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Hitting a Home Run With Civil Rights

IMG_5793When I first started teaching a Civil Rights unit, my goal was to have my students write an essay for the Jackie Robinson Breaking Barriers Essay Contest. This writing activity has grown into a multigenre thematic unit because my students are so engaged in the topics of baseball and Civil Rights. Jackie is famous for breaking the color barrier in baseball; however, he is also renowned for overcoming the barriers in his life by remaining faithful to his values: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment, and excellence.




Scholastic_barriers_websiteI based my unit on Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005). We explore all types of literature in our quest to answer the essential question: How can our values help us to overcome barriers in our lives? Below is a list of my resources and a brief description of how I utilize them in the classroom.

My units are a continual work in progress. Each year, as materials come across my desk, I build on my list to further address the needs and interests of my students. Please feel free to download a printable version of my unit curriculum map, "Breaking Barriers With Values." Student handouts and additional resources can be found on my Lowville Academy Web site.


Classroom Displays & Materials

WORDLE_VALUES Prepare your classroom for a Civil Rights unit by adding posters defining Robinson's values to your word wall and hanging up a Breaking Barriers promotional poster. Create a classroom library display of Civil Rights and baseball books. You may be interested in the Scholastic Book Wizard booklist Civil Rights Heroes and Sheroes, which offers the opportunity to explore biographical texts. And download the student handout "Values and Barriers: Jackie’s Nine Values," which includes a values bookmark.


I introduce the unit by assessing my students for prior knowledge. After writing a list of Civil Rights terms on the board, I ask my students to think about these words for one minute and then write down anything they know about the words or topics. (The "Civil Rights: Before You Can Say Jackie Robinson" learning experience created by the Baseball Hall of Fame identifies a list of Civil Rights and baseball terms.) My 6th graders write about one word or multiple words from the terms on the board. They can write in a paragraph or make a list. The choice is up to them. After three minutes we share what we know or think we know.

Generally, the discussion focuses on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby ending slavery. I usually have to clarify that ending slavery did not mean that all men were created equal. I show them a collage of signs that exemplify the Jim Crow laws, and ask them if they can come up with a definition for the laws. Be prepared. This is one of those days when the students are sincerely interested in engaging in a discussion. The discussion generally takes the rest of the class. For tips on discussing race-related issues in the classroom, see "It’s Not So Black and White" from Scholastic Instructor.

Student Outcomes

Jackie nine

The anchor text to which all other pieces of literature must connect is Jackie’s Nine, a memoir by Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter. Each group reads one chapter, each of which is based on one value, and presents on their chapter. At the end of the thematic unit, all the students write an essay for the Breaking Barriers Essay Contest sponsored by the Major League Baseball Association. Scholastic has wonderful lesson plans to guide you through this part of the unit. In the essay, students write an essay about a barrier that they have overcome by using one or more of the values discussed in Jackie's Nine. Students will also select one assignment that interests them from a choice board.


Choice Board Assignments

The assignment choice board is designed to support the multiple intelligences of my students and further the connection to the Civil Rights Movement. Providing students with choices often motivates them to take responsibility for their learning. Below is a list of the assignments:

  • Watch a video of the Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" speech (see below). Write your own “I Have a Dream Speech.”
  • Write a poem about Civil Rights and illustrate it.
  • Research and create a presentation on another black American who has broken a color barrier (in music, art, acting, sports, etc.).
  • Write a letter to Sharon Robinson expressing how learning about Jackie Robinson has impacted you.
  • Research a breaking the color barrier event and reenact a news broadcast or radio broadcast.
  • Research and create a time line of important events in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Write and illustrate a fictional story based on historical events that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Read a Civil Rights book and participate in a segment of our video talk show Book Talk 101.
  • Write a play depicting a historic Civil Rights event and act it out.


IMG_5750 Classroom Resources

The resources below, meant to support the anchor text, Jackie's Nine, are organized by genres. I don’t necessarily teach every piece of literature listed. However, I do select at least one piece of literature from each genre, basing my choice on the reading levels and interests of my students. 



Scholastic_news Below is a list of nonfiction articles on Civil Rights. I use them to teach electronic text reading skills, or I use them as read alouds in my classroom. They were selected because of the range of reading levels. Articles are important for teaching nonfiction text structures. I use them to teach electronic text features and to generate debates or opinion-based writing.

  • "1947: Jackie Robinson Integrates Baseball" by Suzanne Bilyeu (The New York Times Upfront, 2 April 2007). (TE guide)
  • "1960: Sitting Down to Take a Stand" by Suzanne Bilyeu (The New York Times Upfront, 18 Jan. 2010). In what ways are the actions of the students who staged the Greensboro sit-in similar and different to those of Jackie Robinson? (SAR; TE guide) For more on the sit-in, see "Timeline: Sparking a Revolution by Sitting Down," a multimedia time line by NPR.
  • "Almost Perfect" (Scholastic News, 4 June 2010). What do Armando Galarraga’s reactions to the umpire's bad call reveal about his character? Do you think Armando should have received credit for setting a new record? Explain. (Lower level) 
  • "Perfect Game Thwarted by Faulty Call" by Tyler Kepner (The New York Times, 2 June 2010). How does Armando react to the umpire when he sees him again? What does Armando Galarraga’s reaction to the bad call reveal about his character? (Higher level)
  • "Top Players Named: Report on Steroids in Major League Baseball Released" by Karen Fanning  (Scholastic News, 14 Dec. 2007). Should baseball players who have used performance-enhancing drugs be able to pay professional baseball? Explain. (Lower level; science connection)
  • "Should the Records of Baseball Players Who Used Steroids Count?" by Peter Bernstein and Donald M. Hooton (Upfront, 9 Oct. 2006). Should baseball players who use steroids be allowed to maintain their record-breaking status? Why or why not? (Higher level; science connection)
  • "I Have a Dream" video and transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech. Based on your experiences, do you believe that King's dreams have come true? Explain.


  • The Jackie Robinson Story (1950 film starring Jackie Robinson; FREE download). This autobiographical movie provides my 6th graders background information on the Civil Rights Movement. Students use a graphic organizer to identify barriers in Jackie's life, his response to those barriers, and whether or not his response helped him to succeed. The Jackie Robinson Story: A Student  Resource Guide is also available at the official Jackie Robinson Organization web site. It is packed with quotes, baseball statistics, photos highlighting important events, and a timeline of the milestones in Jackie's life. When students finish, they find specific details, Jackie's actions, words, or thoughts, that can be sorted into the categories (Jackie's nine values)to reinforce their understanding of character traits.
  • "Who’s On First" by Abbott and Costello (from I use this to teach denotation and connotation and add some humor to a serious topic.
  • Hank Aaron’s 715th Homerun Radio Broadcast: After learning a little about the history of communications, our class reenacted this broadcast during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and created a audio tape of our broadcast.


State Test Review

For the review, my students will reflect on Reverend Jackson’s quote, "A champion wins a world series or an Olympic event and is hoisted on the shoulders of teammates and fans. A hero carries the people on his shoulders" (Jackie’s Nine, "Introduction"). They will decide if Jackie is a champion or a hero and use details from any two or more sources to defend their point of view. Sources may include:


Related Resources


  • #1 Mary Blow

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011 at 04:54 PM

    Ely, I am so glad you are enjoying it. My students absolutely love it as well. I think the fact that Jackie Robinson stars in the movie makes it even more engaging. ~ Hope you are dodging those snowflakes. ~Mary

  • #2 Ely Almonte

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011 at 03:32 PM

    My students and I enjoyed Jackie Robinson's movie. They were really into it and said that they felt like they were in the game with Jackie.

  • #3 Mary Blow

    Wednesday, February 02, 2011 at 02:01 PM

    Hi, Roni,

    It takes me 4-6 weeks to teach the unit, depending on snow days and vacations. We will make connections during other units throughout the year.

    Okay, you got my interest once again. "Forbidden City" by William Bell looks fabulous. I'd begin with background knowledge. Start with any news clips that you can find on the incident.

    I found this Upfront article on China censoring Google's search engine, which connects to our kids' interests. I discovered that I cannot paste links, so I'll e-mail it to you. I also found a web hunt on Scholastic that compares and contrasts China, yesterday and today, a nice nonfiction component. Ancient China is a part of the Social Studies curriculum in 6th grade, so this will integrate nicely. I'll e-mail that to you as well. Try National Public Radio (NPR) online. They archive many historical radio broadcasts and interview of historic events. For example, I was able to find a broadcast about the day Saigon fell during the Vietnam War. It is a primary source document as survivors shared their stories.

    Last, I'd look for resources on fine arts and culture of China: poetry, drama, music, art, sports, educational, government, etc.

  • #4 Ronica Lawrence

    Wednesday, February 02, 2011 at 09:42 AM

    Hi Mary,
    I love this unit as much as my students do! Students do not need parent permission to submit by mail correct? I have one very touching personal barrier essay that could easily be a winner. I am going to get permission on this one. My students wrote their essays in Oct and just revisited them this week to improve them. We were all amazed at how far they have come as writers since October. Next year, I would like to teach this entire unit. How long does it take you? Do you or any of your "fans" have any good resources on Forbidden City by William Bell?
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas!
    Take care,

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Mary Blow
Mary Blow
Glenfield, NY
Grades 6-8
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