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The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Curtis

Teacher Guide by Elizabeth Pedro

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Student Activities for The Watsons Go to Birmingham Include:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 is a humorous, yet emotional and powerful novel about an African American family who travels to Birmingham, Alabama during the time of segregation.

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A Synopsis of The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Contains Plot Spoilers)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Curtis, begins with an introduction to the Watson family in Flint, Michigan, during a particularly cold winter. Kenneth, his older, juvenile delinquent brother Byron, his sweet, younger sister Joetta (called Joey), and his parents, Daniel and Wilona Watson, huddle on the couch attempting to keep warm. Wilona, who is originally from Alabama, cannot stand the icebox they are living in. Daniel decides to take the family to a relative’s house, so they don’t freeze to death, and sends Kenny and Byron to scrape off the “Brown Bomber”, the family vehicle. Kenny grabs his ice scraper and begins scratching at the ice when he hears a peculiar noise coming from Byron’s side of the car. Kenny believes it’s another of his brother’s pranks and ignores it. The sound persists, so Kenny goes over to investigate. He discovers his brother’s lips have been stuck to the rear-view mirror after kissing his reflection. Kenny runs to get help, and Wilona has to painfully rip Byron off the glass.

Kenny, Joey, and Byron all attend Clark Elementary School. Byron is the “god of the school”; nobody picks on him. Kenny is cock-eyed and smart, so he gets picked on quite a bit, but much less when Byron isn’t cutting school. Kenny’s teachers flaunt him to the older grades, having him read in front of the students. When he reads too quickly, the teacher flips his book upside down, which slows him to the correct pace, but increases the evil glares from bullies.

Kenny believes he is saved from the bullying when Rufus and Cody Fry appear, climbing into the bus in raggedy clothes and Mississippi accents. Instead of taking the attention away from Kenny, Mrs. Cordell puts Rufus next to him in class and asks Kenny to show him around. Kenny begins talking to Rufus at lunch and even shares his sandwich with him. Kenny begins to enjoy his time spent with Rufus, especially playing dinosaurs or WWII; Kenny is thrilled that Rufus doesn’t mind being the Nazis while Kenny is the Americans.

Byron is always getting into trouble with Mr. and Mrs. Watson. One time, he locks himself in the bathroom and pretends to be filming a movie. He lights parachutes on fire and drops them into the toilet. After hearing the toilet flush so many times, Mrs. Watson gets suspicious. She knocks down the bathroom door and drags Byron downstairs with the matches. She had promised to teach him a lesson, and now she has to follow through. She pins Byron down, lights a match and goes to burn Byron’s finger. Mrs. Watson never gets close enough with the fire to do any real damage though; Joey is afraid for her brother and keeps blowing out the match.

Because of Byron’s repeated mischief, Mr. and Mrs. Watson decide to visit Wilona’s mother, Mrs. Sands, in Alabama. They believe that the change of scenery, and Mrs. Sand’s strict ways, will help keep Byron out of trouble. The Watson’s all pack into the Brown Bomber and begin the trip on I-75 from Flint to Birmingham. Mrs. Watson plans out all the stops the family would make and where they would spend the night, but Mr. Watson has a different plan in mind; he drives straight through with just the occasional bathroom stop.

At their arrival, Kenny is stunned at the sight of Grandma Sands; he was expecting a troll, but instead is greeted by a tiny old woman. Amazingly, Byron’s behavior changes immediately; his manners and attitude quickly improve. After settling in, Byron, Kenneth, and Joey go out to explore in the Alabama heat. Grandma Sands warns them to stay away from Collier’s Landing because of the whirlpool. The sign nearby read, “Warning! No Trespassing! No Swimming!” Kenny, however, ignoring Grandma’s warning and the signs, heads to Collier’s Landing alone. Byron warns that the whirlpool is actually, the Wool Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh’s evil twin brother, who hides underwater and snatches kids down with him. Kenny ignores his teasing old brother as well.

Kenny wades in the water and watches the swimming fish and a turtle off in deeper water. Too late, he realizes he can’t feel the rocks under his feet, and even when he flaps his arms and legs around, he doesn’t move anywhere. Kenny bobs under the water and tries swimming toward the shore. After going under a few more times, he sees the Wool Pooh! It is big and gray, with hard square-looking fingers, and where there should have been a face, it was just dark gray. Kenny begins kicking and fighting the Wool Pooh as it pulls him away. Kenny believes he sees an angel that looks like his sister Joey and, thinking it is his last chance to survive, continues to kick and punch. Kenny is pulled to the shore and thrown upside down. It was Byron who came to Kenny’s rescue.

On Sunday, Joey heads to Sunday school and says goodbye to Kenny. Without knowing why, Kenny tells Joey that she looks pretty in her church clothes and heads outside to sit in the shade of a tree. Kenny falls asleep, but is woken by a loud boom. He hears his mother’s scream and searches for Byron to find out what happened; somebody bombed Joey’s church. In a daze, Kenny runs to the church. In the smoke and dust, he sees his parents moving through the rubble. Kenny bends down and pulls a white shoe, the same as the ones Joey was wearing, out from under some concrete. Once again, Kenny sees the Wool Pooh’s square shoulders and gray mass. A frightened Kenny walks past girls’ bodies on the grass and heads back to Grandma Sand’s house. At the house, he believes he is seeing Joey’s angel and tells her that she’ll be able to see Mommy and Daddy before she goes. Joey becomes frightened and asks Kenny why he is acting so strange. Kenny was mistaken; the girl under the concrete was not his sister. Joey was safe at home all along.

After the horrific church incident, the Watson’s return to Flint, Michigan. Kenny is traumatized and spends much of his time in the “World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital”, a secret hiding place behind the couch in the living room. This space was usually occupied by sick pets or sick toys, but is now used by Kenny in hopes that he will also be healed by its magic. Mr. and Mrs. Watson become very worried about Kenny, and even Byron acts more nicely towards him; he brings Kenny food and invites him to play basketball with his friends. Eventually, Byron convinces Kenny to go into the bathroom with him to see his chin hair. As Kenny looks at his own reflection in the mirror, he notices how sad he looks. He begins crying to Byron and releasing all of his trapped emotions. Byron comforts him, reminding him that he is safe, that everyone is sad about what happened, but that everyone needs to move on.


Essential Questions for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

  1. How did the Civil Rights Movement affect African American families?
  2. How does bullying and violence affect children?
  3. What does the Wool Pooh symbolize?
  4. How do people act in times of chaos?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Character Map for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963


Copy Assignment



In this activity, students will depict the characters of the story, paying close attention to the physical characteristics and character traits of both major and minor characters. Students will also provide detailed information about the characters’ actions and how they influence other characters. Additionally, students will recognize how specific characters change over time and identify the challenges each character faces in the story.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Characters:

  • Kenneth
  • Byron
  • Joey
  • Daniel and Wilona Watson
  • Mrs. Sands
  • The Wool Pooh
  • Rufus Fry
  • Buphead
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 - Character Map
Create your own at Storyboard That Kenny Byron Joey Wilona Watson Daniel Watson Mrs. Sands Wool Pooh Rufus Fry Buphead How does this character change over time? What challenges does this character face? How does this character change over time? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? Physical/Character Traits: How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? How does this character interact with the main character? What challenges does this character face? • smart • kind-hearted • lazy eye • Kenny and Byron become closer. • He experiences the fear of losing a loved one. • Kenny doesn't get along with his brother Byron. • He believes that his sister was killed in the church bombing. Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits: Physical/Character Traits:

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.


  1. Identify the major characters in The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a Storyboard That character to represent each of the book characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in the Textables for Physical/Character Traits, How does this character change over time? and What challenges does this character face?.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.


Blank Character Map
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Example

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Copy Assignment

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Theme for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

In this activity, students will identify a theme and support the theme with evidence from the text. One theme is "death" and another is "friendship".


The Watsons Go to Birmingham Themes to Look For and Discuss

Death

Byron, who is usually a cruel bully, becomes emotional after throwing a cookie at a mourning dove and killing it. Later in the novel, Kenny nearly drowns and sees a “Wool Pooh”, which symbolizes death. Lastly, the church bombing killed four innocent little girls who were attending Sunday school.


Friendship

Byron and Buphead are great friends, but Buphead is a negative influence on Byron, and they cut school often. Kenny almost loses Rufus as his best friend, but realizes that he needs to stick by his friend, even if it means he gets made fun of. The last example of friendship is between Byron and Kenny. They don’t get along often, but in the end, Byron is the one who consoles Kenny.


The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 Theme
Create your own at Storyboard That Byron, a cruel bully, becomes emotional after killing a mourning dove with a cookie. Kenny nearly drowns at Collier's Landing in a whirlpool. The church bombing leaves several innocent girls dead and buried under rubble. Buphead is a bad influence on Byron and the reason for much of Byron's mischievousness. Kenny almost loses Rufus as his best friend, but realizes that he needs to stick by his friend even if it means he gets made fun of. Byron and Kenny grow closer as they try to move on from the devastating church bombing. EXAMPLE 1 EXAMPLE 2 EXAMPLE 3 FRIENDSHIP DEATH