Every year, I offer lessons to accompany the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. There are so many inspiring stories about this influential man, but students hear some of the same stories every year. This year, I wanted to offer a different spin and introduce a recent book called Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend by Calvin Ramsey and Bettye Stroud. The book is most appropriate for grades 3-5, but it could certainly be used with others.
Prior to reading the story, I build a bit of background knowledge about Gee’s Bend by watching the first few minutes of this video about the Gee’s Bend Quilters.
I wanted students to know the importance of the quilts to the people of Gee’s Bend as well as understand a bit of the culture of Gee’s Bend, so we only watched a bit of the first Bender’s interview.
Next, we used Google Earth to zoom into Gee’s Bend and talk a little about the geography of the area and where the name “bend” came from.
In 4th grade, students are working on common core standard ELACC4RL3: Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions). As we read the story, I asked students to pay close attention to the characters, setting, and plot so that they could discuss it at the close of the story.
In 5th grade, students are working on common core standard ELACC5RL2: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text. To build some background knowledge on theme, we watch the first few minutes of this video:
5th grade reflected on theme throughout the book to inform their conversation at the close of the story.
In both 4th and 5th grade, we read the book and stopped along the way to have impromptu discussions. Many of our discussions came around the part of the book that is about the right to vote and how Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged all African Americans to vote because it was their right.
At the close of both lessons, students went to computers and used Today’s Meet to have a silent conversation about their particular standard. 4th grade posted about characters, setting, and plot, and 5th grade posted about theme. I encouraged students to read what others were writing and write follow-up posts or questions for their classmates. I wouldn’t say that the conversation was particularly connected at this first attempt, but there were definitely things that I liked. For example, in 5th grade, every student was able to post a comment about theme whether it was right or not. I could quickly see who really understood theme and who didn’t without publicly naming what was “right” and “wrong”. Also, at the very end, I had students read back through the posts and decide which comments stood out to them the most as really identifying theme. Students could easily name who said what as they were speaking. For example, “I liked how Aidia said that anyone can be a hero”. It was a way for students to acknowledge the contributions of their peers and accurately quote their contributions. Sometimes it’s hard for students to remember exactly what someone said aloud, but this printed text made that easier to remember.
I definitely would like to try Today’s Meet again in other settings, and I’m happy to find a place for this wonderful story to give new life to a topic that students have heard many times.