[Note - I have removed the links to the RootsBlog in this post. I'm in the process of setting up the blog for a new school year and I've erased last year's student posts. I've also temporarily removed the synopses of the episodes on the RootsBlog pages, so that students will be surprised when they see the movies in class. Sorry for any inconvenience.]

My classes' last activity before leaving on Spring Break this past week was watching the final episode of Roots.

Over the course of the year, the students have been watching episodes of the 1970s mini-series, then blogging about it in the voices of characters from the movie. (I posted a blog about this a few months ago.) As I say, they have just finished watching the whole series, and for their final blog entry, I asked them to write about what the series has meant to them as a whole.

I got some pretty thoughtful answers.

I had asked my students to try to identify a theme that ran through the series and was meaningful to them, and as I've been reading their responses, I've been wondering what the common theme of their experience has been. I decided to use another tool I posted about a few months ago - Wordle - to look for that theme.

Here's what I ended up with:


Episode One:

In this episode, the students met Kunta Kinte, a young boy growing up in a village in Gambia. They follow him through his Manhood Training and learn a little bit about his culture. At the end of the episode, he is kidnapped by slave traders and taken away from his people forever.

This was the first blog the students wrote. Some individual blog entries were spectacular, most not-so-much. As a first attempt however, it was pretty good. They were still getting the hang for this.

Episode Two:

In this episode, Kunta Kinte is taken to Colonial America and sold at auction. He is put to work on a plantation and punished until he is "broken". The most dramatic scene is the final one, where he brutally beaten until he answers to his slave-name "Toby".

This round of blog entries was much more on target. Students did a much better job of climbing inside the heads of characters from the movie. The writing was much more reflective. (There were a lot fewer entries that started with, "Hi. My name is...". When I read these entries, my faith in the project became a lot stronger.

Episode Three:

This is the episode where the students got well and truly hooked.

In this episode, Toby (Kunta Kinte), now a grown man, tries to escape from slavery one more time. He is caught hand has half of his foot chopped off to keep him from running again. He is moved to a new plantation, where he slowly comes to terms with his life as a slave, marries and has a child.

By this set of blog entries, a few standout students were showing their talents as writers. Several of them were the high-achieving motivated students you would expect to excel at this sort of thing, but several were students who had slipped under my radar up until then - nice kids, but undistinguished scholars. This gave me a new perspective on them. (If you read any of these blogs - take a look at Catherine's or Drew's - very rewarding!)

Episode Four:

This episode was a rough one for my students. Kizzy, Toby's daughter (born in the previous episode) is sold away from her family to a master who rapes her. She has a son who she raises as well as she can under the circumstances. She tries to find some happiness for herself, but finds herself trapped by slavery - emotionally as well as physically.

As they watched this episode of the movie, the students read a chapter from the book Roots by Alex Haley. In this chapter, Kizzy has to decide how much of her life history she should share with her son George.

Because this episode of the movie did not have a large number of characters to assign to students, I changed their assignment for this blog. After they had read Chapter 87 of Roots, I asked them to make the same decision that Kizzy had made - If they were taken away from they life here in Deerfield forever (abducted by aliens or something), what five things would they tell their children about their life to this point and why?

Some of the kids fell back on platitudes and general life advice, but most of them really embraced the assignment and looked at their lives in a way that they hadn't before. This may have been their most successful blogging assignment.

Episode Five:

In the last two episodes of Roots, Chicken George - Kizzy's son - really comes into his own and becomes something of a hero to the students in my class. These two episodes cover the years directly before and after the Civil War and how the lives of African-Americans in the South were affected by national events. The Reconstruction Period is particularly relavent to the students, because it deals with issues that are a little easier for them to relate to; slavery is very difficult for white kids in New Hampshire to wrap their heads around - out-and-out racism is (sadly) more familar.

By the time they wrote these character-point-of-view blog posts, the students had gotten the hang of what they were supposed to do. The writing came fairly quickly and pretty successfully. It was good work.

Episode Six:

As we wrapped up the final episode of Roots, I asked the students in my blocks to blog as themselves again. It was pretty clear that Roots had been a very popular unit, but I wanted to know what they had gotten out of it.

So far, about a third of the students have submitted their blog posts. (The deadline has passed, but I'm taking Spring Break into consideration.) When I have all their blog posts to draw from, I will run it through Wordle again and see what new themes emerge.



One of the coolest new toys I've found recently is called Wordle.

Basically, it allows you to upload a block of text and it will examine the word frequency in your selection and make a very cool-looking piece of word art, with the most frequent words looming the largest.

(This picture, for instance is a Wordle of a newspaper column I wrote when my son was born.)

It is unclear yet, whether this is just a toy or if it can be a gateway to some really meaningful classroom engagement and learning, but it has been a big hit with some of our 8th graders.

Try copying the text of your favorite poem or song lyric and running it through Wordle. It will blow your mind, at least a little.

To use it, simply go to http://www.wordle.net/ and follow the instructions.

Techy Note: A few of us have had trouble running Wordle at first. What we discovered is that we needed to clear the temporary files and cookies from our hard drives.

Here is how:

Click on the "Tools" link in the upper, right-hand corner of your desktop in Explorer. Choose the "Delete Browsing History" option.

Click the "Delete files" button under "Temporary Internet Files, Cookies and History. These are all basic internet hygene-type things that we should all do from time to time anyway.

If none of that works, try rebooting your computer.