Introducing 'The New Jim Crow'

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explores complex questions about the criminal justice system and the history of race and racial justice in the United States. 
Grade Level

Teaching 'The New Jim Crow'
Lesson 2: Introducing 'The New Jim Crow'

Essential Question

  • What key concepts and questions are explored in The New Jim Crow?


Big Idea

  • In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explores complex questions about the criminal justice system and the history of race and racial justice in the United States. 



  • Students will be introduced to essential questions that will guide their reading of The New Jim Crow
  • Students will become familiar with key terms and concepts found in The New Jim Crow.


Required Materials


Optional Materials


Tier II and III vocabulary

  • bias
  • caste
  • color blindness
  • hierarchy
  • Jim Crow
  • mass incarceration
  • stereotype
  • stigma


Warm Up

Provide students with this paragraph from the Introduction to The New Jim Crow

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

Then tell students to freewrite about the Cotton family history using the adage: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


Before Reading

  1. Debrief the Warm Up.

  2. Explain to students that they will be reading excerpts from a book titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration During the Age of Colorblindness, written by Michelle Alexander. The paragraph they freewrote about comes from this book. Have students make predictions about The New Jim Crow’s topics and themes based on its cover image and title. (If you do not have the book, the cover image can be viewed online at newjimcrow.com). Provide students with background information about Alexander’s career and have them read her interview with Teaching Tolerance. 

  3. Connect The New Jim Crow to current events, local issues or your students’ own experiences. Issues around policing and the relationship between law enforcement and African-American males, in particular, have long been of concern in the black community. However, recent media attention paid to the deadly shootings of unarmed teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have brought the discussion into a larger public forum. However it works best for your particular community, be sure to help students make connections between The New Jim Crow and ongoing events.

  4. Explain that each lesson will focus on a particular chapter and will be guided by essential questions, and that the book itself has three overarching essentials questions (you may want to post these somewhere in the room):
  • How does the U.S. criminal justice system create and maintain racial hierachy though mass incarceration?

  • How does the current system of mass incarceration in the United States mirror earlier systems of racialized social control?

  • What is needed to end mass incarceration and permanently eliminate racial caste in the United States?


During Reading

  1. Begin by asking students what they think the role of language is in writing about race and racism. As an author, Alexander uses the power of words to make a powerful claim about the criminal justice system and social justice. She also uses strong organization and deep research to help defend her claim. As you engage your students in the content of The New Jim Crow, be sure to also use it as a mentor text for good writing. 

  2. Tell students they will be participating in a shared reading of the excerpt from the introduction to The New Jim Crow. If your students are unfamiliar or less practiced with shared reading, spend some time going over the routine and expectations. 

  3. Prior to beginning the shared reading, tell students to use the Two-column Notes handout to take notes as they read and discuss. They will have more time to complete it during rereads and after reading. 

  4. Facilitate a shared reading of the excerpt, using the Shared Reading Script to help pace your questioning and the Shared Reading Methods to better engage students. The following six methods are used in the shared reading. 
  • Whole Group Text-dependent Clarifying Question. Use this method when there is a definition or clarification critical to comprehension (e.g., “What is chattel slavery?”)

  • Teacher Think-aloud. Model your thinking about complicated concepts (e.g., “Although Alexander doesn’t explicitly state it, I can infer that she believes … .” “I made this inference based on where the text states … .”) Think-alouds at the beginning of a text orient students to Alexander’s approach. It is best to limit the use of think-alouds to ensure the students are doing the heavy intellectual lifting.

  • Stop and Jot. This method can be used with any text-dependent question or task (e.g., “Okay, let’s stop and jot: According to Alexander, what is the role of government?”) Use this method to help students process new or complex information or to record information they will need to remember. Jots also present an opportunity for you to assess quality and understanding.

  • Turn and Talk. Use this method for clarifying higher-order questions (e.g., "Why does Alexander place such an emphasis on the role—and failure—of the U.S. Supreme Court in her discussion of mass incarceration?”). It is appropriate when you want students to formulate an original statement, rephrase Alexander’s words, clarify events or compare and contrast ideas. Turn and Talk is helpful to ensure everyone participates in large group discussions. 

  • Jot and Talk. This method combines oral and written shared reading strategies (e.g., “Jot down a summary of the opening paragraph, then turn and compare your understanding with your partner.”) Articulating thoughts on paper first increases the quality of students’ verbal communication. This process is helpful for English language learners or others who might feel uncomfortable sharing ideas with a large group.

  • Targeted Task. Use this method when marking text or using a graphic organizer (e.g., “Alexander is contrasting two different families here; let’s create a quick T-chart to organize this information as we read.”). Targeted tasks focus in on a specific learning outcome. Potential targeted tasks include creating T-charts, Venn diagrams, timelines, sketches or summaries related to the text. These are great prewriting tools and may be useful to students during the written assessment phase. 


After Reading

  1. Have students work with a partner to compare notes and complete the Two-column Notes handout. Ideally, students should return to the text to reread to find more information. 

  2. Review the handout with the whole class. Emphasize that they will encounter these questions and concepts numerous times over the course of their readings and that the goal today was to become familiar, rather than become experts. 


Exit Ticket 

Write the prompt on the board and allow students time to quietly and independently respond in writing.

Look at the list of eight words introduced today and group them in two categories:

  1. Terms or concepts I can explain to other people on my own. 
  2. Terms or concepts I need someone else to better explain to me.

Note: Assess exit ticket responses to determine where your students may need additional support.


Return to Teaching The New Jim Crow | Proceed to Lesson 3 - Slavery as a Form of Racialized Social Control

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