Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade classic and truly a work of art. A memoir about how the South shaped her life and how she came to dream of being a writer, Jacqueline Woodson beautifully portrays her childhood in a powerful verse novel. She touches on many relatable themes such as family, friendship, home, change, and education. There are tons of literary devices to notice and enjoy. While it is specifically a story about her family, the magic of Brown Girl Dreaming is how Woodson captures the fullness of the Black Family Experience – the joy, the resilience, the love – all of it. Her family was nothing like my family and she is of a different generation, yet I found myself connecting to her experiences anyways.
This book is one I recommend for every home and school library. However, this year I teach 7th grade English, and honestly, I was surprised to see it on our booklist. It is typically read in 4th – 6th grade and I wondered if it wasn’t a little young. 7th graders ride a fine line between middle grade and YA, with the tilt depending on the time of year. However, I also know that once they cross over into YA-land, it is really hard to get them back. This 7th grade year is the last year they will be interested in many middle school books. We have one last opportunity to squeeze certain books in and the key is to avoid shallow studies. I wondered how we would deepen the experience for those who had already read it or for students who read above its level.
Enter The Research Project.
The other thing that Jacqueline Woodson does masterfully is weave in references to Black History, Art, and Activism. She is a child of the 60s and 70s and watches both the civil rights movement and Black Power movement unfold around her. These references are sprinkled in throughout the book. Some are just the drop of a name. Others are a whole ode, like the poem “Say It Loud”, about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis.
What our English team brilliantly realized was that these references were flying over the heads of even our best readers. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington are generally familiar to all students at our school by this age, other heroes and events are lesser known. Most did not yet have an opportunity to hear stories of The Great Migration or to read James Baldwin. They probably didn’t grow up listening to Sam Cooke. Even modern celebrities like John Lewis and Angela Davis are far more nuanced than they know. To fully grasp the messages in Brown Girl Dreaming, students needed these names and events to resonate. By the end of this unit they would.
(Full disclosure – this curriculum idea came from the previous English team at The Maret School in Washington DC. I was just fortunate enough to teach it. Also I think it would be a great family or summer project.)
First, we compiled a list of references that could become research topic. We assigned one iconic figure, group, or event to each student.
Then we partnered with our librarians to create a research portal with suggested sources:
Students used Noodletools to cite sources and make notecards:
Then each student designed a google slide that incorporated important information about their topic:
Then they used Flipgrid to make a screencast where they verbally narrated the story of their icon. As the references appeared in the book, students would watch their classmates’ screencast to learn more about that figure, group, or event:
Students teaching students (and me!) – it was awesome.
This Black History Month has been pretty relaxing because we completed this project last quarter and have no need to stuff anything in just because it is February. This truly feels like a best practice because:
1) We are incorporating Black History into our curriculum in authentic ways.
2) It is very easy to bring any one of these topics up again because we all have the same background knowledge now.
3) We have made it clear that Black history is full of empowered joy and agency, not just trauma.
My co-teacher said Brown Girl Dreaming was her favorite unit. I think I will remember it as mine too.