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Using narrative nonfiction in the ELL classroom

One of the best ways for educators to engage English language learners is through the use of nonfiction narratives that connect to their cultural experience or historical backgrounds. An ideal example for New York City classrooms is an epic work by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, who was part of the Great Migration, the movement of 2 million blacks out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West from 1910 to 1930.

The migrants were trying to escape racism and prejudice in the South to seek jobs in industrial cities, and Lawrence passionately believed that their story should be told. As a painter, he maintained, “It seemed almost inevitable that I would tell this story in my art.” Subsequently, Lawrence started the “Migration of the Negro” series in 1940 when he was 22 and finished it a year later.

His series of 60 artworks, coupled with text, comprise “The Great Migration: An American Story,” a narrative nonfiction picture book depicting the experiences of these black migrants.

The main characters of this story are poor blacks determined to leave their conditions in the South. Supporting characters are white Southern landowners who did not want an exodus of the steady supply of cheap labor that they exploited, white Northern laborers threatened by the competition for work created by the influx of poor Southern laborers, and black Northern middle-class workers and professionals who shunned poor Southern blacks.

Movement keeps settings in this story varied and changing. Geographically speaking, there was an exodus from southern states such as Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana and an influx to northern states such as New York, Illinois and Massachusetts. Within these overarching markers, there were places that poor Southern blacks had to leave, circumvent or temporarily reside in to complete their journey. These settings include plantation fields, railroad stations, prison cells, factories, sidewalks and hotels/motels.

A strong desire for economic opportunity and familial stability is a key theme. Inequality, discrimination, racism and oppression are parallel themes that speak to the external forces and players that created obstacles to achieving these dreams.

Delivering content while developing literacy skills requires careful planning, and that is why educators should preview the text to assess its linguistic and academic demands. From a language learning perspective, “The Great Migration” exemplifies the use of past and past perfect tenses, action verbs and agricultural and industrial work-related vocabulary from which meaningful language arts lessons can be generated. The text poses a healthy challenge for advanced beginner and intermediate level English language learners. There are no more than two or three sentences to a page and they are often repeated throughout the text. The presence of Lawrence’s art on each page also assists ELLs in accessing and digesting information and facts.

Pre-reading activities can involve the use of tools such as conceptually related readings, songs and poems about the Pilgrims, Mexican migrant workers and Chinese laborers, which would also help make the story more concrete. Moreover, scaffolding an “accountable talk” discussion around moving (i.e., from one school to another, one neighborhood to another) prepares students to make text-to-self and text-to-world connections.

“The Great Migration” is an ideal read-aloud text. Throughout the read-aloud, I would ask students to speculate about the consequences and effects of particular events in the book. For example, after reading “The flood of migrants northward left crops back home to dry and spoil,” I would ask students to think about one possible effect of the food shortage on the poor Southerners’ dinner options and wages. To maximize oral production opportunities, I would ask them to share their thoughts with their partners.

After leading a whole-class discussion with “structured accountable talk” to develop higher-order thinking, I would divide students into groups of four and assign them a group identity from the work: poor Southern blacks, rich Southern white landowners, white Northern laborers and black middle-class Northerners. I would ask students to discuss the social, political, economic and health-related effects of the Great Migration on their lives, using a graphic organizer with language prompts as needed, from the perspective of these groups.

Finally, a culminating activity would involve students interviewing family members about stories of immigrating, migrating or relocating to uncover the causes and effects of those journeys. Students would also have to compare/contrast these experiences to those of the Great Migration.

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