©Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos (March); Bettmann/Getty Images (MLK); The Granger Collection (Sit In); Bettmann/Getty Images (Rosa Parks); ©Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos (Vote); Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images (Dog); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Protest)

This Is What Courage Looks Like

During a troubled time in U.S. history, one 15-year-old girl stood up to injustice—and  helped change America

By Mack Lewis
From the October/November 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: After reading a drama about a real teen who challenged segregation laws, students will identify cause and effect relationships within the play.

Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
Other Key Skills: vocabulary, fluency, author’s craft, inference, character, interpreting text, synthesizing, theme, critical thinking, narrative writing

Cause and Effect

As you read, look for what caused Claudette to take a courageous action and what happened as a result.


N1: Have you heard of Rosa Parks?

N2: In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she did something very brave.

N3: At that time, there were many cruel and unfair laws in Alabama.

N1: One said that Black people had to give up their seats on the bus to White people.

N2: Rosa Parks grew tired of this injustice.

N3: So one day in December, she refused to give up her seat to a White passenger.

N1: Mrs. Parks was arrested.

N2: She became famous for her fight for justice and equality for Black people.

N3: But Rosa Parks was not the first to do what she did.   

N1: Let’s visit Montgomery nine months earlier.

© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos    

Racist Laws

From the late 1800s until the 1960s, states across the U.S. had racist laws and customs. In the South, they came to be called Jim Crow. This system forced Black people to stay separate from White people. Black people had to attend different schools, go to different restaurants, and use different restrooms and drinking fountains.

Scene 1
A Classroom, March 1955

N2: Claudette, a tall girl with glasses, stands at the front of a crowded classroom, reading from a paper she’s written.

N3: She attends Booker T. Washington High, a public high school for Black students.

N1: A year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that making Black students and White students go to different schools was illegal.

N2: But so far, nothing has changed in Montgomery.

Claudette (reading): In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery. She made it to the North, where she could be free. But she risked her life to go back to the South to lead other enslaved people to freedom.

N3: The other students listen intently.

Claudette: Harriet Tubman showed extraordinary courage. To me, she is a true hero.

Miss Nesbitt: Excellent presentation, Claudette. Class, any questions?

Dennis: Why don’t we hear about other heroes like her?

Joan: Yeah—didn’t others risk their lives doing what Harriet Tubman did?

Miss Nesbitt: Indeed they did. All through our history, Black people have fought for our rights.

Eddie: Miss Nesbitt, I want to know who’s going to be the Harriet Tubman of today.

Dennis: Yeah. Who is going to help us escape all the unfair laws we have to put up with?

N1: At the time, racist laws and customs kept Black people and White people separate.

N2: This system of laws and customs—called Jim Crow—was in place throughout the South.

Eddie: At the movies, we have to sit in the balcony, a million miles from the screen, and not with the White people down below.

Joan: When I go to the store, the saleslady won’t let me try anything on. Only White kids are allowed to do that.

Claudette: How about the fact that our school is run-down while the White kids are in fancy schools with brand-new books?

Miss Nesbitt: Let’s go back to Eddie’s question: Who is going to be today’s Harriet Tubman?

Claudette: Well, my plan is to go to college and become a lawyer. Then I can fight against the Jim Crow laws in court.

Miss Nesbitt: That is a fine plan, Claudette.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks (above) was arrested for refusing to give her bus seat to a White person. Her action was part of the civil rights movement, a struggle in the 1950s and ’60s to gain equality and fair treatment for Black people.

Scene 2
A Public Bus, That Afternoon

N3: After school, Claudette and her classmates board a city bus.

N1: They walk to the back, behind the “Whites only” section, and sit down.

N2: The bus starts to fill up.

Eddie: We have to move. That White lady wants our seats.

N3: Claudette looks up and sees the woman.

N1: Claudette’s classmates get up. But Claudette does not move.

N2: The bus driver notices her.

Eddie: Claudette, you’ll get into trouble!

N3: Claudette sits quietly.

N1: The bus driver tells her to give up her seat. When she doesn’t budge, he calls for the police.

N2: Two officers get on the bus. They yell at Claudette to get up.

Claudette: I paid my fare. It is my constitutional right to sit here.

N3: The officers yank Claudette from her seat. Her schoolbooks fall to the floor.

N1: One of the officers kicks her.

Claudette (tearfully): It’s my right!

N2: The officers drag her out and handcuff her.

AP Images    

Changing Schools

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that keeping White children and Black children in separate schools was against the law. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges (below) became the first Black child to attend an all-White elementary school in the South. She was soon a hero across the country.

Scene 3
The Colvins’ Kitchen, That Evening

N3: Claudette spends several hours alone in a jail cell.

N1: Finally, she can go home.

Mr. Colvin: What were you thinking, Claudette? Those policemen could have really hurt you.

Claudette: I was thinking of Harriet Tubman. I felt like her hand was on my shoulder, keeping me in my seat.

N2: Mrs. Colvin puts an arm around Claudette’s shoulders.

Mrs. Colvin: We are very proud of you, Claudette.

N3: Just then, there is a knock at the door. It’s Claudette’s friends.

Eddie: We want to see the girl who got arrested!

Mrs. Colvin: Come on in, kids.

Joan: Everyone is talking about you, Claudette.

Claudette: I just wanted my constitutional rights.

Eddie: Well, you’re a celebrity now!

N1: But two weeks after her arrest, Claudette has to go to court.

N2: She is charged with breaking the law by refusing to give up her seat.

N3: Claudette pleads not guilty—but she is found guilty.

N1: Now her dream of becoming a lawyer is over because she has a criminal record.

N2: When Claudette returns to school, other kids avoid her. They say she has made things worse for everyone.

N3: With no friends and no future, Claudette feels alone and forgotten.

Bill Hudson/AP Images

Young Freedom Fighters

Kids and teens played an important role in the civil rights movement. Thousands of young people took part in protests and marches. These kids bravely took on the challenge of changing the unjust world they were growing up in.

Scene 4
The Colvins’ Living Room, February 1956

N1: In December 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, just as Claudette had done.

N2: A bus boycott began on December 5. Forty thousand Black people in Montgomery are refusing to ride the bus until the unfair laws are changed.

N3: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is helping lead the boycott. All over the country, people read about it in the newspapers.

N1: Meanwhile, in the Colvins’ living room, Claudette, her parents, and a lawyer named Fred Gray sit around the coffee table.

Mr. Colvin: These are incredible times, aren’t they? The bus boycott’s been on for almost two months now.

Gray: Yes, these are amazing times, Mr. Colvin. But the boycott isn’t enough. There’s going to be a lawsuit, claiming that the bus laws are unconstitutional and must be changed.

Claudette: Do you think that’s possible? Won’t judges want things to stay the way they are?

Gray: I think we have a real chance. That’s what I came to talk to you about.

Claudette: What do you mean?

Gray: We need a small group of citizens to tell their stories in court. Claudette, I came to ask if you would be one of them.

N2: Claudette inhales sharply.

Gray: It won’t be easy. You’d be in the papers and on TV. Your family might get threats.

N3: Claudette is quiet for a long moment.

Gray: I know this is a lot to ask.

N1: At last, Claudette lifts her chin.

Claudette: I will do it.

Bettmann/Getty Images    

A Courageous Leader

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (above) was a great leader of the civil rights movement. Dr. King believed that peaceful protest was the only way to end injustice toward Black people.

Scene 5
A Courtroom, May 1956

N2: The courtroom is packed. Claudette’s parents and neighbors are there too.

N3: At the front of the room, three judges sit in wooden chairs.

Judge Rives: Mr. Gray, call your next witness.

Gray: I call Claudette Colvin.

N1: Claudette walks to the witness stand.

N2: Claudette is one of four people in the case. Fred Gray saves her for last, knowing that her account will be the most powerful.

Gray: Miss Colvin, please describe what happened on the day you refused to give up your seat.

Claudette: One policeman asked if I was going to get up. I said, “No, sir.” The other policeman kicked me. They dragged me out. I was crying.

N3: The judges listen closely.

Claudette: It hurt me to be treated that way.

Gray: Then what happened?

Claudette: They put me in handcuffs and took me to jail—an adult jail, even though I was only 15.

Gray: Thank you, Miss Colvin. That is all.

Rives: Mr. Knabe, you may question the witness.

Walter Knabe: Who told all the Black folks of Montgomery to boycott the buses?

Claudette: No one. We just decided.

Knabe: Be honest. Didn’t Reverend King give you the idea that there was something wrong with the buses?

N1: Knabe wants the court to believe that Black people were satisfied with the buses until
Dr. King convinced them there was a problem.

Claudette: We have always known that Montgomery’s bus system is wrong. Some of us just didn’t have the guts to stand up and say so.

Knabe (calmly): I’m going to ask one more time: Why did you stop riding the buses on December 5?

Claudette: Because we were treated wrong—like we weren’t even human beings.

N2: The trial continues into the afternoon.

N3: Then everyone goes home to wait for the court’s decision.

Bettmann/Getty Images    

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (below) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law officially banned segregation and unfair treatment based on skin color.

Scene 6
The Colvins’ Living Room, November 1956

N1: Claudette and her mom are folding laundry. A TV is on in the background.

Newscaster (on TV ): We have breaking news. The decision in the case of Browder v. Gayle has been announced.

Claudette: Mom! The decision on our case is in!

Newscaster: The judges have ruled that Montgomery’s bus segregation laws are unconstitutional.

Claudette: Mom, we won!

Mrs. Colvin: I’m so proud of you, Claudette.

Claudette: I will never stop fighting for our rights.

N2: Like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin had become a real hero. 

Julie Jacobson/AP Images    

Unsung Hero

Today, Claudette Colvin lives in New York City. Few know the story of how she stood up to injustice as a teenager.

This play was originally published in the October/November 2019 issue.  

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Activities (10)
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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Have your class watch this Great Big Story interview to hear Claudette Colvin’s story in her own words.

Students can learn more about the Montgomery bus boycott—including how thousands came together to organize and carry it out—by watching this brief History channel video

Did you ever wonder where the word boycott comes from? Charles Boycott was an Irish land agent in the 1800s. When he tried to evict some of his tenants, they decided to shun him. Nobody would work for him or trade with him. It was big news, and his name started to take on a new meaning as a verb.

More About the Story


Cause and effect, vocabulary, fluency, author’s craft, inference, character, interpreting text, synthesizing, theme, critical thinking, narrative writing 

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

The play is based on the true story of a teen girl who took a stand against injustice during the Civil Rights Movement. It conveys the important idea that ordinary (and young) people can do powerful things. 


The play is chronological; its prologue addresses the reader directly and introduces the idea of civil disobedience.


The play contains challenging domain-specific vocabulary, such as boycott, unconstitutional, and segregation, as well as rhetorical questions.

Knowledge Demands 

The play mentions Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Show a Video (10 minutes)

  • Distribute the video discussion questions and preview them with students. Show “Time Machine: The 1950s” to provide background knowledge about the civil rights movement. Then have students complete the activity.

Preview Vocabulary and Text Features (20 minutes)

  • Read the headline and subhead with students, and invite them to predict what Claudette Colvin (the 15-year-old girl referred to in the subhead) might have done to help change America.
  • Direct students to the sidebar, “The Fight for Equality,” on pages 22-25. Ask: What story do the photos and captions tell? How do they relate to what you saw in the video?
  • Project or distribute the domain-specific vocabulary Skill Builder to introduce terms related to civil rights. Highlighted terms: injustice, equality, U.S. Supreme Court, enslaved, racist, Jim Crow laws, constitutional right, boycott, unconstitutional, segregation
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box for the class.

2. Reading the Play

Assign parts and read the play aloud as a class. After reading, discuss the close-reading and critical-thinking questions.

Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes)

  • Why does the author begin the play with information about Rosa Parks? (author’s craft) The story about Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat is well-known. The author is reminding you of this important event to help you think about what is happening in the U.S. during the time of the play. He is also letting you know that Parks was not the only—or even the first—person to stand up to injustice in this way. By mentioning that someone else took a similar action, the author makes you curious to learn more.
  • Which details in Scene 1 help you understand how Jim Crow laws affected African Americans? (cause and effect) Details include that black people had to sit in the balcony in movie theaters; only white people were allowed to try on items in stores; and schools for black students had older books and were more run-down.
  • In Scene 2, Claudette twice says, “I paid my fare.” What point is she trying to make? (inference) Claudette is making the point that because she paid her bus fare, she has the same right to a seat on the bus as any white passenger.
  • In Scene 3, Claudette says, “I was thinking of Harriet Tubman. I felt like her hand was on my shoulder, keeping me in my seat.” What does Claudette mean? (cause and effect) Claudette means that she felt encouraged to stay in her seat by thinking about Harriet Tubman. Tubman was a hero who helped save many lives by risking her own safety and breaking the law. Tubman’s actions inspired Claudette to do the same on the bus that day.
  • In Scene 4, what does Claudette’s decision to speak in court tell you about what kind of person she is? (character) Claudette’s decision shows that she is brave and committed to fighting injustice. Gray warns her that she and her family might get threats if she speaks in court. She knows from experience that people might avoid her, as her fellow students did after she was found guilty of breaking the law. But she chooses to speak up anyway.
  • In Scene 5, Walter Knabe’s questions try to show that no one was upset about the Montgomery bus laws before Dr. King arrived to help with the boycott. How do Claudette’s answers show the opposite? (interpreting text) Claudette strongly disagrees with Knabe. She states clearly that black people decided to boycott because they were tired of being treated unfairly—“like we weren’t even human beings”—not because they were told to do so by Dr. King.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • In Scene 1, Claudette says that her plan is to become a lawyer and “fight against Jim Crow laws in court.” Based on what you learn in the play, was Claudette able to achieve her goals? (synthesizing) Claudette was unable to become a lawyer because she had a criminal record after she was arrested. However, she successfully fought against Jim Crow laws by telling her story in court. As a result, the unfair Montgomery bus laws were thrown out.
  • Why is This Is What Courage Looks Like a good title for this play? (theme) The title is fitting because the play tells how Claudette showed courage by refusing to give up her seat and by speaking in court. It also makes the point that all kinds of people can be brave, even a young person like Claudette.
  • Many people are unaware of Claudette Colvin’s important role in civil rights history. What are some ways that her story could become more widely known? (critical thinking) Answers will vary. Students may suggest that a movie could be made about her life or that she could be taught about more often in school.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Cause and Effect

  • Distribute the cause and effect Skill Builder and have students complete it in class or for homework.
  • As a class, read the Write to Win box on page 25. Put students in pairs to complete the activity. They can use what they wrote in the Skill Builder to help them.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

In addition to the civil rights terms in bold, the play contains other challenging words, such as intently, extraordinary, and steadfast. Read the play aloud, pausing to define unfamiliar words on the board while students highlight the terms in their magazines. Ask students to read the play again on their own, referring to the definitions as needed.

For Advanced Readers

Claudette’s teacher asks, “Who is going to be today’s Harriet Tubman?” Hold a discussion about what the question means, then have students research to find out about a person who is currently fighting against injustice.

For ELL Students

To better understand the play, ELLs may benefit from having more information about U.S. civil rights history. Before reading the play, go over the events in “The Fight for Equality” sidebar together.

Story Connections

Pair this play with four other Storyworks dramas about young people who fought segregation. Find Ayanna the Brave, The Fight for What’s Right, and The Unstoppable Ruby Bridges on Storyworks Digital.