Young people do have stories worth telling

We could not help but share this letter from the astounding student Erica Eliza Smith.

“I just finished reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice for the second time. The first time I read it was back in eighth grade (I’m a junior now) when I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a teenager in a world run by adults. This was the same year I read We Were There, Too! and It’s Our World, Too! 

I believe that every book I’ve read has changed my life. But your books have changed my life more than any other book beyond certain religious texts and the books that taught me how to read. You’re the only author I’ve found who seems to care about young people who want to read about other young people.

Young people do have stories worth telling. I understand that my school textbooks will never devote a significant number of pages to young people for the same reasons they don’t talk all that much about women or people of color. Paper and class time is limited. We can only cover the presidents and generals. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t there too. That doesn’t mean we didn’t witness historical events at the very least. And there are always untold stories about people like Claudette who changed things.

I feel like youth are the most neglected of any demographic group. My school offers a women’s history class, which I’ll take next year, and all but one of the movies we watched in U.S. History this year featured African Americans. But so far as young people are concerned, we have Sacagawea and Emmett Till. I wish they’d include more stories about youth. It would help us see history as our story instead of something that happened to old dead guys.

Reading your books, especially We Were There, Too! felt like going through a treasure trove. Here was a young person for all my favorite pieces of history. The sweatshops of the Industrial Revolution. The women’s suffrage movement. The Salem Witch Trials (I’m descended from an accused witch). The pioneer trails (them too). And more little slices of history I’d never given much thought to. I can’t thank you enough for bringing all these stories to light. Please know that your efforts to dig up these people and put them on a page was worthwhile. I recommend them to teenagers and adults alike. Keep writing great stories!”

An Open Book

Phillip Hoose visits the Washington Middle School for Girls thanks to An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation

Recently I visited the Washington Middle School for Girls, in Washington DC. The appearance was arranged through An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation, a non-profit organization formed “to improve literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the greater Washington, D.C. area by giving schools and students books and access to authors and illustrators.”  I was the author to whom the students had access on that day.

Phillip Hoose visits the Washington Middle School for Girls thanks to An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation

I presented slides from my book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice to eighty or so middle-school-age girls.  After my presentation, we had a long and vigorous back-and-forth which felt more like a conversation than a question-and-answer session. We talked about Ms. Colvin’s courage, the danger she accepted by putting her name on a lawsuit challenging Jim Crow, how I located her, why she decided to work with me, Dr. King, teen pregnancy, her children and grandchildren, the tactical decision to challenge segregated bus seating in federal court, how the Montgomery Bus Boycott worked, what the life of a writer is like, my family, Maine, and many, many other topics.  It was a rich, deeply satisfying opportunity for me.

Phillip Hoose visits the Washington Middle School for Girls thanks to An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation

The Open Book Foundation indeed gave a copy of Claudette Clovin: Twice Toward Justice to each and every student. The students came in to meet me class-by-class, lining up to get their books signed. While there was an Amy, a Christina and two Londons, most of the names were unfamiliar to me and difficult for me to spell. “What’s your name?” I would say. “Lakeisha,” would be the reply. And I would try to spell it. I got better, but didn’t come close to getting half right. More and more I would hear girls whispering to each other in the back of the line, “He’s never gonna get YOUR name.”

Phillip Hoose visits the Washington Middle School for Girls thanks to An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation

One girl gave me a poem. It’s beautiful and emphatic and hopeful. I will seek her permission to share it with you.  It was just one of those days when I had to kind of pinch myself to be so lucky. To share an afternoon with the wonderful young women of the Washington Middle School for Girls, talking about things that matter…it just can’t get any better than that. –Phillip Hoose

Robert H. Jackson Center

Our many thanks to the righteous folks at The Robert H. Jackson Center for keeping the honorable Supreme Justice’s civil rights legacy alive.  The center honored Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice with  state-wide book donations to schools in New York and an essay contest.  Phil was happy to be on hand to congratulate the essay winners and talk with hundreds of students live in Jamestown, NY and statewide via broadcast.

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An undeniable connection

Every student knows the Rosa Parks story.  When students discover there was a teenager before Rosa and a teenager that was silenced, their sense of injustice is piqued.  The students connect with Claudette Colvin because they know what it feels like to be ignored or dismissed because of their age.

Katherine Rosario spoke nicely about Claudette’s connection to teens in her fantastic blog review of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.

“Claudette Colvin is a teenage student who stood up for what she believed in. How many students today would be willing to do what she did? It might be few or more than we would anticipate. Students can look to Claudette Colvin as a role model and someone that they may be able to connect with, given that she is one of them; a teen. This can relate to Emmett Till that we learn about in the text. “‘There had been lynchings and cross burnings before, but this was a much stronger warning. Emmett Till was age.’” (59)

An undeniable connection exists because they are all about the same age, thus, teens today may see Claudette as one of their peers. This is one way that students can begin to connect with the text, through Claudette herself. This is where the ball gets rolling; students may be more engaged with the text which opens up for more possible connections to be made.”–Katherine Rosario Blog

Why Not In English Class?

Our thanks to Bloggity Blog Blog for the post More Than Just a History Lesson for encouraging a taste of Civil Rights History in English class…

“Although I know that there will be English teachers who won’t like to teach a book like this and see it better fit in a history class, we as English teachers do teach history as a number of the books we decide to use in our class will be tied to a different era than what our students are familiar with.  Knowing that we’ll have to teach them a bit of history to better understand those books, why not choose a book like Claudette Colvin:  Twice Toward Justice and let the book do the explaining for us, allowing us to focus on how we can use it to enhance our students reading, writing, researching and cognitive skills”


Did You Know…

“Did you know that someone before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person?  Did you know that someone was a fifteen year old girl”

So begins the wonderful review of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Ms. Hughes who teaches 6th Grade Reading at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, MD.

The book is often described as about “the 15-year-old Rosa Parks.”  The book’s reading level  comes at an age where kids are ready to see beyond the icons of history to the smaller, more complicated, and previously unknown stories.  Claudette’s story is all that.  Thanks Ms. Hughes for sharing it with your students.

Freedom Project

Pleased that Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice and We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History are included in the University of Delaware’s Freedom Project: Teaching American History program this year.  Phil Hoose will be speaking to educators there on July 26, 2011.

The goals of the TAH Freedom Project are (1) increased teacher knowledge of American history content and standards, (2) improved instruction in the area of American history, and (3) increased student achievement in the area of American history.  Fine goals, indeed.