This past fall I received an email from Keren Lilu from the Blue School here in NYC who was using Africa is My Home with her 5th graders. We started corresponding, I visited the school, and was so excited by what Keren had done that a colleague and I used her ideas with our own 4th graders for our unit on Forced Emigration: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (part of our year-long immigration study).
In her initial email, Keren wrote:
Our big study for the year is the Harlem Renaissance/Civil Rights movement, with the essential questions centered around power: how does power emerge- is it inevitable? Who decides who has power? How do we empower ourselves in the face of injustice? We actually began the year looking at slavery as a historical context to ground the rest of our study in, and we began by reading your book, Africa is My Home. Wow- how this book has captured my students! They absolutely love it and are completely engrossed and immersed in it. It has taken so long to read it- we can barely get through a page or two a day- because each page just sparks so much discussion among the children; they can talk and talk about it! I can’t tell you how much this book has touched them, and how it has really made them think about deep issues of the world. They really have so much to say, and have fallen so in love with Sarah (Magulu). And learning about Sierra Leone and the slave trade and the circumstances of the Amistad is really important to them, especially with our study this year.
As Keren had done with her students, I read it aloud with the children following along. We stopped to talk and for me to share primary sources I’d collected for the book that did not end up in it. I absolutely agree with Keren on this method:
I think it honors it [the story] more that way and really created a reading community around it. We often could only get through a few pages at a time because of all of the discussion it generated. I actually, at the beginning, used it to teach discussion skills as well, because I found the kids were becoming so passionate with the book they all would start talking at the same time!
One of my favorite ideas from Keren was this:
I had the children choose ten words or phrases from the text to capture that part of the story. We did it after the part where Margru is pawned, after the section of her trial and freedom, and after returning home. These kind of turned into “found” poems too and were incredible, and the children actually wound up really loving this!
At the end she had them create Point of View poems, something I did too.
The poems we did after we finished reading the book, as a writing piece and response. They wrote one, and then we did a revision for these following points:-what is the larger story you are trying to tell across the whole poem? Think through the different “I am’s.”-make sure each line is unique (replace ideas that repeat and say in a different way)-expand each line with more vivid and emotional details
I knew I wanted them to really connect with the emotions and the journey of Margru, and I remembered this format of poetry that Pat [Lynch, her administrator] introduced to me a long time ago when I was teaching the travelers of the Silk Road. I remembered those Silk Road traveler poems were so emotional and thoughtful, so I tried it with this book, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was debating having the children choose any character’s perspective (father, Cinque, etc.), but I decided at the end to focus just on Margru, since it was really her journey we were following.
Here are two of Keren’s students’ poems:
But that isn’t all! Keren teamed with the art teacher who had the children study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and then create their own series of paintings of Margru’s journey. These were absolutely extraordinary. Here is a video the children and Keren made of these. Aren’t they wonderful?
Reflecting on the unit, Keren wrote:
What I would have loved to do that I didn’t think of until after was have the kids keep a journal from Margru’s perspective during the story and her journey, and have them write entries as reading responses during the unit. I wish I did this. I guess next time!
I was able to visit the class and that experience reinforced for me what she had written. The children were so involved in the story — their questions and comments were thoughtful, informative, and passionate. It was absolutely thrilling to see a master teacher use my book this way. I can’t thank the Blue School, Pat Lynch, and Keren Lilu enough for this.
Pat Lynch, myself (holding a signed collection of the poetry and a palm tree a couple of the children made for me), and Keren Lilu standing in front of a display of the children’s poetry (with illustrations).