The Year We Learned to Fly

I feel like every American history teacher should read this book to their students, as it addresses the mental strength and resilience enslaved people displayed in the most unthinkable of conditions. The book follows a girl and her brother who are learning that their minds can carry them through times of difficulty, just as it did for their ancestors. She and her brother experience a range of challenges- boredom, anger, loneliness, moving away, discrimination and each time her grandmother reminds them of their ancestors, the people who learned to fly.
I think about this concept a lot. How practicing mental strength during enslavement, just that act alone, was a form of resistance. And how a true understanding of their humanity led to building supportive communities that included formal education, faith, medicine, to creating loving families from friends or even strangers, and organizing clever methods of resistance and escape.
I’ve heard Black people recount how the ways their teachers taught about slavery made them feel embarrassed or ashamed. I hope that this book can help us reframe the way we approach such a critical topic. I hope that we shift our instruction to recognize the power of these communities and how their strength, courage and love affects us today. This book is for all of us and Jacqueline Woodson is a national treasure. And as usual, Rafael López enhances her stories with the most beautiful illustrations.

Social Justice Activities:

  • Family relationships are central to the story. Organize activities that encourage students to reflect on their own family dynamics; create family trees, write journal entries from the perspective of a family member, or participate in group discussions about family values, traditions, and conflicts. 
  • "The Year We Learned to Fly" is written in poetic form. Inspire students to explore poetry as a means of self-expression. Notice that the author chose to repeat the lines, "Somebody somewhere at some point" and allow students to create their own poems by repeating a variation of that line every time. Students can also write their own poems inspired by the themes in the book (identity, family, ancestors, family history, friendship, social justice...). They can experiment with different poetic forms and techniques, such as free verse, imagery, and metaphors, to convey their thoughts and emotions creatively.
  • Analyze all the artistic choices Rafael López made in the illustrations. Create artistic representations of what we think about in times of difficulty. Maybe students think about a family member, a cherished pet, a memory, a favorite book... Students can use different art forms (painting, drawing, or collage) to share what helps get them through difficult times.
  • Ask families to share ancestor stories. The can record, write, or come in and give a presentation to share more about their beloved family member.

Relevant Social Justice Standards:

These activities support the following standards:

Identity 1. Students will develop positive social identities based on their membership in multiple groups in society.

Identity 2. Students will develop language and historical and cultural knowledge that affirm and accurately describe their membership in multiple identity groups.

Identity 3. Students will recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.

Justice 12. Students will recognize unfairness on the individual level (e.g., biased speech) and injustice at the institutional or systemic level (e.g., discrimination).

Justice 13. Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today.

Reading Strategies:

Problem/Solution, Cause & Effect: Identify each of the problems the children faced and the solutions the grandmother identifies.

Compare Genres: Compare this text with Maya Angelou's, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

Imagery: Analyze where Rafael López chooses to include birds. What do you think this symbolizes? Analyze the picture where the boats appear in the young girl's hair. What is the author trying to communicate?

Reading Comprehension Questions: See the Educator's Guide from Jacqueline Woodson for specific comprehension questions to guide discussion.

Book Details:
  • Fiction, All Ages
  • Perspectives: Black Americans
  • Author's stated heritage: Black
  • Subject Integration: History, Poetry, Art

Book covers images are from publishers and in the public domain