Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Finding Our Way Between the Lines: Courageous Conversations About Racism

 And then the realtor told my parents to make our house look less black so it would sell faster and they'd get what it is worth.
                              --- "John," a fifth grade student

There was an audible gasp from surrounding students. And one of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed students asked in disbelief, "Wait---What? Why?" John replied, "Yeah, really. That really did happen."

My classroom exploded into chatter, into upset, into a barrage of questions. I sat quietly for a few seconds before I intervened,  letting my students talk. I was about to learn something from my students. I could feel it, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. 

How We Got There

I sometimes work with a Civitan group in the town where I live. The Civitans are service groups that can be found all over the United States. This particular Civitan group focuses on funding and supporting literacy projects in our schools.  Peg, our fearless leader, gave me a book at the beginning of the school year.  She explained that the author of the book would be the guest speaker at our annual Literacy Tea, our major fundraiser of the year.  She thought it was a good fit for fifth graders.  I thanked her and put it on my teaching shelf for later in the year.

Flash forward, through countless mentor texts about leadership, common good, and acceptance, to February and Black History Month.  In January, I had taken the book home to read.  From the first chapter I was sold, and I knew this would be our next mentor text.  Between the Lines, by Claudia Whitsitt, became the vehicle that facilitated our courageous conversations.

 Setting the Stage

Our exploration into civil rights began with Langston Hughes' poems.  You can read more about our beginning here.  We read a number of his dream poems, and then we read "Daybreak in Alabama."  I chose to begin our book study this way because I wanted to develop my students' schema.  We read "Daybreak in Alabama" deeply, using visible thinking and CLOSE reading routines.  We watched footage of the Selma March and listened to Dr. King's speech. We read about Bloody Sunday.  We thought about these things symbolically and actually created symbols to sum up our thoughts about the poem and the march to Selma. 

Beginning the Book

After building our prior knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, we were ready to begin reading Between the Lines by Claudia Whitsitt. This first chapter opens with the main character, Hattie, excitedly preparing for her birthday party, only to find out that the Detroit riots have exploded.  Her party is cancelled as her family goes on "lock down" as the fighting around her escalates. This prompted us to research the Detroit riots of the '60s. Students' initial reactions to Hattie's upset about her party was that she was selfish.

However, as the character develops and deepens, so did my students' understanding and thinking about her. Hattie's family moves out of Detroit, and she experiences public school for the first time.  There, she meets two friends... "Crackers," a white girl who is a tomboy, and Beverly Jo, her first black friend. What unfolds is Hattie's struggle to maintain her friendship with Beverly in the face of some parental resistance, a teacher's bigotry, and her peers' racism.  As Hattie finds her way, respecting the adults around her while doing what she feels is right, my students' conversations about race bubbled to the surface.

The Tough Stuff

As we progressed through Hattie's story, we read about classmates calling Beverly a nigger.  We read about Hattie being called a nigger lover. We read about a teacher,  adored by the three friends, who wrote a cruel note about Beverly and then had her deliver it to another teacher.  We read about Beverly's crushed spirit.  We read about Hattie's "war" with her mother and her struggle to understand her mother's fears.  We read about Cracker's bravado as she deals with her dad's issues. We began to ask questions:
  1. What is racism?
  2. What causes a person to be a racist?
  3. How can we make a difference in our world?
  4. What is it like to be a minority?
And these questions led us to John's confession: "The realtor told my parents to make our house look less black..." My students and I talked and talked.  They decided that racism is when people respond to or treat others differently from others based on their race, culture, or religion.  Early on, my students commented on Hattie's mom's fears.  She feared what neighbors would think. She feared for Hattie's safety.  She feared black people.  We talked a great deal about how we all fear differences... some times those differences have to do with religion, race, culture, or gender. Other times, those fears are about more mundane life experiences.  

They began to wonder if racism is based in fear. This led to some current event connections about immigrants.  And so, they wondered about the fear that is expressed in the United States right now. 

One of the over-arching themes in Between the Lines is Hattie's altruism.  She wants to make the world a better place.  She grapples with how to do this on an almost daily basis.  She has an uncommon awareness of the mixed messages she is receiving from her parents, her grandmother, her peers, her teacher, her church, and the community and society around her.  We asked ourselves, "How do we make the world a better place?"

Safety & the Vicarious Experience

 Between the Lines and books like it provide a safe place for students to discuss hard issues, because we can live and learn vicariously through the characters' experiences.  My black students talked about some of their experiences. My other students sat in shock. They listened. They questioned.  They had no idea.  Why would they? They are not black.  This book created two spaces in my classroom: A space for my black students to share their realities, and a space for my other students to listen and discover.  It also led to conversations about other prejudices...those toward Chaldeans, Muslims, developmentally disabled, and on and on. My students with immigrant experiences began to speak up, too. We also talked and talked about what it means to "stand up" for someone.  How do we support someone who is being bullied or picked on? 

The Side-Effects

Our conversations about racism and the world are ongoing.  We've recently begun to read about the Flint water crisis while we're also reading A Long Walk to Water.  We are talking about author bias and several students have begun to ask questions about how people around the world get their water.  Some of the questions they are asking go back to economics, politics, and race. Perhaps what is most exciting to me is that they are asking these questions on their own. And I truly believe that this type of questioning began because of Between the Lines.

We celebrated our reading of Between the Lines in a very special way.  Remember that Civitan group and their Literacy Tea? Well, they invited my class to attend in order to meet the author!  Part of the Literacy Tea is that Civitan hosts design tables around books. Guests view and vote on the tables. Prizes are awarded and raffles are conducted.  The featured author speaks.  

We collectively decided that we wanted to design our table to represent all of our thinking about the march to Selma, "Daybreak in Alabama," and Between the Lines.  Students went online to pull images of civil rights demonstrations.  Others drew the main characters of the novel and mounted them on foam core board.  A group of engineers built a model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  We use our "Daybreak" symbols as placemats.  Other students pulled excerpts from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and some pulled excerpts from the novel. They typed these and placed them on the table as well.

After much anticipation and planning, the night arrived. My students met Claudia Whitsitt and her two friends on which the other characters of Crackers and Beverly were based!  We were high as kites for the rest of the week. I don't think my students will ever forget that night or how Ms. Whitsitt responded to their questions about her characters, her experiences, and her writing practice.

It Isn't Easy

It takes courage to talk to our kids about racism and prejudice. It can even be a fearful thing to discuss current events. I don't know if our conversations would have been as safe or as deep without the support of literature. But I wonder, if not us...than who? Who will facilitate the courageous conversations? Because what I learned from kids this year is this: They are listening. They are watching. They are waiting for an opportunity to talk and question.    

Please feel free to use this free resource for facilitating conversations about civil rights by clicking the picture below:

This week's post is a 3Es Blogging Collaborative post.  We have some thought-provoking ideas and resources for you this month, along with a guest post from author CLAUDIA WHITSITT. Please visit!


  1. These conversations with and for our students are SO important. It encourages my heart to know they are happening in such thoughtful, meaningful, and intentional ways. And Claudia Whitsitt's book is going on my reading list!

  2. Wow. These conversations need to be happening everywhere. Thank you for creating a space for them in your classroom.