Student Work

Rosa Parks: Think Aloud 2

Watch Andrew read the boycott leaflet.

In this clip of Andrew reading the “Leaflet” document, he shows something all too rare among adolescent readers: the ability to take information from the text and use it to continuously refine and correct his understanding of these events.

Reading the head note for the leaflet document, Andrew immediately recognizes the name Jo Ann Robinson, which he encountered minutes before in the letter to the mayor of Montgomery. Before going on, he reminds himself of who Jo Ann Robinson is: “Women’s Council, white citizen, who is afraid of buses failing.”

Andrew assumed that the letter’s author was white because she seemed to be more concerned with the bus system failing than with issues of civil rights. In Andrew’s mind, a black citizen would likely “argue for equality and civil rights.” He also assumed, like many other students we interviewed, that the Women’s Political Council’s access to city government would signal it as a white organization because he thought, in the South at that time, “black citizens would not have been able to do that as easily.”

To this point, Andrew’s reading resembles that of many other students. However, when he reads in the “leaflet” document’s head note, that Robinson helped distribute leaflets calling for the boycott, he senses that her role is not what he assumed. “Just a second…Let me check to see, okay, same Jo Ann Robertson [sic], that I had assumed was a white citizen who is solely afraid of a bus failure, now it sounds like she is a part of this movement, and actually contributed a lot to the actual boycott.” Andrew goes back to Robinson’s letter to confirm that it is the same person, and now he reexamines his assumption about the author’s race.

As he continues reading, Andrew does not immediately jump to the alternate hypothesis that Robinson is black. At the end of this document, the interviewer asks Andrew again about Robinson’s identity. He now thinks that Robinson might be black because of her deep involvement in the movement, but he points out that the documents do not specifically say this. He then alights on an easily missed textual clue in the phrase that Robinson uses to describe her colleague: “he too had suffered embarrassment on the city buses.” To Andrew the three letter word “too” signals that Robinson might have been discriminated against because she was black.

Many students seize upon the first plausible interpretation of a historical event and its chief characters, and then force all subsequent information into this initial framework. Andrew, on the other hand, is a shining example of a budding historical reader. His prior conceptions, though stated with confidence, are not actually firm beliefs but working hypotheses. He says, “Okay, so now I’m not so sure, but I’ll read through this, try to figure it out, and get some more facts here.” This flexibility, a back and forth between an emerging interpretation and the evidence he confronts, allows him to accommodate shifts in his thinking without becoming frustrated or confused. Andrew constantly checks his emerging understanding against the textual evidence, resulting in a more robust and accurate rendering of the historical context.