Since last April, I have had the privilege of leading a seminar for Charlotte teachers on using Southern children’s literature in the classroom. The seminar is offered through the Charlotte Teachers Institute (CTI), a collaborative program involving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), UNC Charlotte, and Johnson C. Smith University. Our last seminar meeting will take place this week. For more information about CTI, please click on the following link: https://charlotteteachers.org/
Over the course of our CTI seminar, we read and discussed several books for children and young adults in which the American South plays an integral role in the stories. We started with Dori Sanders’s Clover, a novel that is set just south of Charlotte. In this novel, Clover, a ten-year-old African American girl, struggles to form a relationship with her new stepmother, who is white. Southern food figures prominently in their efforts to communicate with each other. We then read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred Taylor’s Newbery-winning novel that takes place in rural Mississippi during the 1930s. During our discussion of this novel, we explored the impact of sharecropping on the lives of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. The next novel we read was Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, a novel that takes place in a small Arkansas town during World War Two. Patty, the central character, is a young Jewish girl growing up in a town there are very few Jews. In our seminar, we talked about the role that religion plays in the story. We then read Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, a verse novel in which a Vietnamese family moves to Alabama at the end of the Vietnam War. The last book on our reading list was Tangerine, Edward Bloor’s young adult novel that takes place in contemporary Florida. We also talked about Southern folklore and picture books set in the South. After discussing these works, the teachers then developed their own curricular plans involving the use of Southern children’s and young adult literature in their own classroom situations.
What I enjoyed the most about our seminar discussions was how these teachers related the readings to students in their classes. I was pleased that these teachers wanted to provide their students with books about characters with whom their students could relate in a personal way. I liked how these teachers drew connections between the characters’ complex family situations and their students’ families. Many of these teachers have students in their classes who just recently moved to Charlotte from other countries, and they related their students’ experiences to some of the characters’ experiences as recent immigrants. Our discussions were wide-ranging. Of course, we talked about literature, but we also talked about history, folklore, foodways, art, family dynamics, and race relations. As I see it, literature can serve as a gateway to many topics, and that is one of the reasons why literature belongs in the classroom.
I will miss meeting with these teachers on a weekly basis, but I feel reassured that CMS has such caring and talented teachers. In my book, teachers are among the heroes in Storied Charlotte’s grand saga.