Developing Resilience: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

Students explore the topic of "coming of age" through the story of an African-American boy growing up during the civil rights era, and his family's strong bond in the face of tragedy.

Unit Summary

In this unit, students explore themes around coming-of-age as they read Christopher Paul Curtis’s historical fiction novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. This award-winning text tells the story of Kenny, a young African American boy growing up in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s, and the events—both small and large—that shape his life. His story is at once universal and rooted in a specific time and place. Like any young person, Kenny makes new friends, bickers with his older brother, and jokes around with his parents; however, his story is also one of trauma and loss as he witnesses the (true-life) bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. By reading about relatable characters in a historical setting, students are more likely to understand that these historical events actually happened to real people.

The supplemental texts in this unit were selected to reflect the “everyday” aspects of Kenny’s life, as well as the historical significance of the time period in which the book is set. Students will read two nonfiction texts about sibling relationships, as well as a poem about the connection between parents and children. These texts provide students with another lens through which to view the text. Additionally, students will read nonfiction texts about life for African Americans during that time period, as well as a poem that described the events of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.

As 6th grade students begin their year of studying texts that address questions around what it means to “come of age,” it is our hope that this unit will provoke students’ thinking about how both everyday and historically significant events in a young person’s life events can influence the person they become.

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Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

Supporting Materials


This assessment accompanies Unit 1 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • How do personal and historically significant events shape the way a person sees the world?
  • How do family dynamics shape a person’s identity?

Enduring Understandings

  • All experiences in a person’s life, both positive and negative, shape a person’s view of the world and of themself.
  • Coming of age sometimes includes a loss of innocence—a realization that the world is less simple, kind, or fair than we previously believed.




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colloquial language coming of age connotation dialect dynamic extended metaphor objective perspective

Related Teacher Tools:

Content Knowledge and Connections


Previous Fishtank ELA Connections

In the Fishtank English Language Arts elementary curriculum, students spent a significant amount of time studying the civil rights movement. Because of this, it is assumed that students already have a substantial amount of schema to draw from in order to understand the historical events discussed in the text.

Future Fishtank ELA Connections

The remainder of the 6th grade units will address questions around coming of age, and also around the way that significant life events and relationships shape who a person becomes; the ideas that students will begin thinking about in this unit will transfer across the texts we read this year. In terms of content-specific connections about the African American experience, students will read texts in 7th and 8th grade, as well as in high school.

Notes for Teachers


  • Students will likely already have a fair amount of schema surrounding the civil rights movement, particularly if they read books from Fishtank curriculum in 5th grade ELA. Be sure to draw on this schema rather than re-teach concepts and events with which students are already familiar. Consider asking students to brainstorm what they already know about a specific topic before moving into explicit schema instruction.
  • This unit focuses on a dark chapter in U.S. history. Although these events occurred more than 50 years ago, issues of racial segregation, oppression, and violence are still very much present today. As always, treat these topics with sensitivity to the emotions they may bring up in your students, and ensure that your classroom remains a safe space to address difficult but important topics.

Lesson Map


  • TWGTB pp. 1 – 7 — end at "...cold can kill you!"


Describe how author Christopher Paul Curtis establishes setting in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 7 – 19 — Start at “I didn’t hear any sound”



Explain how author Christopher Paul Curtis develops the narrator’s unique point of view in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 20 – 46





Determine the meaning of unknown words using context clues and reference materials.

Explain how Christopher Paul Curtis develops Kenny’s point of view of himself and other characters.


  • TWGTB pp. 47 – 63


Explain how and why characters respond and change in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 64 – 85


Explain how author Christopher Paul Curtis develops the point of view of his narrator and other characters in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • “Siblings...”


Provide an objective summary of a nonfiction text.


  • “How Much Does...”


Provide an objective summary and determine the central idea of a nonfiction article.


  • TWGTB pp. 86 – 99


Write an objective summary of a section of text in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 100 – 120



Explain how author Christopher Paul Curtis develops the point of view of his narrator and characters through word choice.


  • “The Children's Hour”



Explain the impact of literary devices and how they help develop mood and meaning in a poem.


  • “The Children's Hour”

  • TWGTB pp. 104 – 106





Write a strong paragraph explaining how two texts use different perspectives to approach a similar topic.


  • TWGTB pp. 121 – 137


Write an objective summary of a section of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • The Negro Motorist...

  • Green Book...


Explain the purpose and impact of “The Green Book” using text, audio, and visual resources.


  • TWGTB pp. 138 – 161


Explain how author Christopher Paul Curtis develops and contrasts characters’ perspectives in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 162 – 179


Explain how characters respond and change as the plot progresses.


Narrative Writing




Identify the features of a strong narrative and begin to structure own.


Narrative Writing





Use descriptive details and sensory language to convey emotions and experiences in a narrative.


Narrative Writing





Use pronouns in their proper case and complete a final draft of a narrative.


  • TWGTB pp. 180 – 190


Explain how Christopher Paul Curtis uses sensory details to develop mood in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.


  • TWGTB pp. 191 – 206



Identify Kenny’s point of view and explain how it changes over the course of a chapter and the text overall.


  • “Six Dead...”

  • “16th Street...”


Explain the events of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and its aftermath using text and visual resources.


  • “'Segregation Forever'”

  • Outside Looking In

  • At Segregated...

  • Segregated Laundry...

  • Keep Birmingham...

  • Firemen...

  • Police dogs...


Explain the purpose and impact of George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech using text and photographic resources.


  • “The Ballad...”


Explain how the poet develops the perspective of narrators and characters in “The Ballad of Birmingham.”


Socratic Seminar





Take a clear position on a question and share evidence to support that point of view in a Socratic dialogue.




Analyze a mentor text in preparation for writing a memoir.





Add figurative, descriptive, and precise language to a memoir.





Include dialogue in a memoir and craft a strong conclusion paragraph.




Provide meaningful feedback to a peer and incorporate feedback into own writing.


2 days


  • “Dion Diamond”

  • “Assessment Photo”

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.6.1.a — Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

  • L.6.1.c — Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in pronoun number and person.

  • L.6.2.b — Spell correctly.

  • L.6.4.a — Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

  • L.6.4.b — Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., audience, auditory, audible).

  • L.6.4.c — Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.

  • L.6.4.d — Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).

  • L.6.5.a — Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.6.2 — Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

  • RI.6.7 — Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.6.2 — Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

  • RL.6.3 — Describe how a particular story's or drama's plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

  • RL.6.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

  • RL.6.6 — Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.

  • RL.6.9 — Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.6.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.6.1.a — Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

  • SL.6.1.c — Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.

  • SL.6.4 — Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

Writing Standards
  • W.6.1.a — Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.

  • W.6.1.b — Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

  • W.6.3.a — Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

  • W.6.3.b — Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

  • W.6.3.d — Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.

  • W.6.3.e — Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.

  • W.6.5 — With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.