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Discussion Guide

About the Book

Download PDF VersionThirteen-year-old Louise Collins has always gone to a public school for white students only. Then, in November 1960, a black girl named Ruby Bridges enters first grade, integrating Louise’s New Orleans public school according to the new federal law. This change turns the city—and Louise’s life— upside down. White families, including Louise’s, keep their children home from school in protest. Louise’s mother becomes one of the Cheerleaders, a squad of local mothers and wives who taunt and bully Ruby Bridges on her way into school each morning. During a few days of this protest, a stranger’s visit leads Louise into startling events and revelations that reshape her ideas about herself, her family, and what she has always known. Through one girl’s experiences, My Mother the Cheerleader explores the forces of race, economics, and cultural history that divided families, communities, and a nation and continue to affect us today.

Pre-reading discussion questions

  1. What is a cheerleader? What is a cheerleader’s role and purpose? What do you think the title of this book means?

  2. What do the words “segregation” and “integration” mean? What do you know about the history of segregation and integration of public schools in the United States?

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is Louise Collins’s life like? What is important to her? What three words do you think most accurately describe Louise? Do you like Louise? Explain.

  2. Louise’s mother is one of the Cheerleaders. What does “Cheerleader” mean in this novel? Is it used ironically? Why or how?

  3. In the opening chapter Louise explains that this story happened in New Orleans in 1960. How does the author continue to create this setting in the novel? How is the story’s setting similar to and different from your time and place in history?

  4. Why do so many parents, teachers, and politicians react so strongly against integration?

  5. DescribeLouise’sexperienceofsegregation.Doesherexperi- ence justify the continuation of segregation? Explain. What does Louise think about the integration of her school?

  6. Describe Morgan Miller’s relationship with his family. In what ways did his childhood affect his adult life?

  7. Is the piano important to the story? Why or why not?

  8. What does Louise learn about her mother during the days covered by this novel? Does Louise change over the course of this story? Justify your reasoning by using examples from the story.

  9. Describe the relationship between Louise’s mother and Charlotte Dupree. Do they like each other? Explain.

  10. Louise says John Steinbeck saw the Cheerleaders “from the outside looking in” (p. 12). She explains that she wants to present her mother and her mother’s friends from the inside. Evaluate whether Louise’s account offers this inside perspective or not. How does Louise’s account affect the way you think about her mother and the Cheerleaders? About segregation? About racism?

  11. Do you think people today would behave like the Cheerleaders in response to a social change related to race or other factors? Why or why not?

  12. Characters in this story have vastly different approaches to other people. Which characters did you like and dislike, and why? What do you think motivates the characters in this story? Consider Louise, her mother, Charlotte Dupree, Royce Burke, Morgan Miller, Michael Miller.

  13. What is courage? Who acts courageously in this story and how? Explain. Compare and contrast different characters’ acts of courage.

  14. We aren’t told with certainty what happened to Morgan Miller. What do you think happened to him at the end of the story? What does this ambiguity do for the story? How does this affect your reading of this book?

  15. What do you think the important messages are in this novel? What does this story mean to you?

  16. Eventually Louise struggles with her feelings about her mother’s participation in the Cheerleaders. Have you ever met someone who seemed racist? How did it make you feel? Did you act similarly to Louise?

Extension activities

Louise Grows Up

How do you think Louise’s story continues? Consider what you learned about her from the novel. Using this information, write an additional paragraph or two for the last page of the story. In your new paragraph write as if you were Louise giving the important parts of her adult life.

What causes racism?

Reflect on the characters in the story, their views about race, and their life experiences. Based on these characters, and your own ideas and experiences, write an essay that explains what you think causes racism.

Another Point of View

Reread chapter 14, which conveys Louise’s view of Ruby Bridges going to school one morning. Think about what Ruby Bridges went through and rewrite the scene from her perspective. What did she see? Hear? Do? Think?

Pieces of History

Work in pairs or small groups to choose a topic related to the novel to research and present to the whole class. Topics might include Ruby Bridges, media coverage of the Cheerleaders, the Ku Klux Klan, Governor Jimmie H. Davis, the N.A.A.C.P., U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright, The Daily Worker, Brown v. Board of Education, John Steinbeck.

The Importance of Geography

My Mother the Cheerleader takes place in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, the same location that has received prominent news coverage related to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city in 2005. Research the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. What is important about its geography and cultural history? Locate the Ninth Ward on a map of New Orleans. In what ways does My Mother the Cheerleader connect with what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit?

Looking at Courage

Create a visual representation of what courage means to you. What is courage? What is worth being courageous for? Who do they think is or was courageous? Your ideas might be conveyed through collage, drawing, painting, or another visual material that is available.

Sounds of the Times

Find recordings of Peggy Lee, The Weavers (particularly ”If I Had a Hammer” and “Goodnight Irene”), and Billie Holliday (particularly “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”). As a class, listen and discuss the connections of this music to the story and the time period.