really really intense.” (when reading this student questioned the legality of what was going on and did some further research.) “Segregation was made illegal on May 17, 1954.”

Mrs. Weber: “so one of the directions that Evan’s mind went into when reading this was the legality of all of this.”

Leah: “I wondered that too.”

Mrs. Weber: “So when was Ruby going to the white school?”

Evan: “Actually segregation was illegal before Ruby went to school.”

Mrs. Weber: “unfortunately the attitude was ‘well the schools may be separate but they are still equal’ and that was not the case the white schools had better resources and better materials.”

Evan: “and yet they still need guards… National Guards to protect just one student.”

Mrs. Weber: “That is a lot to wrap your head around, isn’t it?”

Paige: “If the guards weren’t there…wow.”

Evan: “if you think about what we do today so so different.”

Noah: “yeah I have a friend whose dark skinned and no one treats him badly.”

Mrs. Weber: “one thing I’d like to help put in context is the geographical location.”

Paige: “yeah this was in the South where there was slavery”

Mrs. Weber: “Yes slavery became such a part of the culture. If we look at the locations of where different events were happening, we can see some patterns.” (Paused to pull up a map and locate key areas connected to texts we had read before. We located Atlanta, GA as that is where MLK, Jr. was born, Montgomery, AL as that was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and then Birmingham to connect to the article about the church bombing. Then we found New Orleans, LA as that was the setting of this text.)

Mrs. Weber: “Now aren’t you very much influenced by the beliefs and opinions of your families? My daughters who are now in their 20’s do share a lot of the values that Mr. Weber and I have. They are old enough to have formulated their own ideas about things but how they were raised is very much a part of how they think feel and act. So if you think about these teenage boys that were chanting and protesting rolling up in households where they were taught this behavior was okay it makes you wonder.”

Evan: “Because they get used to their surroundings but when their surroundings change they don’t like it.”

Mrs. Weber: “For slavery to have existed and gone on for as long as it did I think people had convinced themselves that thinking and feeling and acting this way was okay.”

Leah: “That’s how it is today too if like your parents do something then you probably eventually do it.”

Mrs. Weber: “And this is 100 years after slavery was abolished; these attitudes were still very strong.”

(Austin asked about integration and we had a mini-lesson on the meanings of integration vs. segregation. We got into positive and negative connotations. In the case of this text segregation is wrong and integration is good however in a different context it can be reversed. For example, lions are segregated from zebras in a zoo and that’s a good thing!)

Noah: “In some scenarios it could be good but in other scenarios it could be bad.”

Maya: “I think this text is really harsh and if I were her… That one lady threatened to poison her, I would like not sleep or eat anything.” (We paused again to read a section of the text they hadn’t received about how Ruby discussed problems eating and sleeping.)

Paige: “So she was being segregated from the lunch room. She was brave.”

Evan: “I think she’s valiant.”

Mrs. Weber: “so you’re picking up on her traits…”

Paige: “I felt that what the white people were doing was very cruel and they were even doing it to the white people who went to school with Ruby because they didn’t have the right-thinking… Their thoughts were different. I think the parents of the other first grader may have taken her out of school because they didn’t want to be different from everyone else but they put her back in school and they were terrorized for it. So she was in the first grade and I guess if kids were in the first grade with Ruby like in the same class with her people would think that the family didn’t have the right-thinking because the kids would be close to Ruby and they thought Ruby could do harm to them apparently but she was like this completely harmless first grader.”

Austin: “The caption to this picture of the other first grader says shortly before this picture was taken of rock shattered the window of the car they were in. That is their normal then I mean they had to get used to it.”

Mrs. Weber: “is that something people should get used to?”

All: NO!!!

Paige: “Well like Austin said, that’s not okay that people were throwing rocks I mean they could of killed her.”

Evan: “They wanted to kill her!”

Leah: “I read like a different book about this and it was totally different. I read a book about her and how she went to school but I think it was first grade friendly because it was just like ‘Ruby is brave’… ‘Ruby is going to school’.”

Mrs. Weber: “So you notice a difference between the same event being told through a different person’s perspective. Is it different being told through Ruby’s eyes?

Austin: “it’s like she knows the real facts but I’m not the author who is just going on the facts that she’s heard and if that was a little book it wouldn’t have gotten so involved in this tragedy.”

Mrs. Weber: “well that text probably just gave you a general idea of the events. I think it’s a good example of the difference between a first-person account and second person account… Which is an excellent topic for discussion at another time!”

Mrs. Weber: “So what about the event, individuals, and ideas in this part…Another First Grader?”

Leah: “Well I would say Yolanda is an individual.”

Mrs. Weber: “Who else is an individual Matthew?

Matthew: “her parents”

Mrs. Weber: “So we have the Gabrielle family as individuals. Have our big ideas really changed here?”

Matthew: “Not really.  It is still about segregation and integration.”

Evan: “The event is Yolanda stayed in school after Ruby comes.”

Mrs. Weber: “That is definitely how the event and individuals overlap.  The more general event would be other children still attending.”

Noah: “How could parents not let their kids to school?… I thought it was a law that all the kids had to go to school.”

Austin: “Well they were already breaking the law by not letting blacks come anyway.”

Mrs. Weber: “How do individuals and ideas overlap?”

Evan: “Well it says during that time Yolanda Gabrielle came to school for three weeks but during that time her family was attacked.”

Leah: “I think that is where the individual and event connects.”

Mrs. Weber: “Maybe think about it this way.  We don’t know how Yolanda feels, but can we find evidence about how mother Daisy feels?”

Noah: “…’ She refused to be bullied by the protesters…”

Mrs. Weber: “How did Daisy Gabrielle feel about the big ideas?”

Paige: “She didn’t feel segregation was a good thing.”

Mrs. Weber: “And she did not take Yolanda out of school so is this also how the individual in the event overlap?

Leah: “The idea and event come together because in this part whites are protesting.”

Evan: “Yet Yolanda still goes.”

Paige: “but their house was too damaged to live in anymore.”

Mrs. Weber: “So they tried for 3 weeks and gave up. Did you notice that ‘Daisy’s husband was about to lose his job’?”

This group wrapped up thoughts on their 3-ring Venn Diagrams.

Group 4:

This group needed time to organize the order they felt the text came in.  They spent more time working on vocabulary in the text and had less discussion about events, ideas, and individuals, but as we started to wrap things up, they had the most interesting conclusions. The week before we read the text Henry’s Freedom Box about a slave who actually mailed himself to the north in order to escape slavery. This group had drawn the conclusion in a previous discussion that the slave Henry had to have been extremely desperate to be free because he poured acid on his hand to make his escape possible. This group really got into comparing how a text about an adult slave in the 1940s (Henry’s Freedom Box) had themes in common with Ruby Bridges’ memoir (Through My Eyes) and her experience going to an all-white school in 1960.

Mrs. Weber: “You folks did a great job really analyzing Henry in the text we read last week. Remember we looked at how an event can really impact or change a person.  Tyler determined that Henry must have been really desperate for his freedom and the evidence he had was that he poured acid on his hand. I am wondering if we could think about these two texts.  They seem very different…”

Tyler: “Well Henry was a slave and Ruby wasn’t.”

Peyton: “And Henry was a man and Ruby was a child.”

Mrs. Weber: “Can you think about theme? What the theme might connect these two texts together?”

Gavin: “Integration”

Brayden: “ And segregation”

Tyler: “Henry’s Freedom Box isn’t about integration.”

Mrs. Weber: “But you said he was desperate for freedom? What might that mean?”

Tyler: “Oh, I guess he did want to be able to be with white people.”

Juliana: “Courage.  They both had courage.”

Mrs. Weber: “Check our theme list and see what you might come up with.”

(This group listed ‘injustice’, ‘struggles’, ‘black vs. white’.)

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