On Teaching: The Great and Other Migrations

As a teacher it is hard to stay uninspired as I go about my daily business. I knew I needed to read The Warmth of Other Suns last year when I saw the excellent exhibit of the same name at The Phillips Collection. It was truly groundbreaking and a gathering of artwork that will likely never be seen together again. If you missed it, you missed out.

The book that inspired the exhibit turned out to be just as captivating. I loved traveling with Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster out of the South and into their new lives. My own family was part of the Great Migration. Robert Foster actually reminded me of my two grandfathers. One was a doctor who graduated from Meharry Medical School and one was a veteran who fled Louisiana. Both came to California in search of their dreams. Reading this book felt very personal and while The Warmth of Other Suns isn’t a new release, its ability to resonate and teach so profoundly a decade later is evidence of its timelessness.

While The Warmth of Other Suns is a adult book, it would fit well in many high school classrooms. For middle schoolers, the text is too long (although young reader editions are very popular right now – putting it out into the universe that this would be a great set of stories to translate!) I think I will select a few passages to read, most memorably, the beautiful description of the first time Ida Mae Gladney votes in Chicago. This passage is structured enough to be a stand alone short story, and it captures what it would have been like to vote for the first time after living somewhere voting could kill you. The upcoming election is a great opportunity to talk about topics like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and (the truth about) women’s suffrage, particulary if you need to avoid “politics”. Teaching Tolerance has a great series of lessons for conversations about the past and the present.

There are a few picture books about the great migration for younger children, including this collection of poetry by Eloise Greenfield. It is beautifully illustrated.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series is an important American text and should be viewed by all. This picture book is a precious part of our family library.

This set of books by Linda Williams Jackson features a relatable middle grade character with a complicated family. As she becomes more aware of the oppression around her, she tries to make up her own mind about the South, moving up North, and joining the emerging Civil Rights movement. I’d recommend them for Grades 7 and up. The n-word appears as do violent descriptions of lynchings.

If the South isn’t a central topic in the curriculum, there are other migrations it relates too. Tie-ins might include migrant workers and the fight for farm workers rights. It seems I try to teach Esperanza Rising, The Circuit, Cesar Chavez, and Delores Huerta wherever I go. I’m from California after all.

Of course the worldwide refugee crisis and the migration of millions fleeing war and economic oppression continues and warrants our attention even with so much competition in the news. Many middle school students are not aware this is happening and it’s important to bring them up to speed.

This interactive map from The Refugee Project sparks powerful observations and conversations.

The selection of books for middle school students that include refugee stories has grown, with several options for connecting with characters from Syria and Central America. And I love teaching the poetry of Javier Zimora. His personal story is incredible. His work in Unaccompanied humanizes the experience of crossing the border and makes understanding the perspective of undocumented refugees accessible. Highly recommend!

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