Welcome to Mostly Appropriate Resources, my new column where I offer teachers ideas for ELA curriculum that might inspire a few parent emails. All lessons are aligned with Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation framework, TPEP. Let’s call these standards-inspired opportunities for parent-teacher communication. It’s all about the village.
This column was inspired by this list.
McFadden, Syreeta. “Beyoncé’s Formation Reclaims Black America’s Narrative from the Margins.” The Guardian. 8 February 2016.
Grade Level: 7—8
Subject: Honors Humanities
1) CCSS ELA RL.7.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
2) Evaluate whether or not popular culture can provide a meaningful reflection of larger culture values.
3) Discuss the impact of including of the voices of people of color in school curriculum.
Background: I taught an abbreviated version of this lesson the day after Beyoncé performed at the Super Bowl, two days after Formation was released. We were in the middle of our To Kill a Mockingbird unit. Our class recently included themes around Scottsboro, gentrification, cultural appropriation, and Macklemore. By the end of this lesson—first period on a Monday—my students were climbing out of their seats to get into the conversation, Socratic Seminar-style.
WARM UP, posted on the board as students arrive:
Turn & Talk:
- Did you see Beyoncé’s new video for “Formation”? If so, tell someone next to you what you thought of it.
- Do you think Beyoncé is an activist?
- Did you know Beyoncé identifies as a feminist? What do you think about that?
STEP 1: Debrief the Warm Up. This is where your tween students can express their adoration or disdain for Beyoncé in particular and pop culture in general. While they get this important step out of the way, they are also beginning to consider the overlap between the popular and the political.
STEP 2: State (and re-state) the point. Tell them straight out: We’re looking at racism as we study To Kill a Mockingbird, which is written by a white woman. Tell them they’re about to read an academic analysis of Formation. Show a picture of McFadden. Go over her resume. Remind them that they investigated Macklemore’s White Privilege II. Bring up that Richard Sherman response again. Remind them why we read. Remind them again that talking about race isn’t racist.
STEP 4: Read the McFadden essay.
STEP 5: Formative assessment. Tell them to give a thumbs up if they’re inspired/riled up/feeling thoughtful after their first read. Tell them to give a thumbs down if they have no idea what they just read. If they trust each other, they will mostly point their thumbs down, maybe a little sheepishly, maybe a little flippantly like dude what was that I have no idea I can’t even.
STEP 6: Show them they know more than they think they know. Get in front of that whiteboard with your big teacher handwriting. Tell them to tell someone next to them one thing they understood in the essay. Maybe they’ll come up with: Beyoncé is using music to call attention to issues. Write that down as the first bullet point. Show them simple is where we’re starting. Aim for four or five points. Maybe they say: There are children in the video. Or: This video is set in New Orleans. Write these down. Push them to expand. Invite them to summarize each other’s points in their own words. Write down exactly how they say it. Once their points are on the board, point out that actually they understood a lot. Have them summarize the article out loud based on these points. Do the thumbs up/down thing again to check their emerging understanding. If they’re still pointing down, keep talking, asking questions, writing down their words. Read parts of the essay aloud that they reference in their discussion. Invite them to read aloud. Keep unpacking until those thumbs start to turn even slightly.
STEP 7: Maybe watch the video. Skip the Red Lobster moment. Maybe just focus on the clips in the video stills from McFadden’s essay: Beyoncé squatting on a police car surrounded by Katrina flood waters, elbows out, feet planted, looking into the camera. Beyoncé and four other women in their antebellum bests. The little black boy break dancer in a hoodie, his hands up, the white cops in uniform off camera. Blue Ivy in the center of the frame, hands on her hips, her baby afro, that little grin. Talk about symbolism and archetypes. Talk about camera angles and eye contact. Talk about current events and hashtags and protests and revolution.
STEP 8: Read the McFadden essay again, with annotations. Have them underline McFadden’s main points and write their questions in the margins. Encourage them to use asterisks and boxes. Get messy with the text.
STEP 9: Debrief and debate. What is the point of an academic analysis of a Beyoncé video? Would To Kill a Mockingbird’s impact or popularity be different if it had been written by a person of color? How is our learning impacted by including voices of people of color? Can pop culture be revolutionary? Are activists allowed to wear low-cut leotards? With luck, the debate will be organic. If those tweens are shy that day, split them up, assign them points of view and have them perform their defenses. Remind them it’s okay if their personal opinion is different than what they have been assigned to argue. Remind them there are no right answers.
STEP 10: Summative assessment. Ask them: Should I teach this lesson to future classes? Have them write it down and turn in their suggestion to you as their exit ticket. Tell them to explain using evidence from McFadden’s essay, from our class conversation, from their feelings however uncomfortable throughout all of this.
STEP 11: Keep going. Keep teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. But also keep pushing the curriculum so that diversity is not theoretical. Keep asking questions. Why do you think that? Where is the evidence for that? How do you see that in your lives? Does this matter? Any of it? Make them talk out their thoughts-in-progress. Write about it. Debate about it. Have seminars about it. Keep showing them they know more than they think they do and that activists and inspiration can come from unlikely sources.
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