Classroom Guide for The Pianoby William Miller, illustrated by Susan Keeter
*Reading Level: Grade 2
Interest Level: Grades 1-4
Guided Reading Level: O
Accelerated Reader® Level/Points: 3.6/0.5
Lexile™ Measure: 440
*Reading level based on the Spache Readability Formula
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Music, Determination, Friendship (Intergenerational and Interracial), African American Interest
Tia lives in a southern town in the early 1900s. The one thing Tia loves most is music, and she spends the hot summer days wandering around town searching for new sounds. One day she ventures across the railroad tracks to the white side of town and is drawn to the gate of a house where she hears wonderful music. Before she knows it, Tia has taken a job as a maid for the owner of the house. Although the work is hard for a young girl, Tia loves the music that Miss Hartwell listens to on her record player. She is also fascinated by Miss Hartwell’s grand piano and finally convinces her employer to help her learn to play. The two become friends as they care for each other and share their love of music.
The racial segregation alluded to in this story was commonplace in southern states from the 1870s through the first half of the twentieth century. So-called Jim Crow laws kept whites and blacks apart in almost all aspects of life. In addition to living in separate sections of towns, most public places had separate entrances and often separate sections for blacks and whites. Some institutions such as schools were in completely different buildings. Segregation didn’t begin to end until the Supreme Court started handing down landmark rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 and Congress began passing bills such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This latter law was followed by other civil rights acts including one in 1960, 1964, and 1968. Together, these laws provided for increased voting rights, ended discrimination in restaurants, hotels, and other businesses, established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ended discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, and much more.
Given the social and racial climate at the time of the story, the friendship that develops between Tia and Miss Hartwell is unusual. It is a testament to the transforming power of music and the bonds that can develop between people, no matter how different their ages and backgrounds.
Prereading Focus Questions
Before introducing the book, you may wish to have students discuss one or more of the following questions as a motivation for reading.
Exploring the Book
Display the book cover and ask students to study it carefully. Ask them why they think the girl looks so happy. Whom do you think she is looking at? How is the girl dressed? What do her clothes suggest about her? Do you think the piano is hers?
Point to the author’s name and ask students if they have read any other books by William Miller. (See below for more about some of the author’s other books for children.)
Setting a Purpose for Reading
Ask students to read to find out what is so important about the piano in this story.
Have students make a word web to show the words in the story that are related to music. Then ask students to use each word on the web in a sentence. Encourage students to look up the meaning of any word with which they are unfamiliar. As a challenge, have students find another word related to music to add to the web. Invite students to read aloud their sentences.
After students have read the book, use these or similar questions to help guide their understanding of the book. Encourage students to refer to passages in the book to support their responses.
If you use literature circles during reading time, students might find the following suggestions helpful in focusing on the different roles of the group members.
There are many resource books available with more information about organizing and implementing literature circles. Three such books you may wish to refer to are: Getting Started with Literature Circles by Katherine L. Schlick Noe and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 1999), Literature Circles: Voice And Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups by Harvey Daniels (Stenhouse, 2002), and Literature Circles Resource Guide by Bonnie Campbell Hill, Katherine L. Schlick Noe, and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 2000).
Use the following questions or similar ones to help students engage with the story and personalize the text. Students might respond in reader’s journals, oral discussion, or drawings.
Other Writing Activities
You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for them to share and discuss their work.
ELL/ESL Teaching Strategies
These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.
To help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas, you might try some of the following activities.
The Piano focuses on an intergenerational friendship. Ask students to tell about older people/senior citizens with whom they are friends. Then explain that older people often have very interesting stories to tell about their lives, and that an oral history is a record of these stories. Have students work in small groups to recruit a few people who are willing to be interviewed for oral histories. Students should get ready for their interviews by drawing up a list of questions to ask the person, and then preparing to take notes or record the answers. The answers can be written up and/or transcribed and the resulting stories presented to the class. Students may also wish to search the Internet for pictures that relate to the events or places mentioned in their oral histories.
Remind students that music made Tia think of “castles, mountains, and deep new snow.” Talk about how different kinds of music create different mental images. Then play a variety of kinds of music and have students respond by drawing pictures that the music inspires. If students wish, they might share their pictures and describe how the music made them feel.
About the Author
William Miller is the author of numerous award-winning books for young people. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called The Piano “a lovely book with an understated message.” The book was also chosen as a Notable Book for a Global Society and a Best Book, K-6 Social Studies, by the Society of School Librarians International. Miller’s books also include the following titles published by Lee & Low Books: Joe Louis, My Champion, Rent Party Jazz, Night Golf, The Bus Ride, Richard Wright and the Library Card, Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery, and Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree.
Miller was raised in Anniston, Alabama, and now lives in York, Pennsylvania, where he teaches creative writing and African American literature at York College. He says, “Personally, I am drawn to the themes of struggle, renewal, and celebration in the literature I teach.” To write for children on a full-time basis is his goal.
About the Illustrator
Susan Keeter was “thrilled to have the opportunity to illustrate this book.” She drew on the memory of her grandmother and her grandmother’s home town of Athens, Georgia, to develop a mental picture of the story setting. Kirkus Reviews noted that “Keeter’s oil paintings enhance the gentle mood. Two-page spreads make space for the pictures to illustrate the text and expand the setting.”
Keeter studied fine art and illustration at Syracuse University. She has illustrated several children’s books including Honey Baby Sugar child by Alice Faye Duncan and Tippy Lemmey by Patricia C. McKissack. Keeter currently works in marketing and communications at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, for her “day job.” Keeter lives with her husband, daughter, and three cats in Syracuse.
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Learn more about
Also by William Miller:
The Bus Ride
Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery
Joe Louis, My Champion
Night Golf Rent Party Jazz
Richard Wright and the Library Card
Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree
BookTalk with William Miller on Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree