Guest Post: The Watsons Go To Birmingham – A History Lesson By Dr. Randy Testa

I am very excited to have Dr. Randy Testa on my blog today to help me celebrate the film adaptation of The Watsons Go To Birmingham.

I am also very excited to be celebrating today with Mr. Johnny Schu and Nerdy Book Club. Be sure to visit Mr. Schu’s blog for some exclusive video footage, and Nerdy Book Club for an interview with the man himself: Christopher Paul Curtis.

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As the Vice President of Education and Professional Development for Walden Media, I’ve worked very closely with Christopher Paul Curtis’s amazing book The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 as we developed the script for our forthcoming film.

A poignant, wry, and funny modern classic, the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honor winning The Watsons Go to Birmingham –1963 is right up there on my list of best coming-of-age stories. The novel’s narrator, ten-year-old Kenny Watson, magically guides us on a bittersweet journey—from his family’s home in Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama—as history and life-history collide.

What I love most about this book is it chronicles a very real family experience against the backdrop of one of the most pivotal years in the Civil Rights Movement. In the year 2013, the novel has an added resonance. With the nation commemorating important Civil Rights turning-points including the 50th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15th, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28th, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1st, a story like Watsons can be seamlessly incorporated into any curriculum that celebrates the Civil Rights Movement. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 becomes a lens through which to explore the ideas behind important events of that era.

For a social studies classroom The Watsons Go to Birmingham –1963 enhances students’ overall understanding of the Civil Rights Movement by personalizing it. Students experience this rich history from the perspective of a child, stepping into Kenny’s shoes as he witnesses the events of 1963 south first-hand. Educators can use Kenny’s story to explore different perspectives of these events. For instance, students can compare and contrast Kenny’s viewpoint against primary and secondary source documents of the time period that convey children’s reactions to events in 1963 Birmingham. These sources could also be considered background-building resources such as the 2005 Academy Award-winning short subject Mighty Times: The Children’s March. This fine documentary points out that many people felt the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which figures prominently in the novel, was in direct retaliation to the success of the Children’s March and the removal of Eugene “Bull” Connor from office by President John F. Kennedy. How does this contrast with its portrayal in Watsons? What conclusions can students draw from juxtaposing a fictional narrative against a visual documentary?

In our film, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, members of the Watson family meet cousins who were present at the Children’s March and learn about the March in flashbacks. Students can explore scenes in the book alongside both the fictional adaptation and the documentary to develop a holistic view of the time period. In turn, the film can be viewed in tandem with other great Civil Rights movies like Selma Lord Selma to explore the causes and consequences of the 1965 March depicted in that film and how it harkens back to 1963. The educator’s resource (link below) also provides teachers with links to videos and speeches from the time period. These supplementary source materials give background and historical context to the Watsons’s journey and experiences, and encourage students to continue to engage with texts and videos from the time period.

For an ELA classroom, students can “read it before they see it” – engage in a read-aloud (or independent reading) of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 before a classroom viewing of the movie. Students can then map out the book and film scene by scene and explore the differences and similarities between the two mediums. In turn, the “Central Theme” of the Resource Guide challenges students to explore conflict resolution by understanding themselves and others through various perspectives. By interacting with the different levels of conflict in the book and the film, students develop an understanding of why it is important to know themselves and to understand the points of view of others in order to successfully face and solve conflicts.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham is one of the most powerful projects I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. I believe the book and the film can do wonders to help the students of today connect with the children of the Watsons’s time. In Christopher Paul Curtis’s words (taken from his most recent author’s note), “I am…hopeful that Kenny’s story about his family will help children understand the terrible power of racism, the courage of those who fought for civil rights and the price they paid, and why each of us must help to bring about positive change and strive for equality.”

The Watsons Go to Birmingham airs on September 20th on the Hallmark Channel. To see the featurette go to: http://www.walden.com/the-watsons-go-to-birmingham/.

The Watsons Educator’s Resource that we created with Dr. Robert Selman at the Harvard Graduate School of Education so educators can make use of the book and the film together, can be found at:  http://www.walden.com/tv-movie/the-watsons-go-to-birmingham/ click on the LEARN tab.

A former third grade teacher, Dr. Randy Testa is Vice President of Education and Professional Development at Walden Media. Testa holds his Ed.D. (’90) and Ed.M. (’78) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Testa was an Associate Visiting Professor at Dartmouth College, where he headed the Elementary Teacher Education Program from 1993-2001. Testa was the 2005 Recipient of the President’s Award from the Florida Council of Teachers of English for Walden Media’s contribution to enhancing literacy in Florida, and the 2007 Recipient of the “Celebrate Literacy Award” from the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Walden Pond Press has agreed to giveaway a DVD of The Watsons Go To Birmingham (when they become available). If you’d like to enter please fill out the form below

You must be 13 to enter

U.S. addresses only

Giveaway ends at 11:59 PM on September 4, 2013

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