Celebrating Collective Action in The Teachers March
The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History
Written by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
Illustrated by Charly Palmer
Published by Calkins Creek, Imprint of Boyd’s Mill Press
“But if the teachers didn’t march, nothing would change.” On January 22, 1965 in Selma, Alabama, the Reverend F.D. Reese, a science teacher at R.B. Hudson High School, led 104 Black faculty members on a march from Brown Chapel to the steps of the courthouse. On the green marble steps of the courthouse, the marchers faced Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies, billy clubs in hand. Many of the marchers had already faced the brutality of Sheriff Clark and his ongoing efforts to prohibit the Black community of Selma from registering to vote. Before the violence that would occur just a few weeks later on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the teachers of Selma, encouraged by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and Reverend Reese, braved violence and made a collective statement. What happened on those steps on that January day became a turning point in the voting rights efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace have authored a moving nonfiction narrative, centering the courage and conviction of Reverend Reese and the Black teachers of R.B. Hudson High School. With descriptive imagery, paragraphs that vary with the mood and tone, and direct quotes from the participants in the events, readers are immersed in the immediacy and tension of that dramatic moment. Charly Palmer’s acrylic paintings shape and move the narrative, offering readers full landscapes across the gutter, close-up intimate details of objects, hands, and feet, and utilizing line and color to activate readers’ emotional responses. The Teachers March! captures a powerful moment in U.S. history, celebrates the tenacity and intrepidity of teachers, and has an important role to play in language arts and social studies curriculum.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
A Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!
Visual Literacy. Throughout the book, Charly Palmer’s illustrations shape the reading experience, and the ways in which readers take in information from this nonfiction book. If you are not already familiar with Molly Bang’s principles of illustration, we recommend you read her groundbreaking Picture This: How Pictures Work (1991/2016). Ask your students how Palmer uses close-ups and panoramic views to build tension and create an emotional response in the reader. How does Palmer use horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines to create stability, movement, and action? How do they feel when they see only feet in one picture, or mostly the back of heads in another? What role does color have in the book? Have students in small groups apply their thinking about visual literacy to a new set of illustrations, analyzing what principles of illustration are at work. As a further extension, students can create an illustration for a current writing project, applying their visual literacy skills to the construction of their illustration.
Teachers as Community Leaders. At the heart of this book is the revelation of the role of teachers as community leaders and agents of social change in Selma, Alabama in 1965. What are some of the ways that the teachers in your school are community leaders? Have students divide up into pairs and interview teachers in your school – either in-person or via videoconference. Have students read the back matter of The Teachers March!, in order to understand the important role of personal interviews in the research for this book. Work together as a class to develop a set of questions that can be shared, focusing on the ways that teachers volunteer at school and in their communities. When students have completed their interviews, have the students decide together how they want to celebrate these community leaders.
Paragraphing Possibilities. After reading The Teachers March!, have students explore the paragraphs within the text. Throughout the picture book, paragraphs vary in length to help shape mood and tone and build tension to drive the narrative.. Assign students a page or two to reread in pairs. What do they notice about the paragraph lengths? Why do they vary? What emotional impact does that have on the reader? How do the paragraphs help the reader process information? Have students share out their observations and responses, and develop a classwide “Nonfiction Style Guide” in which they offer tips on varying paragraph lengths in their writing for different authorial purposes.
Grades 5 and Up
Portraits of “Foot Soldiers.” Have students listen to Maggie Linton’s audio interviews with the individuals who participated in the voting rights marches from Selma-to-Montgomery. Either in-person or in break-out rooms via video-conferencing, have students in pairs or small groups listen to a single audio interview. Support students with a graphic organizer for note-taking. Have the groups discuss what they have learned about this individual’s experiences. Provide time for each student to write a paragraph describing those experiences. Perhaps each student can include one direct quote from the interview that they felt was important. Next, perhaps in partnership with the art teacher in your school, provide time for students to create portraits of their subject. If you are remote, allow students to create portraits using whatever art supplies they have available, or provide students with supplies if possible. Create a slideshow portrait gallery of Foot Soldiers, to be shared on your school website.
Dialogue in Nonfiction? Throughout The Teachers March!, the reader can notice that there are lines of dialogue. In the back matter, under the heading for “Selected Bibliography,” the Wallaces note that “[a]ll quotes used in the book can be found in sources listed with asterisks.” Have a discussion with students about the role of dialogue and direct quotes in nonfiction. Have they noticed these before? How do they know if the words were really said? Have students review a collection of nonfiction picture books and picture book biographies to locate dialogue. When they find quotes, either as dialogue or otherwise, have them then check the back matter to determine if the author(s) has shown the source of that quote. Similar to the “Paragraphing Possibilities” teaching idea, have students create or add to a “Nonfiction Style Guide,” focusing on the role of quotes and dialogue in nonfiction.
Narrative Gaps. The turning point in The Teachers March! narrative is the moment when the superintendent realizes that he can’t fire all of the teachers from R.B. Hudson High School, and the chief of police does not arrest the marchers. Triumphantly, the marchers return to Brown Chapel. The resolution of the narrative reveals that children in the community began participating in voting marchers, and we learn that “marchers filled the jails by the thousands.” The authors note that “Americans noticed. They wondered why respectable citizens in suits and dresses, and school kids carrying books, were jailed,” and that soon after, in summer of 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. This conclusion skips over the successive marches throughout Selma, including the violence on the Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, Alabama, and the rest of the country, that occurred that spring. Why did the authors choose to skip over this information in the narrative, and share it in the Author’s Note and Timeline instead? Support students in having this conversation to better understand the way that a narrative work of nonfiction might differ from an expository work of nonfiction that might “cover” a topic from start to finish.
Digging Deeper into the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Teachers March was a catalyst in Selma, Alabama for the larger voting rights movement. Over the next few months, Black residents of Selma continued to march and protest for voting rights, enduring violence such as the famous march over the Pettus Bridge on March 9, 1965. Provide students with the opportunity to learn more about the Voting Rights of 1965. After reading The Teachers March!, have students explore a middle-grade text set on the actions in Selma that led to the Voting Rights Act: March: Book Three, co-authored by Congressman John Lewis, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March by Linda Blackmon Lowery, and Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge. You might also offer students a broader look at Black women’s suffrage efforts with Evette Dion’s Lifting as we Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box. As students read, have them compare and contrast the ways in which Black Americans and their allies challenged power structures through their consistent acts of nonviolent protest. How did the media shift dynamics by revealing to white Americans on a larger scale the violence perpetrated on Black Americans and their allies by state and local police? Have students decide how they want to share their learning – through poetry, graphic nonfiction or historical fiction panels, podcasts, etc., supporting students as needed to work on these projects in-person or remotely. Host a videoconference reading/sharing of student work with families.
Contemporary Voter Access, Voter Suppression. In 1965, the Black community of Selma, Alabama faced a range of barriers to voting, including unfair tests, police intimidation, and violence. Still, people attempted to register to vote. Still, the teachers marched in the face of danger. In the recent 2020 election, more people voted than ever before in the United States. Many new voters were registered. President Donald Trump made frequent untrue statements in person and via Twitter, before and after Election Day, about voter fraud. Organizations across the country expressed concerns about voter suppression through a postal slow-down, a reduction in polling centers in different states and counties, and attempts to limit absentee ballots – a necessity for many voters during the COVID-19 global pandemic. National and state election officials declared that the 2020 election was the most secure election in U.S. history. Invite Democratic and Republican leaders from your county and election officials from your community to visit your class via videoconference and discuss voting protocols and procedures. Include local representatives from national voting rights organizations such as Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union to join the discussion in the conversation as well. Where are attempts at voter suppression being called out? Who is impacted by these attempts? Who is working to deny voters access? Partnering with your school and/or local librarian, curate resources on local concerns about voter access and voter suppression. Have your students explore these resources and develop voting action plans that they can share with the community in advance of future elections.
From the Selected Bibliography:
CSPAN Coverage of Congressional Medal of Honor Ceremony for the Selma Foot Soldiers (at the one hour mark, Reverend Reese comes to the podium)
Bang, M. (1991/2016). Picture this: How pictures work. Chronicle Books.
Dionne, E. (2020). Lifting as we climb: Black women’s battle for the ballot box. Viking.
Lowery, L.B. (2018). Turning 15 on the road to freedom: My story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March. Ill. by P.J. Loughran. Speak.
Partridge, E. (2009). Marching for freedom: Walk together, children, and don’t you grow weary. Viking.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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