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The Watsons go to Birmingham Lesson Plans

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, is a Newbery Honor Winning historical fiction novel written by Christopher Paul Curtis in 1995. It was Curtis' first of many award winning, beloved books for young readers. It also won the Coretta Scott King Honor and was even made into a Hallmark Channel Original Movie in 2013. Set during the time of segregation in 1963, it is the story of the Watson family who travel by car from their home in Flint, Michigan all the way to Birmingham, Alabama to visit strict Grandma Sands. It is a humorous, yet emotional and powerful tale that resonates with its relatable family dynamics while also highlighting the racial injustice and violence of the time period. Teachers can use any of our lesson plans below to dive deep into a novel study on The Watsons Go to Birmingham and use them as a catalyst to spark important discussions in the classroom throughout the school year.

Student Activities for The Watsons Go to Birmingham

Essential Questions for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

  1. What is the setting of the novel and how does it impact the characters?
  2. How did the Civil Rights Movement affect African American families?
  3. How does bullying and violence affect children?
  4. What does the Wool Pooh symbolize in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?
  5. How do people act in times of chaos?
  6. Who are the The Watsons Go to Birmingham characters, and what challenges do they face?
  7. What are some of the themes present in the novel and what lessons does the author try to impart to the reader?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham Summary

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, begins with an introduction to the Watsons, an African American family in Flint, Michigan, during a particularly cold winter. Kenneth, his juvenile delinquent older brother Byron, his sweet little sister Joetta (called Joey), and his parents, Daniel and Wilona Watson, huddle on the couch attempting to keep warm. Kenny's mother Wilona, who is originally from Alabama, cannot stand the icebox they are living in.

The Watson children all attend Clark Elementary School. Byron is the “god of the school”; nobody picks on him. Kenny has a lazy eye and is smart, so he gets picked on quite a bit, but much less when Byron isn’t cutting school (Byron skips school a lot). 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.

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, with the match incident being the last straw, the Watson parents 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 road trip on I-75 from Flint to Birmingham to grandma's house. 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.

When they arrive and Kenny sees strict Grandma Sands, Kenny is shocked; 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 dangerous 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, Kenny realizes he can’t feel the rocks under his feet, and even when he flaps his arms and legs around, but Kenny waving doesn't help; he doesn’t move anywhere. Kenny waves and 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. Byron manages to get Kenny out of the water; it was Byron who saves Kenny.

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 awoken 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 as his younger sister Joetta was wearing, out from under some concrete; Kenny thinks the worst. 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 bombing, the Watson’s return to Flint. 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. Kenny's mother and father become very worried about him, 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.

The lesson plans for The Watsons Go to Birmingham include analyzing characters, visual vocabulary, plot diagram, and more! Students will also look at and discuss The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963's quotes, themes, setting, and symbols. An additional activity could be to have students complete a The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 chapter summary for each chapter to dig deeper into the plot of the book.

Ideas for More The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Activities

  1. Storyboard your favorite scene or quotes from The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and explain why they resonate with you.

  2. Analyze various symbols and motifs present and depict them in a storyboard with images and descriptions.

  3. Choose a character such as Kenny, Byron, Joetta or Grandma Sands and create a poster or worksheet to display their important character traits, quotes and development throughout the story.

  4. Research some of the allusions and historical references and create a timeline that focuses on major events during the time of segregation and the civil rights movement.

  5. Create The Watsons Go to Birmingham chapter questions and give them to a classmate to answer.

  6. Create a storyboard with several The Watsons Go to Birmingham images of the setting, as you visualize it.

  7. Use one of our many templates to create The Watsons Go to Birmingham worksheets for students to complete.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham Chapter Questions

Discussion Questions to Use in Pairs or Groups

These discussion questions may be used during reading, or upon completion of the novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. While it is best to get students openly discussing what they’ve read, these questions can also be answered individually in a reader’s notebook. Students can benefit from hearing the different opinions and takeaways of their peers. It is always interesting to find that students can have many different perspectives, even though they are reading the same novel!

  1. Describe the setting at the beginning of the novel. Where is the Watson family from?

  2. Who is Kenny in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

  3. Who is Byron in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

  4. Describe the relationship between Kenny and Byron.

  5. Kenny is chosen to do a reading for Byron's class. How does he feel about this? Why?

  6. How does Kenny feel about seeing the new boy, Rufus, on his bus?

  7. Rufus Fry moves to town. Where is Rufus from? What was his life like there?

  8. Who is Joetta in The Watsons Go to Birmingham? Describe the relationship between Kenny and Joetta.

  9. Who is Larry Dunn?

  10. What does Byron do that gets him into trouble?

  11. What are some ways the author shows the reader that Byron is not as tough as he pretends to be?

  12. What do you think is the reason behind Byron's misbehavior?

  13. How is Kenny bullied at school? If you were Kenny, what would you do about it? Would you confront Larry Dunn?

  14. Who are Mr. and Mrs. Watson? Describe Kenny's parents.

  15. What do Mr. and Mrs. Watson do when Byron misbehaves?

  16. What makes Mrs. Watson angry about Byron's hair?

  17. Why does the whole family decide to go to Alabama? Do you think this is a good plan? Why or why not?

  18. Why does Mrs. Watson spend so much time carefully planning their trip to Alabama? Why do you think she is so careful about where they are going to stay? What does that tell you about the time period?

  19. How does Kenny feel when the family is driving through the mountains? Why do you think he feels this way?

  20. Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the city of Flint, Michigan and the city of Birmingham, Alabama

  21. Who is Grandma Sands in The Watsons Go to Birmingham? How does Byron act when he meets her?

  22. What happens at Collier's Landing? How does this reveal more about Byron and Kenny's relationship?

  23. What happens at the church? This was a real event. How does the author describe this event through Kenny's eyes?

  24. How do you think the family was changed from their trip to Birmingham?

  25. What are some quotes from this book that resonated with you? Why?

  26. Why is Kenny's family known as "the Weird Watsons"?

About the Author

Christopher Paul Curtis is an award-winning African American author of many beloved books for young people including the Newbery Honor Award winning, historical fiction novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953. He was the second oldest of five siblings. His father first worked as a podiatrist and later at an automobile-assembly plant which were common in Flint. Curtis' upbringing in Flint, Michigan is reflected in many of his stories. After high school, Curtis worked with his father at the auto plant and earned enough money to attend the University of Michigan in Flint. But, he always had a passion for writing.

In 1993, Curtis decided to pursue writing full time and in 1995 The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was published. In 1999, Curtis wrote his second book, Bud, Not Buddy which was awarded with the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King award. Curtis also wrote: Elijah of Buxton, Mr. Chickee's Funny Money, Mr. Chickee's Messy Mission, The Mighty Miss Malone (which tells the story of Deza Malone who appears in Bud, Not Buddy), The Madman of Piney Woods, and The Journey of Little Charlie.

Curtis has four children and currently resides in Detroit, Michigan where he continues to enjoy writing as well as reading, playing basketball and listening to jazz and blues music.

Buy The Watsons Go to Birmingham on Amazon

How to Analyze "The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963"


Understanding the Setting

Explore the historical context and significance of the setting, which is Flint, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Consider how the time and place impact the characters and events in the story


Examining the Characters

Analyze the main characters, such as Kenny, Byron, Joetta, and Grandma Sands. Look at their motivations, relationships, and character development throughout the novel. Consider how they contribute to the themes and lessons of the story.


Identifying Themes and Lessons

Identify the themes present in the novel, such as family dynamics, racial injustice, and resilience. Explore how these themes are portrayed and what lessons the author intends to impart to the reader.


ymbolism and Motifs

Look for symbols and motifs in the story, such as the Wool Pooh and the church bombing. Analyze their significance and how they contribute to the overall message of the novel.


Discussing Important Events

Examine key events in the story, such as the Watsons' road trip, Kenny's experience at school, and the church bombing. Discuss their impact on the characters and the story's central themes.


Reflecting on Quotes and Personal Connections

Choose meaningful quotes from the novel that resonate with you and discuss their significance. Reflect on your personal connections to the story and how it relates to your own experiences or the world today.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

Who is Kenny in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

Kenny Watson is the main character and narrator in The Watsons Go to Birmingham. He is a 10-year-old boy in the 4th grade and the middle child of the family. Kenny is described as a very smart and sensitive boy who loves reading and learning. He also struggles with bullies in school including, sometimes, his older brother!

Who is Byron in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

Byron Watson is Kenny's older brother. He is 13-years-old and gets into a lot of trouble. Kenny describes Byron as a juvenile delinquent who is always breaking the rules at school and even bullying Kenny. Byron appears to be self-centered and mean-spirited, but he has a change of heart during the course of the novel.

Who is Joetta in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

Joetta (Joey) Watson is Kenny's younger sister. She is 5-years-old and is quite precocious for her age. When Byron gets in trouble, Joetta sticks up for him and intervenes in her parents' punishments.

What is the wool pooh in The Watsons Go to Birmingham?

When the Watsons go fishing, they are warned to stay away from Collier's Landing because it has a whirlpool that caused a young boy to drown years ago. Joetta (Joey) doesn't understand and wants to go to the Landing anyway. Big brother Byron tells her and Kenny a scary story about a "Wool Pooh" (since whirlpool in a southern accent sounds like this). Byron says that the "Wool Pooh" is Winnie the Pooh's evil twin who pulls children down under the water. The imagery and symbolism of the "Wool Pooh" is used throughout the rest of the novel as a symbol of death.

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