There is no arguing that these past few years have been transformative. The unwelcome arrival of Covid certainly made life feel a bit apocalyptic for a while. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 compounded the feeling of helplessness and horror that so many of us were feeling. Collectively, it reminded us that there was a plague far worse than Covid that was still sweeping the earth; it showed us the pain of the Black American experience.
But from horror rises hope, and the Black Lives Matter protests way back in 2020 have shown us that most of us will continue to fight against injustice. Black History Month this October is an ideal opportunity for us, as teachers, to continue to keep the profile of this vital human rights issue at the forefront of students’ minds. In English, that means using the gateway of literature.
Some time ago now, Beyond started work on a new KS3 English Literature unit focusing on American Literature. The unit was conceived with several aims in mind: to bring more diversity of literary and cultural experience to the English classroom; to meet the requirements for teaching “seminal world literature” in the KS3 English curriculum; and to give students an insight into some of the wonderful American novels which are currently lingering in many English stock cupboards. So, Black American Experience in Literature was born.
The unit covers four seminal world literature works: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each novel’s lessons focus on a particular extract detailing a Black American experience; they look at the events which take place and the writer’s skills and craft. There are three lessons on each text extract, and the novels can be taught in any order. There’s also a comprehensive Context Lesson, which should be taught at the beginning of the unit, which explores the many facets and history of the Black American experience in literature. Added to that, we’ve included an End-of-Unit Assessment and a Wider Reading List.
Here’s a breakdown of the unit in a little more detail. All of these novels are under copyright and therefore the texts can’t be included in the lesson packs, but we have chosen short extracts for detailed study, which could be photocopied if needed.
I Know The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
These lessons focus on Chapters Two and Three of the novel, where we learn the history of Uncle Willie and see him hide in the potato bins at the store. Topics covered include biographical detail on Maya Angelou, how the author builds character, language techniques, and using context to analyse texts.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The focus of these lessons is Chapter Two, where Khalil is shot by a police officer. Topics covered include detail on Angie Thomas and Black Lives Matter, how texts are structured, character analysis and creating tension.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor
The extract from Chapter One where Little Man is presented with his “new” school book is the focus of these lessons. Topics covered include background on Mildred D. Taylor, character analysis with hot-seating and close textual analysis.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
These lessons focus on the extract from Chapter 15 when the men visit the Maycomb County Jail where Tom Robinson is being held. Topics covered include biographical detail on Harper Lee, identifying subtext, perspectives and creative writing. It also invites students to consider why the narrative focuses on the feelings and experiences of White characters.
Of course, this is just the start. There are lots of other works which can and should be included in Beyond’s English offering. We’re constantly looking at ways to broaden our literature resources, and we always welcome suggestions for new units of work or single resources. But for those teachers who want to celebrate Black History Month, this unit is a great way of achieving that in the English classroom. As teachers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students read texts which show them the horrors and wonders of the world with 20:20 vision. That way, they can learn from our mistakes and pave the way for a better future.
Read our previous post on Black History Month KS3 Resources here and subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.