Monday, April 8, 2019

Classroom Connections with Debbie Levy


This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality

Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, Authors

Bloomsbury Children's Books (January 8, 2019)
ISBN: 978-1681198521

For age 10 to adult

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In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools violated the U.S. Constitution. This decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was a big and historic deal, but Supreme Court rulings do not enforce themselves. If Brown‘s promise of change was to become reality, people had to take action. And so in 1956, in the small town of Clinton, Tennessee, twelve African American high school students stepped up. Opposition in the white population soon turned into anger and violence, and even the Clinton 12 themselves wondered if the easier thing to do would be to go back to their old school. Jo Ann—clear-eyed, practical, and tolerant—found herself called on as a spokesperson for the group. But what about just being a regular teen? This is the story of her four months thrust into the national spotlight and as a trailblazer in history. Most people haven’t heard of the Clinton 12, but what they did in 1956 (a year before the Little Rock 9) was front-page news all over the nation. My co-author, Jo Ann Allen Boyce, was one of the Clinton 12, and we have worked together to tell her story. Like my book The Year of Goodbyes, this is nonfiction in verse, with primary archival materials and a good deal of backmatter features.


To introduce the excerpt: Except for the introduction and for the back matter, This Promise of Change is written in verse—free verse and also some structured forms (such as sonnets, odes, ballads, pantoums). It took a while for my co-author and me to figure out how we might best tell the story. But I kept coming back to Jo Ann’s voice, and I felt inspired by her jazz background to suggest we do something that reflected her musicality.

But it wasn’t only that poetry fit Jo Ann; poetry also fit the story. I really like the compactness of poetry and I think poetry is great at conveying emotion and this is an emotional story. For example, there is a white pastor in Clinton, Rev. Paul Turner, who, after months of standing on the sidelines, risks his life to accompany Jo Ann and the other African American students to school. He’s beaten by a mob of white adults to within an inch of his life right outside the school. Jo Ann is driven home by police. Here’s that ride home in “Notes To Myself in the Squad Car.” Read it aloud!

Click on images to enlarge.

Copyright © 2019 by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, from THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE:


Debbie Levy is the author of more than 25 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry for young people, including New York Times best-selling I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award and National Jewish Book Award. Her latest book is This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality (with Jo Ann Allen Boyce; nonfiction-in-verse for middle grade/YA), Debbie is also the author of Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War, a Publishers Weekly, Huffington Post, and Bank Street College Best Book; We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, a Jane Addams Award Honor Book and Bank Street College Best Book; and The Year of Goodbyes, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and Kirkus Reviews Best Book. A former lawyer and newspaper editor, Debbie lives in Maryland with her husband. They have two grown sons.


Why is bringing poetry into the classroom important?

Poetry provides an accessible way to bring hard things—difficult emotions, events, worries—to the surface, both in reading and in writing. I think narratives written poetry can be a great way to lead students into challenging subjects because poetry is open and airy, not dense and intimidating, and because a reader can sit down and tear through a book in one sitting, or read and digest it one poem at a time.

At the same time, it’s not only about hard things; poetry also provides a way to notice, really notice, everyday life and to infuse it with brightness, thoughtfulness, and humor (again, both in reading and in writing). Finally, I love the economy of poetic language and I think it’s important, as we guide students’ writing, to show that more isn’t necessarily better; that making every word count, as we must in poetry, is a practice that will make prose stronger, too; and that word choice isn’t only important, it’s fun!

Can you suggest a specific classroom exercise related to your book?

Imagine there’s one more student in the group of twelve, the Clinton 12 becomes the Clinton 13—and you are that thirteenth student. Write your own poem set in one of the pivotal moments in the story—either the night before the students first walk down the Hill to enter Clinton High School (Chapter 22), or that first walk itself (Chapter 23), or when white Clinton erupts during that first week of school, or after Thanksgiving when things get even worse. Use any of the poetic forms used in the book (see page 277 for the list).

How might your book be incorporated into an educational curriculum?

First, I’d suggest empathy exercises, in which students are putting themselves in the shoes of the Clinton 12. The exercise provided above is a start. Add others in which we are asking students to write poems and prose from the point of view of an imagined thirteenth student (or themselves) about how home life and family supported, or disappointed, that fictional student during the crisis; how the relationship with a friend or friends affected this fictional student; whether this student would prefer not to be part of the group of students desegregating Clinton High School.

Second, in a curriculum that connects the Civil Rights movement to the question of whose stories get told, discuss with the students why the desegregation crisis in Clinton 12 has been mostly lost to history: In Clinton, there was more nuance in the reaction and behaviors of the white leaders, both at the local and state levels, than in Little Rock, for example—so it’s a more complex story to tell. And in Little Rock, as later in the case of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, there were iconic images—the famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock, the Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges—that became lodged in the public consciousness, something Clinton lacked.

What is a simple, practical tip for teachers when it comes to incorporating poetry in the classroom?

I’m a big fan of the Poetry Friday Anthology series of books, edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, and not just because I have some poems in them! They provide weekly poems and related suggestions for helping students enjoy and learn from them.


Twitter: @debbielevybooks
Instagram: debbielevybooks

Look for three more books from Debbie Levy coming out later this year:

Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice (middle grade biography in graphic novel format) (Simon & Schuster), The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music (picture book biography) (Kar-Ben) and a fiction picture book titled Yiddish Saves the Day! (Apples & Honey Press).

Many thanks to Debbie for participating in our Classroom Connections series for National Poetry Month, and for offering a copy of This Promise of Change to one randomly selected TLD reader!

To enter, leave a comment below or send an email with the subject "This Promise Giveaway" to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com by Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Winners will be announced on Thursday, May 2nd, so be sure to check back to see if you've won!

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Check out the other Classroom Connections posts and giveaways on offer this month by clicking the names below!

Digital art © 2018 by Miranda Barnes,
based on a line from "Ghazal" by Tracy K. Smith.


The best way to keep up with the Classroom Connections series is by subscribing to Today's Little Ditty via email, which you can do in the sidebar. I will also be announcing the posts on social media. Like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter (also in the sidebar) to stay informed that way. Catch up with Classroom Connections posts you may have missed by clicking on the "It's time to INSPIRE" icon in the sidebar, or by visiting my "Poetry in the Classroom" board on Pinterest.


  1. Good Morning Michelle & Debbie, I'm so grateful that these blog posts open up early. I adore reading them before school each day. Thanks for that, Michelle. Debbie, what you say about poetry rings true with me as a reader and a writer and a Teacher Librarian of middle school students. I did a book talk on Friday about the Holocaust. It began with a student question: Why should I care? Poetry is able to cut to that chase with that economy of language you speak of. I look forward to getting this book into my hands and then those of my students. I am so very grateful for the work you do. You make SUCH a difference in the lives of young people. Rock on, writer girl!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Linda. The anecdote about your student asking "Why should I care" about a book related to the Holocaust strikes a nerve for me. I believe deeply that, through books and educators, students can come to see why those historical events are completely relevant to their lives. I believe it so deeply that this fall the publisher of The Year of Goodbyes--my 2010 nonfiction-in-verse about my mother's last year living in Nazi Germany as a girl, 1938--is doing a reissue of the book with a new cover, enhanced art/design inside, and a new introduction to help answer your student's question.

  2. This book definitely sounds like one I need to own! I work at an urban school- 88% free lunch, and 75% English language learners. We are always looking for people to inspire us!

    1. Carol, Jo Ann Allen Boyce, co-author of THIS PROMISE, is definitely an inspirational person! And your students may enjoy one of the videos about her and the Clinton 12, particularly one narrated by her grandson, Cameron Boyce. You can find the video on my website here:

  3. This looks like a really powerful book. I will be checking it out Thanks for an interesting post.

  4. This book fits right in with our focus and curriculum at our school!

  5. I look forward to reading this powerful history told in verse. This is the genre I write as well. Love the poetry and history connection!

    1. I hope you enjoy the book. It's a challenging format to write (but not to read!), but worth the effort!

  6. Such powerful, moving words! Wow - this sounds outstanding! Thank you so much for sharing the great ideas for using your book in the classroom. I love the idea of having kids take on the role of the 13th student! :-)

    1. Thanks for reading. If you use that 13th student idea--I'd love to hear how it went!