Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles was heartwarming and yet heartbreaking at the same time.  This is the story of a young (white) boy living in the early 1960’s who has a black friend.   The black boy’s mother works for the white boys family, and the two boys are very close, spending most of their time together.  The book describes the activities that the two boys participate in together and also includes references to the discriminatory  circumstances surrounding their friendship and home in that time period.  The black boy (John Henry), is not allowed to accompany the white boy (Joe) into the general store, nor is he allowed to swim with Joe in the town pool.  There is not much description as the either of the boys’ feelings on this matter, they simply find other things to do together.  When the law is passed disbanding segregation, Joe’s parents tell him that the town pool will now be open to everyone, no matter their skin color.  Excited, the two boys get ready first thing the next morning to go swimming in the pool together.  However, when they arrive, they find that the pool is being filled in with asphalt.  It is here where we are given a glimpse of the emotions that the two boys have… John Henry being very sad about not being able to do the same things that his friend can do, and Joe being confused and not understanding why things are the way that they are.  The two boys decide to go into the general store together to buy popsicles at the end of the story.  The reader is left wondering what kind of outcome might have occurred from this.

I think this would be an excellent way to open discussion about the Civil Rights movement, but I would like to have my students get a little bit of background knowledge first.  I would like to begin the unit using lesson 1 from “Differences Make Us Special” so that students have a chance to explore the many similarities and differences among themselves and their own classmates in a positive light.  I want students to see how differences are not only very common (the norm, even), and how we, as citizens of a diverse community, can celebrate those differences.  Then I would have a read aloud experience with my students using Freedom Summer.  I would begin by asking students what the word brave meant.  We would get ideas/decriptions of bravery (from personal experiences), and look up the word in the dictionary.  I would ask students the following questions during reading:

1- What differences do you notice between the two boys?  Do you share some of the same differences among your classmates?

2- What activities do John Henry and Joe do together?  Do you like to do those things with your friends?

3- Why do you think John Henry wasn’t allowed to swim in the town pool or go into the general store?

4- How do you think John Henry felt about the rules?  How do you think Joe felt about them? How do you know?

5- What do you think they will do when they get to the pool? What do you think will happen next?

6- Were you surprised?  **I would like to have a discussion here about how even though the laws had changed, it took people a long time to accept the changes… so much so that the people who owned the pool would rather close it than have it segregated.

7- How do you think John Henry and Joe were feeling?  How do you know?

8- Do you think Joe or John Henry showed bravery in this story?  When and how?

9- If the author had written one more page in the story, what do you think would have happened when they went inside the store? Why?  Writing assignment:  Imagine that you are Joe or John Henry (you can choose which character you would like to be) and write about your experience inside the store as you went in together.  Write from the perspective of your character.  We will share our writings with the class and discuss.

I would follow up this activity with lesson 2 from Differences Make Us Special, and explore the Civil Rights movement through the website “Think Globally: The American Civil Rights Movement” (  In addition, I would like for students to hear and sing the song “This Land is Your Land”.   We would research the author of the lyrics to the song, Woody Guthry, and discuss his role not only in the Civil Rights movement, but some of the ways that he experience social injustices himself.  We will then read the lyrics and discuss the meaning behind them.  “What do you think he meant by asking the question, ‘Is this land made for you and me’?”  How does “freedom highway” relate to “Freedom Summer”?

NCSCOS Objectives included in this unit for second grade social studies are 3.01 through 3.06, and 4.01 and 4.02.

I must comment on the illustrations in this book; they stood out to me.  Most of the books that we have read so far have used mixed media illustrations, watercolor, and the like.  This is the first book that I recall having seen what appears to be oil-based paint on canvas.  I can see the checkered-texture pattern in some of the illustrations.  The lines are all blurry and the details are all smudged.  To me, this gives the book a dream-like feel.  I didn’t live in this time period, and I wasn’t able to feel like I was “in” the story the same way I have with other books we have read so far (Dear Primo, Action Jackson).  I felt more like I was looking at someone’s memory, or dreaming about something that happened long ago.  I wonder if the illustrator used this technique for that purpose?  What were Deborah Wiles’ and Jerome Lagarrigue’s (illustrator) intentions in using this particular artistic media?

**Another book I would use during this unit would be Freedom School, Yes! by Amy Littlesugar and Floyd Cooper… see link below!

Freedom School, Yes!


2 Responses to Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

  1. christy1274 says:

    I think it is interesting how you looked at the illustrations and thought of a dream. I also mentioned the blurry illustrations and I love we had different interpertations.

  2. Beth Frye says:

    Excellent review and lesson plans! I love the way you have integrated other books, Web sites, ideas for teaching and music! This is a book that has no age boundaries…don’t you think? Once again…that theme of bravery prevails!

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