Little Melba and Her Big Trombone Mini-Unit

The Mini-Unit Designer

Ms. Rebecca Kossman

Hiram L. Dorman Elementary

Springfield, Massachusetts

Mini-Unit plan created February 2017

Introducing the Mini-Unit

This mini unit was written with my third grade class in mind. I usually have about 24 students. My classroom is diverse in many ways. I have students that are black, white, and Hispanic. They have many different interests like sports, music, dance, video games, math, science, and reading. Many of my students are proud of their families and heritage. They also have big hopes and dreams for the future—they hope to go to college, become teachers, police officers, writers, doctors, and many other amazing things! What’s great about this book is that it shows a little girl who, despite many obstacles, lets her big dreams guide her to success. Since it is a true story there is real proof to show my kids that she really did push through these obstacles to succeed. While many things have changed since the 1920s, it can still be difficult for women and people of color to be taken seriously in certain contexts. I think that my students have and will continue to face those prejudices throughout their lives, so it is important that they read about people who have overcome them. Also, since my school doesn’t have a music program I am always looking for ways to incorporate music into our learning, which is another facet I love about this book.

Contextualizing the Picture Book

Title: Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

Author: Katheryn Russell-Brown

Illustrator: Frank Morrison

Publisher: Lee and Low Books Inc.

Date of Publication: 2014


I appreciate that this book is truly a biography that reads like historical fiction. In fact, the Library of Congress classifies it as biography rather than a picture book. One thing that students may need help understanding is the music that Melba loves. The following links are to two videos of Melba Liston performing. These can be used to introduce the book to show students what she eventually accomplished:

The following is a link to a fairly lengthy article written by a Kansas politician in 1969. While I wouldn’t necessarily read it with the students, it is helpful in getting to know what Kansas—and the country as a whole—was like in the 1920s and 1930s:

This next link is to a Kansas City tourist website. It has some nice details, pictures, and a video about the jazz scene in Kansas City that began in the 1920s. The jazz scene was a big influence for Melba, so this link can also be used to give students an idea of what Melba’s life was like and what inspired her:


Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a biography of Melba Liston, who was one of the first women ever to become a world-class trombone player. The story begins with Melba’s childhood love of music. By recounting her school days, the book allows the reader to learn about Melba’s immense talent and intelligence. The story continues with Melba going on tour. While we mostly learn of her performances and accomplishments, we also learn about the hardships she faced as a woman of color playing a traditionally masculine instrument in the 1940s.

Author: This is a link to Katheryn Russell-Brown’s website:

This is Russell-Brown’s only children’s book. She is a professor of Law and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida. She has written a number of academic books focusing on race.

Illustrator: This is a link to Frank Morrison’s online portfolio:

Morrison uses his art in various ways. Early in his career he was involved in graffiti art and breakdancing. He was inspired by a trip to Paris to work more closely with drawing. He has illustrated many picture books, and is also an accomplished painter.

The illustrations for Little Melba were done in oil paint.

Learning Experience Design #1

Show the cover of the book. Ask students: What kind of book do you think this is? What do you think it is going to be about?

Explain that:

  • This is a biography of a woman named Melba Liston who became a famous trombone player, despite many factors against her.
    • Melba was born in 1926. This was before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s so things were very different for African American in the United States. Let’s review what changed in the 1960s.
    • This discussion will differ depending on what your students already know. In my classroom, we will have read about Harriet Tubman and Ruby Bridges. I will want to situate this book in between those two movements. Slavery was illegal, African Americans could vote, women had just got the right to vote, but there were many inequalities which were considered legal. African Americans often had to go to separate schools, stores, and doctors, and they had to live in separate neighborhoods.
  • The music that was popular back then was also very different from the popular music we listen to today. Before we read this book, we will watch two videos of the real Melba Liston performing. (Video links are in the Contextualizing the Picture Book section). After watching/listening to those two videos, ask students to think about and share what is different and what is similar to music they listen to today.
  • We will be reading this book three times, each time with a different focus. Today we will focus on the language Kathryn Russell-Brown uses.

Read the book. Focus on any pieces of language you think will interest or challenge your students.

  • There are many examples of onomatopoeia to show the sounds that the instruments make. Notice how the font has been changed on those words.
  • You can also point out words that tell the reader this book takes place in the 1920s and 30s. On the first page we see the words nifty, dandy, spread the word, folks, and gig. If you choose to focus on words that orient us to the 20s and 30s, you could also ask students to determine what words we would use to describe these events if we were using language from today.

As you can see, there are many avenues to take with the language in this book. Before reading this with students, go through and find the words and phrases that you’d like to focus on. I have chosen which ones I think will be best for my students. I have listed my stopping points below, noting the pages by the first few words on the page. When reading with students, I will keep a chart of all of the words and phrases that we stop at:

  • (From as far back as her memory…) Focus on the onomatopoeia used to describe the sounds of the instruments. Ask: how does the author show us that she wants us to focus on these sound words? (Different font and color). The way the words are written also gives us clues on how to say them (for example, the letters in hummm start small and get bigger, letting the reader know that the sound would start small and get bigger).
  • (Melba loved to hum…) What does the word kinfolk mean? Focus on using context clues to determine meaning. Ask: is this a word we would use today? What word might we use instead if the story were written about today?
  • (That night on the porch…) The words streeeeetch, hoooonk, and haaaahnnnnk, like in the earlier page we read, use onomatopoeia. Let’s also look at how the words are written. Why would the author choose to do that?
  • (Even with her keen ear…) This paragraph has a lot of words to look at! Let’s use context clues to figure out the meanings of keen and swell. Again, what are words we might use if the story were written about today? There is also a phrase here that is an example of figurative language, because it means something other than what it actually says—what does a piece of cake mean?
  • (Hard times hit…) The phrase smart as a whip is another example of figurative language (simile).
  • (Traveling with the band…) Use context clues to determine the meaning of the word mesmerized.
  • (But Melba’s fans…) Use context clues to determine the meaning of the word divine.
  • The author ends the book with the line, “Spread the word!” Where else did we hear this line? (First line of the book.) Why do you think the author chose to do this?
    • I chose to focus on this because I love when stories do this. It reminds me of The Outsiders, one of my favorite books growing up. While I won’t necessarily talk to my students about that book, I will mention to them that this is one of my favorite ways to make the reader feel closure at the end of the book. Having an ending that lets the reader feel closure is something we have focused on in writing, and so will be a meaningful connection for my students.

For independent work students will be able to choose from one of the words or phrases on our list. They will make a vocabulary four-square (attached separately) for that word. This four square asks students to give the definition, an example, draw a picture, and write a sentence.

Multimodal Families and Communities Connections:

To continue our study of new words and phrases, students will choose another word to make a four square of, with the expectation that they work with someone at home on it. The list of words we went over will be typed up so students can look through the list with a family member, and choose one they are both interested in.

Additional Multimodal Opportunities:

This learning experience includes watching videos of musical performances, and a vocabulary activity that utilizes multiple ways of understanding a word.

Creating Multimodal Interdisciplinary Opportunities:

Focus on the music: today we focused on the sound of the words used in the book. Let’s take a look at jazz music through the years. Jazz is not only the music that Melba played, but the inspiration for the words and flow of the book.

There are many videos on YouTube to choose from. I would recommend that the teacher research and choose the ones they want and that they feel will be best enjoyed by their students.

I would hand out a three column chart for my students. The first column would list decades (1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s). The second column would be for what the student notices about the music. The third column would be for the student’s opinion of the music.

If your school does have a music program, you should talk to your music teacher about ways they can incorporate what your students are learning about into music class.

Learning Experience Design #2

Re-read with a focus on Melba’s character traits and how those traits help her succeed. For example, she is determined because she continued to play an instrument that was typically for men in a society that didn’t totally accept her as a female, or as an African American. As we do the re-read, make a T-chart with traits on one side and how they help her succeed on the other.

Discuss: what is something the students would like to succeed in? What is a goal they have? What are the obstacles that might get in their way? Explain that these obstacles could be financial (such as not having enough money to go to school or get supplies), based on cultural/social norms (doing something that people don’t expect them to succeed in, like Melba did), family-based (their family doesn’t agree with their choice), or maybe it’s something they aren’t good at yet and will need to work hard to achieve.

What are some traits they will need to have in order to succeed like Melba did? Students will discuss with a partner. Then they will write an essay answering the question. (Formal prompt: Melba had many traits that helped her succeed in becoming a professional trombone player. What is a goal that you have, and which traits will you need to help you succeed?)

Multimodal Families and Communities Connections:

The following idea could be done on as small or as big a scale as is possible for the teacher.

Students will, in some way, share these essays with their families. Here are some ideas of how to implement this:

  1. Students simply bring them home and are encouraged to read them with their families.
  2. Have students do research about one of their family members who, like Melba, overcame obstacles to succeed in something. They will then have to write an essay similar to the one they did in class, but about their family member. Also, instead of an essay there could be some kind of visual project like a video, PowerPoint, picture book, or poster. These projects would then be shared in class.
  3. Have students spend a more significant amount of time on their essays, taking them all the way through the writing process (draft, revise, edit, publish). Then culminate these essays with an author day. Families will be invited in to class. Read the book to all of the families, and explain that since we learned about traits that helped Melba succeed, students wrote about a goal of their own and the traits they would need to accomplish it. Students will then sit with their families to read their essays.

Creating Multimodal Interdisciplinary Opportunities:

Another book you can read that pairs well with Little Melba is Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle. While also a true story, it is a bit shorter and a poem. It is also about a young girl who wants to play what is considered a “boy’s” instrument in the 1920s. The format and illustrations are very different from Little Melba, but the story is very similar. Also, it takes place in Cuba rather than the US. As a class you can have a great discussion about the two different societies—what was similar and what was different about them?

Another great book that can be used to add to this discussion is Chelsea Clinton’s new book She Persisted. The book tells of thirteen women who persisted through many different kinds of obstacles (physical disabilities, color of their skin, gender inequalities, and many more) to achieve great things.

Learning Experience Design #3

This last lesson will focus on how the illustrations support the story. The teacher will use visual thinking strategies to foster discussion on a few of the illustrations. After each discussion the teacher will re-read that page, and facilitate a discussion of how the illustration supported the words.

For each image ask the following three questions:

  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

The discussion will be based on how the students answer.

After a few minutes, read the text. Then ask: how does the illustration support the text that we just read? Allow students to discuss in pairs, and then have some share out ideas.


1. “Spread the Word!

2. “Melba loved to hum…

3. “With all that music…” Also note here how the page is set up to accommodate the huge trombone. Why did the illustrator choose to do this?

4. “Melba’s talent kept growing…” This is a good jumping off point for a discussion on gender—notice that Melba and her mother are one page and the men are all on the other. Look at the men’s faces. What are thinking and feeling about Melba joining them? Use page “Still Melba was lonely…” to continue this discussion.

5. “But Melba’s fans…” This page again has the trombone going across two pages.

This lesson could culminate in a few different independent activities:

  1. Students could choose one illustration from the book, and write an essay analyzing how it supports the text.
  2. Students could be given an illustration from a source other than the book, and write what they think could be the text for the page.
  3. Students could be given text from a source other than the book, and make an illustration to go along with it.

The texts/illustrations for ideas 2 and 3 could be anything of the teacher’s choosing. It could be related to the topic of this book or not. The idea would be practicing the skill of determining how text and illustrations support each other.

It could also be really interesting to choose images from a book you are planning on reading soon. This will have students thinking about the images for that story before you read it.

For texts, I would recommend something that goes along with another subject you have been learning about so the students have context for their illustrations. It could also be interesting to choose a text you have already read that didn’t have illustrations. For instance, in my class we read short biographies of Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. I could choose one section from each of those for students to make an illustration of.

Additional Multimodal Opportunities:

You may want to read more books about jazz with your students. The following link is a list of picture books about jazz. Notice that most of them are about male musicians. Ask your students why that is.

Summative Learning Experience

The summative learning experience should depend on the choices made in the earlier lesson.

If the teacher used the second learning experience more thoroughly, and had students work more with the essays and a presentation, then that would be a great summative experience.

If less time was spent on Learning Experience #2:

Discuss how this book, while seeming very much like literature (we in fact used literature based standards with it), is in fact a biography. Students will choose a person to research and create their own biography for. These biographies could be done as essays, videos, PowerPoints, posters, or other creative methods.

The students should be given a list of people to choose from. The teacher should decide on the list based on their goals with these biographies.

Some ideas of themes for your list:

  • Women who have overcome obstacles/made great achievements
  • People of color who have overcome obstacles/made great achievements
  • Musicians
  • Kids who persevered
  • People in your community

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text's illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Next Steps for Learning

Any of the multimodal activities could be used within the unit or after the unit. This depends on if you would like to stretch out your time working specifically with this book so that you have other activities in between, or if you want to focus just on Little Melba and then continue with the themes from that book into the other multimodal activities.