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The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Book Club Novel Guide outlines a complete theme-based unit with Book Club lesson plans focusing on The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963.

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Book Club for Middle School discusses The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 within a themed multi-book unit along with three other stories I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.

Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963.

A Synopsis

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 begins in Flint, Michigan, where ten-year-old Kenny lives with his family. Some children in the neighborhood call them the Weird Watsons, although Kenny's older brother Byron is so tough and mean that he doesn't suffer the teasing that Kenny often does. Kenny is an excellent reader and does well in school, but his "lazy eye" makes him a target for cruel remarks. One day Kenny thinks that his prayers have been answered in the form of a new kid in school, a boy named Rufus from Arkansas who speaks with a heavy Southern accent and is too open and friendly to be considered cool. Kenny hopes that Rufus will become a new target for the children's teasing—which he does—but Kenny also finds himself becoming friends with Rufus. He nearly loses this friendship when he laughs at a cruel joke another child plays on Rufus, but Rufus forgives Kenny when Momma arranges for an apology.

In the meantime, thirteen-year-old Byron, an "official" teenage juvenile delinquent, is skipping school and getting into trouble. One day Momma catches him playing with fire, something that she has warned him many times not to do. She threatens to burn his finger to show him the serious danger of fire, but her youngest child Joetta frantically protects Byron from this punishment. Later Byron comes home with a hairstyle known as a conk, which gives him "Mexican-style hair," another thing his parents have warned him not to do. Joetta weeps at the thought of what Dad will do to Byron, but instead of getting angry, Dad simply shaves Byron's head.

Momma and Dad feel that they are losing control of Byron, and they decide to take him to stay with his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, for the summer. Byron is horrified at the thought of living with this notoriously strict woman, but he is loaded into the car with the rest of the family. Momma has made an hour-by-hour plan for the trip, Dad has installed an Ultra-Glide machine to play records in the car, and the Watsons are off to Birmingham.

At Grandma Sands's house, Kenny is surprised to see a tiny woman emerge from the front door. She cries and hugs everyone and is generally much nicer than Kenny expected. She expects to be addressed as "ma'am," however—and Byron immediately adopts good manners. Kenny is even more surprised to see this! After a few days he gets the urge to start misbehaving himself, since his "delinquent" brother has been tamed. Against the warnings of his grandmother, he goes swimming at a place called Collier's Landing and is nearly drowned in a whirlpool. Byron saves him in the nick of time, but Kenny is convinced that his brother had to battle a creature called the Wool Pooh in order to do so.

A few days later, Kenny is still feeling exhausted from his near-death experience. He waves to Joetta as she leaves for Sunday school and then settles under a tree in Grandma's backyard. He is awakened by a loud boom and goes out in the street to see people running toward the church where Joey is. When Kenny arrives at the scene, he sees a giant hole in the side of the church, people crying hysterically in the yard, and a man pulling a little girl in a blood-stained dress out of the building. Kenny wanders into the building himself and sees a patent-leather shoe like the one Joey was wearing sticking out of the rubble. He takes hold of it and imagines that the Wool Pooh is fighting him for possession. Kenny pulls the shoe off and goes home, convinced that his sister has been taken by the Wool Pooh. Even when she comes into the house and speaks to him, he thinks that she is merely a ghost. Finally he concludes that the Wool Pooh somehow missed Joey.

The Watsons return to Flint immediately, but the traumatic episode is not over for them. Momma and Dad talk about it when they think they are alone, but Kenny is usually hiding under the couch listening to what they say. Finally Byron discovers his hiding place and tries to involve him in normal activities again. One day he leads Kenny to the bathroom to show off a newly sprouted whisker. When Kenny sees his own ravaged face in the mirror, he begins sobbing. All of his suppressed feelings gush forth at once. Byron comforts him and explains why he doesn't have to feel guilty about what happened. After thinking about what his brother has said, Kenny takes Byron's advice and gets ready to start his life again.


The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 touches on a number of themes that you may wish to explore with your students. One is the disastrous and hurtful effects of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. In the book, the most obvious effect is the bomb that goes off in the church. More subtle effects include the cruel treatment that Rufus receives from other schoolchildren in Flint, and the fear that the Watson family feels as they drive further south, knowing that they cannot simply stop at a motel and expect to be welcome.

Another theme is how a supportive family can help a person through difficult times. Kenny and Byron have their share of fights, but when Kenny needs help most, Byron is there to save him from drowning and to help him overcome the trauma of the bombing. Momma and Dad make their children feel loved and cared for, even though their relationship with Byron is difficult at times.

This book also provides a context for discussing the nature of friendship. Kenny at first sees Rufus as a "personal saver" who will deflect the jeers of his classmates away from himself. He grows to like him as the boys spend more time together, but only when he hurts Rufus's feelings and Rufus refuses to play with him does he realize how much he values Rufus's friendship. Kenny learns that a friend is more than a convenient playmate who doesn't steal your dinosaurs—it is someone whom you trust and value as a person.

Finally, the book deals with grieving and how different people deal with trauma and loss. While eavesdropping on his parents' conversations after the bombing, Kenny notes that sometimes they talk about the event angrily, and sometimes they just cry. Kenny is unable to talk about what happened for a long time and simply hides from his family. When at last he allows his pain, confusion, and guilt to emerge, his brother helps him move past the trauma and return to a normal life.

Further Reading and Links

The following books and sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Special Classroom Library

Books that deal with any of the themes mentioned above would be appropriate for a special classroom library while students are reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Also appropriate would be nonfiction titles on the topic of the civil rights movement. The following are just a few suggestions.

  • Journey to Jo'burg by Beverley Naidoo, (Racism, Discrimination, Family)
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Friendship, Loss)
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (Racism, Discrimination, Family)
  • Mississippi Bridge by Mildred Taylor (Racism, Discrimination, Family)
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Racism, Discrimination, Family)
  • Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor (Racism, Discrimination, Family)
  • Last Summer with Maizon by Jacqueline Woodson (Friendship, Family, Loss)

About the Author and the Book

  • Nobody but Curtis — This is the official website for the author it includes a biography, a list of his books, and other resources.
  • Video Interview — Watch an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis presented by Reading Rockets. The site also offers a short biography and a bibliography of his children's book.
  • Christopher Paul Curtis — Random House Kids provides this page which includes biographical and career information as well as a message from Curtis that visitors can watch.
  • Common Sense — This review of the book gives it 5 out of 5 stars. See also user reviews and details about the book.
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham Movie — In 2013 Tonik Productions, WGTB Productions, and Walden Media released the movie The Watsons Go to Birmingham based on the novel.

Related Topics

  • African American World — PBS created the site, which with key points in regards to history, arts & culture, race & society, and through profiles explains the life of African Americans.
  • Black History Milestones — A timeline published by History presents major events for African Americans from 1619 all the way to 2009 when Barack Obama became the 44th U.S. president.
  • In the Memory of Four Little Girls — Modern American Poetry site focuses on the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church. Visitors will find news articles, time lines, information on the trial that followed the bombing, Martin Luther King's Eulogy, and further reading material.
  • Little Rock High 40th Anniversary — In 1957, after the 1954 Supreme Court decision to end racial segregation in America's public schools, nine African-American students integrated Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This site is dedicated to the events surrounding this important moment in history. Visitors will find photographs, background information, and even articles from the 1957–58 editions of the Little Rock Central High School newspaper.
  • Powerful Days in Black and White — Sponsored by Kodak, this site features compelling photographs from the struggle for civil rights in America. Pictures are by photojournalist Charles Moore. Categories include Riots, Klan, Vote, Segregation, Celebrate, Peace.
  • We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement — This site allows visitors to view and read about key places and events of the Civil Rights movement.

Related Readings/Other Media Available Online

Big Theme Questions

In what ways are family members heroes and angels in our lives?

What can you do when family conflicts arise? What strategies can you use to work through your differences?

How do family members help each other face life’s problems?

Outline of Lesson Plan | Curriculum Area | Lesson Focus

To purchase any materials mentioned please visit our store. The Lesson Plan assumes a basic knowledge of the Book Club program, as outlined in Book Club: A Literature-Based Curriculum. It provides the background information and support (including blackline masters) to help you get the most from Book Club. You find the complete Lesson Plan for The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 in the Book Club Novel Guide. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for the students that support the discussion topics.

The discussion topics and questions provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will certainly have ideas and questions that go beyond the ones written here. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.

Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

Language Conventions: Elements of a Good Book Club Discussion

GOAL: To provide a model of fluent reading; to establish the setting of the story; to review the behaviors that contribute to good small-group discussions


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: What are the Watsons like? Do you think they're "weird"? Describe Kenny's relationship with Byron. Do real brothers act this way? Do you predict that the new kid at school will "save" Kenny? Why?

Get students excited about the book by reading Chapter 1 aloud to them. Besides generating interest in the story, reading the first chapter aloud will provide a model of fluent reading. (To prepare for this read-aloud, you'll probably want to preread the chapter to get a sense of the author's use of humor and dialogue.)

Make sure that students are aware of the setting of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Have students locate Flint, Michigan (where the Watsons live) and Birmingham, Alabama (where Momma grew up) on a U.S. map. Use a site such as Google Maps.

Remind them that in 1963, many public areas in the South were racially segregated, meaning that black people and white people used separate bathrooms, water fountains, lunch counters, and so on. Students will study this issue in more depth in Lesson 7.

Discuss with students the behaviors that contribute to a good book club discussion. Ask them to recall some of their past experiences in book clubs and other discussion groups and to think about what made the experiences good or bad. On the chalkboard, create a two-column chart with the headings "Qualities of a good group" and "Qualities to avoid in groups." Have students brainstorm items to add to the chart. (Note: Guidelines for successful book club discussions are outlined in Book Club: A Literature-Based Curriculum.) Suggest that students keep these positive behaviors in mind when they meet with their book clubs today.

Because good small-group discussions are so central to the success of Book Club, you'll probably want to make a special effort to monitor and assess students' progress in this area. Some Book Club teachers use a tape recorder to record individual book clubs so that they can listen to the groups at a later time. (You can rotate the tape recorder between groups over a two- or three-day period.) Use of the tape recorder also puts a little added pressure on students to participate, which tends to promote better conversations.

Note: If your class is new to Book Club, you may want to devote part of this day's lesson to discussing the different kinds of responses that they can write in their Book Club Reading Logs. See Lesson 3 of this lesson plan for teaching ideas on this topic. The Writing Prompt for each lesson also provides ideas for students' written responses.

After students have read Chapter 2, written in their logs, and met with their book club groups, bring the class together for community share. Discuss the issues that came up in students' book clubs and also how well their discussions met the criteria that the class outlined earlier. At some point, you may wish to have students write assessments of their book club performance, giving themselves and their groups letter grades and explaining why they earned those grades.

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Literary Elements: Humor

GOAL: To appreciate the author's use of humor


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Did any of the events in Chapter 3 make you laugh? Which ones? Why were they funny? What do you think of the way Rufus and Cody are treated at Kenny's school? Would Rufus and Cody fit in at your school? Why? What do you think Momma said to Rufus?

Ask students whether they think this book is funny so far. Have them explain the humor in Dad's description of "Hambone" Henderson, Byron's freezing his lips to the car mirror, and Kenny's thinking that Rufus is his "personal saver." Ask them to explain what a pun is and why "personal saver" is a pun. Suggest that they think about the way humor is used in Chapter 3 as they read it.

During community share, ask students to give examples of humor from Chapter 3. Point out that there are some serious issues in the chapter as well — such as when LJ steals Kenny's dinosaurs and when Kenny hurts Rufus's feelings. Ask students to explain how the humorous parts work together with the serious ones. Does humor help to make the painful things less painful? Does Kenny use his sense of humor to get through painful experiences? Can an event be funny and painful at the same time?

You may wish to discuss the way children at Kenny's school treat Rufus and Cody. If any students wrote in their logs about this topic, ask them to share their thoughts. Ask students why they think people sometimes treat outsiders unkindly, and whether they have seen this kind of behavior in real life.

If necessary, provide background information about Nazis. Explain that Germany was ruled by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in the 1930s and 1940s, and that the United States fought the Nazis in World War II, from 1941 to 1945. Kenny and his friends reenact this struggle in their dinosaur "wars."

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Response to Literature: Reading Log Options

GOAL: To review students' options for written log responses


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Make character maps for Kenny and Byron. Do you think it was good for Byron to tell Joey the story about the "froze-up Southern folks"? Why? What do you think of Byron's beating up Larry? Did Larry deserve it? Why?

Review some of the response types that students can use in their reading logs. You might mention Prediction, Character Map, Picture, Questions for My Group, Me and the Book, and Wonderful Words. These and many other reading log options are described fully on the four Response Choice Sheets (blackline masters) in the Book Club: A Literature-Based Curriculum. If your class is just starting Book Club, you may want to spend a little extra time going over each response type.

During community share, discuss what students wrote in their logs and the response types they chose to use. If any students have created their own original response types, ask them to share these with the class. You might set aside part of a bulletin board to display information about these new response types.

Ask students to share what they discussed in their book clubs, especially their impressions of Byron. In tomorrow's lesson, they can use this information to compare and contrast By with another character.

You might want to discuss Larry's motivation for stealing Kenny's gloves. Ask students what Larry's clothing—his ripped, "skinny little windbreaker" and the cardboard in the soles of his tennis shoes—reveals about him. Do these facts help explain why he stole the gloves? Was it therefore OK for him to do so? Do students feel compassion for Larry, even though he's a bully?

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Comprehension: Compare and Contrast

GOAL: To use comparison and contrast to analyze characters


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: What do you think of Momma's way of punishing Byron for playing with matches? Compare and contrast Byron and Momma. Why is Byron angry with Momma over the welfare food? Is this fair of him? Why does Byron get sick after hitting the bird?

Review the reading comprehension skills of comparing and contrasting. Make sure students understand that comparing means showing how two things are alike, and contrasting means showing how they are different. Explain that comparing and contrasting can lead to a better understanding of the things that are being analyzed. For example, if there were a new boy in school whom you had not yet met, and you asked a friend what this boy was like, your friend might compare him to a person you do know: "He's funny — he has a sense of humor like Kenny Watson's."

Comparing and contrasting is a response type that students can use at any time in their reading logs.

Because today's reading assignment is slightly longer than previous ones, you could read Chapter 5 aloud to the class and have them read Chapter 6 independently. Chapter 5 contains a rather disturbing scene between Momma and Byron that you may want to talk about after reading it aloud. A discussion of these two intense characters and the way they interact may help students compare and contrast them in their reading logs later.

Byron's "Nazi talk" in Chapter 5 is meant to be "Jawohl, mein Führer! Auf wiedersehen!" In English, this means "Yes, sir, my leader! See you later!"

Students may be sensitive to Byron's use of profanity in Chapter 6, when he says to Kenny, "I thought I told your jive little ass to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn cookies." You can explain that the author uses this language to show that Byron is disrespectful and ill-behaved, and that Byron's use of these words doesn't mean that it's OK to use them.

During community share, ask students who have compared and contrasted Momma and Byron in their reading logs to share what they wrote. Invite students to share any other ideas and questions that came up during their book club discussions.

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Literary Elements: Point of View

GOAL: To analyze the point of view from which this story is told


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Why are Momma and Dad so angry about Byron's hair? Do you think that Dad's punishment of Byron is fair? Why? How does Kenny feel about what happens to Byron? How do you think Byron feels about it? What do you predict will happen as a result of "Byron's Latest Adventure"?

Review point of view with the class. Remind students that a story may be told from the first-person or the third-person point of view. If a narrator takes part in the action of the story and refers to himself or herself as "I," the story is told from the first-person point of view. If the narrator is outside the story and does not refer to himself or herself at all, the story is told from the third-person point of view. Have students determine whether The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is told from the first-person or the third-person point of view and explain why.

Explain that the narrator's opinions and feelings about the events that take place in a story are another important aspect of point of view. Suggest that they think about Kenny's attitude toward the events that happen in Chapter 7.

During community share, return to your discussion of point of view by asking students to comment on Kenny's feelings about what happens to Byron in Chapter 7. Lead them to the conclusion that he finds By's situation humorous. Then ask them how this scene would have been described if Byron, Momma, Dad, or Joey were the narrator. What things would have been the same, and what would have been different?

You may want to explore with students the issue of why Momma and Dad are so upset about Byron's hair. If any of them have written in their logs about this issue, ask them to share their thoughts. Help them understand that Byron's parents see his new hairstyle as a rejection of his African American identity. Momma is very angry, but she also reveals how hurt and offended she is when she asks By, "Did those chemicals give you better-looking hair than me and your daddy and God gave you?"

Students may not understand why Dad calls Byron "Yul Watson" after shaving his head. Tell them that Yul Brynner was a famous actor who played the King of Siam in the Broadway musical The King and I. He played this role with a shaved head.

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Literary Elements: Dialogue

GOAL: To analyze the author's use of dialogue for characterization


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Would you like to join the Watsons' conversation about the Ultra-Glide? Why? How do you think Momma really feels about the Ultra-Glide? Were you surprised by Momma and Dad's plan for Byron? Do you think it will work? Why?

Note: Today's reading assignment is a relatively long one, so you may want to allot some extra time for students to complete it.

Have students define dialogue and tell how a character's exact words are set off from other text (i.e., with quotation marks). Then have them brainstorm a list of reasons why authors use dialogue in a story. Make sure they cover the following points: (1) Dialogue reveals what characters are like, because the characters directly state their thoughts and feelings. (2) Dialogue shows how characters interact with each other. (3) Dialogue makes characters come to life, because readers "hear" them speak using their own words. (4) Dialogue makes a story seem more realistic, because readers feel as if they are eavesdropping on actual conversations.

Encourage students to pay special attention to how Christopher Paul Curtis uses dialogue in Chapter 8. Suggest that they ask themselves: What does dialogue add to this chapter? Do the characters' words seem realistic?

During community share, ask students to share any issues or questions that emerged during their book club discussions. Then return to the discussion about dialogue. Ask students what they thought of the dialogue in Chapter 8. Are they starting to feel as if they know the characters in this story personally? How does dialogue contribute to this feeling? Did students enjoy reading the dialogue surrounding the Ultra-Glide? Why?

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Comprehension: Racism and the Civil Rights Movement

GOAL: To build background for understanding this story in its historical context


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: What do Momma and Dad want Byron to learn in Alabama? Do you understand Joey's reaction to the angel? Would you have reacted the same way? Why do you think Momma planned the trip so carefully? Do you think that Kenny will like the South? Why?

Note: Today's reading assignment is a relatively long one, so you may want to allot some extra time for students to complete it.

Depending on the needs of your students, you may want to give them some background information about racism and about the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (It is appropriate to have this discussion either before or after students read Chapter 9.) To start the discussion, ask students to share what they know about these topics. You can add any of the following information to the discussion as you see fit.

Racism is the belief that one ethnic group is superior to others. Throughout United States history, the racism of some white people has led to tragic suffering and loss for members of other groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. For about 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the legacy of African American slavery in the South was a segregated society in which black people and white people lived side-by-side but virtually in separate worlds. Public facilities such as drinking fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, motels, and schools were designated for either blacks or whites, and the facilities for blacks were invariably poorer in quality.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled, in a case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that public schools could no longer be segregated. White racists did not accept this ruling without a fight, and some turned out to jeer at and threaten black students who attended schools that had formerly been for whites only. The most famous and extreme confrontation broke out at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. President Eisenhower had to take control of the Arkansas National Guard and order them to protect the black students.

In the 1960s, the movement for racial equality known as the civil rights movement began to have a strong and very visible impact on national events. Black leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated nonviolent confrontation as a way to fight injustice. Groups of black and white activists rode together on interstate buses and sat together at whites-only lunch counters, and they endured the violent abuse of racists who wanted blacks to stay in "their place." The growth and success of the civil rights movement only infuriated such people, who in some cases resorted to intimidation tactics and even murder to try to stem the tide of change.

During community share, discuss the issues and questions that arose in students' book club conversations. If your classroom has a U.S. map that shows interstate highways, have students trace the route (starting with I-75) that the Watsons are taking from Flint to Birmingham.

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Literary Elements: Plot: Conflict/Problem

GOAL: To review the plot structure of a story; to identify the conflict, or problem, in this story


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: What do Kenny and Byron think of the places in the South that they've seen so far? Have you ever felt scared the way Kenny and By feel at the Tennessee rest stop? Describe the situation you were in. Do you think it was a good idea for Dad to ignore Momma's plan and keep driving? Why?

Review the structure of a story plot with the class. Most stories have a central problem, or conflict. During the story, characters try to solve the problem, causing a series of related events to occur. Tension and excitement build as the reader wonders how the problem will be solved. Finally, at a moment called the climax, the story reaches its most exciting point, and the central problem is usually resolved in some way. After the climax, any minor problems that remain are usually resolved, and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Ask students to identify the central conflict in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Allow time for them to consider and debate this point, if necessary. Help them distinguish between conflicts that are relatively minor or incidental to the plot—such as Kenny's being teased about his lazy eye, Momma's being angry at Dad for not stopping in Cincinnati, and the backdrop of racism in the United States—and the problem that drives the action of the plot: Byron's delinquent behavior.

During community share, ask students whether they feel the tension of the story building. Are they eager to find out what will happen next? How do they feel as they read about the Watsons' trip? Do they think that the family is in any real danger?

You may wish to point out that the words Byron uses to describe racist Southerners—crackers, rednecks, and hillbilly—are insulting terms that often refer more broadly to poor, rural whites.

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Comprehension: Analyzing Relationships Between Characters

GOAL: To analyze the relationships between characters in the story


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Draw a character map for Grandma Sands. Have you ever met someone who was nothing like what you expected? Describe the situation. Were you surprised at the way Byron acted when he met Grandma Sands? Why? Do you think Byron will change permanently as a result of spending time with Grandma Sands? Why?

Ask students whether they find the characters in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 interesting and realistic. Point out that authors reveal a lot about their characters by showing how they interact with other characters. Suggest that as they read Chapter 11, they think about how the characters they already know interact with one they are about to meet: Grandma Sands.

During community share, you might discuss the irony of Grandma Sands's actual appearance when Kenny meets her. Define irony as a situation in which the reality is very different from what was expected. In the story, Kenny had certain expectations about what Grandma Sands would be like. He imagined a huge, mean-looking woman. Instead, she turns out to be tiny, and she welcomes her family with many hugs and tears.

Ask students what they think about Byron's behavior around Grandma Sands. Were they as surprised as Kenny to hear the "juvenile delinquent" start saying things like "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am"? Do they find this part of the story believable? Why?

Students may not understand why Dad says to Kenny, "Oh, no, et tu, Brute?" In Shakespeare's Tragedy of Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor is murdered by his friends and colleagues, including Brutus, the one he loves and trusts most. When Caesar realizes that Brutus has taken part in the conspiracy, he says, "Et tu, Brute?" meaning "And [even] you, Brutus?" Dad is thus humorously exaggerating Kenny's "betrayal" of asking whether they've arrived in Birmingham yet.

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Literary Elements: Character Development

GOAL: To analyze the changes that characters undergo and the ways in which the author shows these changes

ASSIGNED READING: Chapters 12–13

DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: How has Byron changed? What do you think caused him to change? Why do you think Kenny insists on going to Collier's Landing? Why does Byron cry over Kenny? What does this tell you about By?

Introduce students to the terms static character and dynamic character. Explain that a static character stays the same throughout a story, and that a dynamic character changes during a story. Suggest that they keep these terms in mind as they read Chapters 12 and 13, and that they think about how the terms apply to characters in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.

You may want to make sure that students know what a whirlpool is before they begin today's reading. Ask them to share what they know, and lead them to understand that a whirlpool is a circular current in a body of water that can pull things down toward its center. Vortex is another word for whirlpool.

During community share, ask students whether they think Byron is a static character or a dynamic character. If they agree that he is a dynamic character, ask them to provide evidence from the book to show how he has changed. What details does the author use to show changes in Byron? Do students think that they're finally seeing the "true" Byron? Why? What is Kenny's point of view about his brother's behavior? What evidence about Byron's changes does Kenny have that no other character has?

If you discussed the pun "personal saver" in Lesson 2, you may want to have students analyze "Wool Pooh" and determine whether it is also a pun.

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Literary Elements: Plot: Climax

GOAL: To review the plot structure of a story; to identify the climax of this story


DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Draw a picture of the Wool Pooh. Why does Joetta think that Kenny has changed his clothes? If you were seeing a member of your family for the last time, what would you want to say to him or her? How did the events of Chapter 14 make you feel? Why?

Remind students of the discussion of plot structure in Lesson 8. Ask them whether they think the story has reached its climax, the most exciting part of the story and the point at which the central problem is resolved. Allow everyone to voice an opinion before students begin the reading assignment.

Although students are reading only 11 pages today, you may want to give them extra time to write about the emotionally charged events of Chapter 14. The events are also somewhat confusing, and you may want to circulate through the room as students are meeting with their book clubs and check whether any groups are struggling just to sort out what happened.

Students may be confused about why Joey was not in the church when the bomb exploded and why she keeps insisting that Kenny has changed his clothes. Although this matter is clarified somewhat in Chapter 15, you may want to explain to students now that Joey saw another boy who looked like Kenny and followed that boy down the street. While she was chasing the boy, the bomb exploded in the church.

During community share, allow students to share their thoughts and feelings about Chapter 14. Many of them may express shock over what happened, and you might point out that the author probably intended for readers to feel something of the shock that Kenny experiences.

Return to your discussion of plot structure and climax, and ask students whether they think Chapter 14 represents the climax of the story. They do not have to reach any definite conclusions until after they have finished the book, but they should have some ideas about it at this point.

You may want to discuss the symbolism of the Wool Pooh. This fantasy creature has become more than a monster to Kenny — it is death personified. Kenny struggles with the Wool Pooh for his own life in the whirlpool, and he imagines himself engaged in a tug of war with it over Joey, too.

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Response to Literature: Personal Responses to the Story

GOAL: To explore students' personal reactions to the story; to consider the author's purpose

ASSIGNED READING: Chapter 15, Epilogue

DISCUSSION TOPICS & QUESTIONS: Has Kenny changed at the end of the story? If so, how? Has Byron changed? If so, how? Why does talking to Byron make Kenny feel better? What kinds of magic powers does Kenny believe in? Why do you think Christopher Paul Curtis wrote this book?

If there are still some issues from yesterday's lesson that students want to discuss, you can hold a community share at the start of today's lesson. Otherwise, students can begin reading the last section of the book right away.

After students have written in their logs and met with their book clubs, allow them to discuss in community share whatever issues are on their minds after having finished the book. Emphasize that their personal responses to the book are important. Authors write stories in part to evoke an emotional response in readers, and having strong feelings about a book is an important part of understanding and appreciating it. As Christopher Paul Curtis indicates in the Epilogue, he wants readers to care about Joetta and the Watsons so that they can understand the tragedy that struck some real families during the civil rights movement.

Ask students to consider the author's purpose for writing this book. Explain that there may be many different purposes, and that only the author himself really knows what these purposes are. However, the Epilogue suggests that Curtis is concerned about honoring the memories of the people who suffered and died during the civil rights movement. He also wants to remind readers that ordinary people are often heroes. Other purposes might include entertaining readers and enjoying the pure pleasure of telling a good story. Ask students to brainstorm a list of possible author's purposes for this book.

You may want to return once more to the topic of plot structure and ask students what part of the story they would call the climax. If they agree that the church bombing was the climax, what purpose does Chapter 15 serve? What final issues are resolved in this last chapter? Would students have been satisfied with the story if it had ended after Chapter 14?

At the end of each Book Club unit, we recommend having students assess their own performance. It is also a good time for you to assess each student's work during the unit and to give him or her a chance to respond to your assessment. See Book Club: A Literature-Based Curriculum for detailed student self-assessment and teacher evaluation lessons. Blackline masters for assessment are also provided within the book.

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