Themed Literature Unit: Standing Up for What You Believe In

(Mural available from Art Projects for Kids, a site that is absolutely invaluable and is basically the only way am capable of teaching my students art)

My first few years as a teacher, I really felt uncomfortable about MLK Day and Black History Month in February. Not because I didn’t want to cover the more complicated parts of our past as a country, but because I didn’t feel equipped to adequately field all the questions I knew would inevitably arise. I didn’t want to just talk about civil rights in a cursory way, but I also didn’t want to inadvertently be insensitive.

I also didn’t want my majority-minority Hispanic-American population to feel that I favored studying one branch of injustice over another. We studied Martin’s Big Words (more on this below), but I’ll admit I didn’t really know how to bite off much more than that.

Thank you, Katherine Schlick Noe. Back at Seattle U, she taught us about the power of using themed literature units in addressing a larger issue. You can find a ton of sample units here, and specifically, a unit on Standing Up For What You Believe can be downloaded here. Thank you also, to Mr. Chan, who models personal awareness to racial and ethnic issues — really, human issues — on a daily basis, just as a part of who he is as a person.

This January, when we returned from winter break, I announced that our theme of the month was going to be “Standing Up for What You Believe In.” We opened the unit by reading Fledgling by Robert Blake. It’s a pretty basic book, but it got us thinking about perseverance. Plus, it was nice for me to start off with an animal book rather than to jump straight into issues of race and class and everything, given the reservations I mentioned above.

Earlier this year, we read Ellie McDoodle, New Kid in School. There are huge messages of nonviolent protest in the book, and students brought up the idea that you can stand up for what you believe in whether it’s a smaller problem (long lunch lines) or a huge problem (institutionalized racism). The book also introduced our students to King and Gandhi.

In our quest to read all the Caldecott winners, we moved on to So, You Want To Be President. As imperfect as our presidents were, we used this book to talk about the fact that many different people have all put their mark on running the country. Effective presidents stood up for what they believed in AND explained their beliefs to citizens. We wondered why so many white guys from log cabins became presidents (a fact mentioned halfway through the book), and I believe this initial conversation sparked a HUGE and fantastic lesson two weeks later on power and why the Jim Crow laws were so difficult to change.

Then, we read Martin’s Big Words, my favorite MLK book. We used the found poem lesson from, which always seems to be a hit. It seems as though the new link to the lesson plan no longer includes the printable list of quotes that I use in the lesson, but the older lesson plan is here.

Martin’s Big Words led naturally into Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King. My students commented that this book didn’t seem quite as fact-filled as Martin’s Big Words, but I think the fact that it was basically a review of what they learned in the previous book encouraged them to ask further questions about discrimination and segregation, which led us to create a giant timeline related to our theme (I’ll post pictures later).

Then, Miss Turner was a rockstar and printed out a shared reading mini-book on Martin Luther King, Jr. through Reading A-Z. Thank you! My students loved it, and they’ve been rereading it all week.

Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick are pretty much the best duo on the planet. When Marian Sang is gorgeous and interesting. You can see some early development of a few of Selznick’s themes from The Invention of Hugo Cabret being tested here. Marian Anderson wanted to be an opera singer. That was insanely difficult to do in the early 20th century. But she did it, even though she often had to perform double shows for black and white audience members, and even when she couldn’t find hotels to take her in after her performances. This book is a little long, but we split it into two lessons. You can download a reader’s theater version of this book here.

My students also thought that What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? related to our theme because “People thought Ben Franklin was kind of weird, but he didn’t care — he had a lot of good ideas and he used them.” This is one of a whopping two books about Ben Franklin in our school library. Don’t even get me started on the puny state of our poor school library.

Other books planned for this unit that we haven’t read yet include:

Sit-In is illustrated by the same man as Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King. It’s not my favorite book ever, but my students were really interested in the Montgomery bus boycott, so I thought this would be a good companion book.

I could go on. I’d love to hear your suggestions, too!

I haven’t included many chapter books because our chapter book read alouds this year are Federal Way’s Battle of the Books books.

Find more MLK books here, courtesy of Betsy Bird.

PROTIP: Part of the reason why I turned this into a monthlong unit was because I felt so cheap to bring up MLK two days before his birthday. Another more practical reason to consider planning this unit ahead of time is that ALL the bookstores in the Seattle area were totally sold out of Martin’s Big Words and many other seminal MLK/Black History texts. If Third Place Books would’ve had FIVE copies of Martin’s Big Words, I would’ve bought them all for fellow teachers who asked for a copy.

Next month’s theme is probably going to be Persevering in Difficult Times. It should connect pretty smoothly to this month’s unit, but will also include such books as Wilma Unlimited.


2 thoughts on “Themed Literature Unit: Standing Up for What You Believe In”

  1. This looks like a terrific unit.

    I always use Martin’s Big Words with my 4th grade. There are two other books my classes always love. My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris is popular because it shows MLK as a normal/imperfect boy and because the kids love that it’s written by his sister.
    Faith Ringgold’s If a Bus Could Talk would probably also fit in well with your unit.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Sweet, thanks for the suggestions! I can’t believe January is already almost over — I could keep this unit going for quite a while, but I think I’m about ready to lighten things up a bit…

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