Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
Think fast! What do Eloise, Knuffle Bunny, Lyle and Little Elliot have in common? How about some of the most memorable fictional families: Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family sisters, Elizabeth Enright’s scrappy and enterprising Melendy siblings and Karina Yan Glaser’s endearing Vanderbeeker clan. Each of these beloved characters and families lives a story that has (in the words of Frank Sinatra) “New York, New York . . . right through the very heart of it.” And it’s at the heart of the following books.
Offering small glimpses into the city’s bustling urban energy, dazzling lights and diverse neighborhoods, these books show students that, contrary to popular belief, they are not the center of the universe. That honor belongs to New York City.
Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island by Jennifer Thermes
Over the past four centuries, the island of Manhattan has experienced much transition, unrest, urban growth and dynamic shifts in both societal and city structure. Beginning with the Lenape, the island’s native inhabitants, Thermes records, explains and illustrates significant events and decisions that have shaped the island in its 400-year history. We learn about Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609, the British occupation during the American Revolution, the significant Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, immigration, the Gilded Age, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and more.
The detailed, watercolor-and-pencil maps, timelines and rich explanatory text demand a slow and thoughtful reading experience. Carve out a few class periods to enjoy savoring and studying it with students.
- Urban Planning
At the beginning of the 19th century, city commissioners realized, “The city was branching out in all directions. It needed a plan.” John Randel Jr. and his team spent more than a decade planning, pounding and laying the grid for the city.
Most children will be unfamiliar with the concept of urban planning. The American Planning Association has an excellent downloadable curriculum that provides educators with resources for teaching the basic concepts of urban planning.
For younger students, use the organization’s Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt. Activities vary from taking rubbings of significant city buildings to riding public transportation to interviewing an older member of the community. Use a local copy shop to print an oversize city map and hang it in the classroom. For older students, read sections of David Macauley’s City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction.
- Neighborhood Deep Dive
As the book progresses, the neighborhoods on the island maps increase. According to the NYC Department of City Planning, the island of Manhattan has 53 distinct neighborhoods (see page 4 of this guide).
Let each student choose a specific neighborhood to research. Using their research, they must write a “Six Hours in [fill-in neighborhood]” presentation. They can choose the significant landmarks, key historical facts, cultural hot spots, top-rated restaurants, local parks and libraries and other information they think is important in understanding the culture of the neighborhood.
- Classroom City Timeline
Change and transformation are inevitable, and as evidenced on the island of Manhattan, natural disasters, political conflict, economic fluctuations and new transportation and technologies deeply influence how and why cities develop.
Spend a few weeks unpacking the history of your city with students. Invite a city or community historian into your classroom to discuss the city’s history. Remind students to listen for the key historical events that were responsible for shaping the city. Request resources from your local or state museum. Encourage students to interview neighbors or other longtime members of the community.
As more history is uncovered, begin to gather the notes and photographs in one central area. Using long butcher paper, create a classroom city timeline. Fill in a few of the events and dates that were discussed in class, and then invite students to continue to add events as they uncover them in personal research.
Keep the timeline up all year, and watch how it continues to grow as students become more interested and invested.
I Can Write the World written by Joshunda Sanders, illustrated by Charly Palmer
Living in South Bronx, 8-year-old Ava wonders why the TV news images and stories depicting her neighborhood don’t reflect or match her feelings and experiences. “Sometimes the way the world sees us is different from how we see ourselves,” her mother explains. Ava decides to take matters into her own hands and sets out to become a journalist who will report the stories that accurately reflect her vibrant, creative and loving neighborhood.
Palmer’s vibrant brushstroke illustrations pulse with movement and emotion mirroring the characters, cultures and stories that make up the South Bronx. Not only does Ava’s gentle first-person perspective provide a child’s personal insight into a NYC neighborhood, but it also shows students that that they, too, hold the power to seek out and tell stories.
- Sensory Language
Written in lyrical prose, I Can Write the World is filled with rich, descriptive language. Read it aloud a second time, but this time ask students to close their eyes and focus on the sensory details. Afterward, create a class graphic organizer and fill it in with the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that Ava describes.
Take students outside. For two minutes, they must focus on the sounds, sights, smells and textures around them. Once back inside the classroom, ask them to write words, phrases and sentences to describe their experience. Ask them to do the same thing as soon as they wake up the next morning. What are the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures of their morning routine? I use this activity as a calming and centering exercise on field trips. Minutes spent focusing and noticing helps students foster disciplines and habits of the mind.
- Music and Art of the Bronx
For her first story, Ava asks her mother to tell her “more about the art you and your Classmates made.” As they tour the neighborhood, Ava learns about Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and the music the neighbors brought when they moved from Puerto Rico, Haiti and Jamaica. The sounds of their homeland (salsa, reggae, etc.) influence modern-day hip-hop. Listen to the various types of music that are celebrated in the Bronx.
Graffiti is another form of art that has shaped the Bronx neighborhood. While listening to the various forms of music, provide paint, pastels, sharpies, and markers and let children create their own graffiti inspired art. For further reading, check out When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill and The Roots of Rap by Carole Boston Weatherford.
- Media Literacy
Seize the opportunity to discuss journalism, media literacy and bias reporting. It’s a hard topic, but Ava’s experience provides an excellent entry into the tricky subject. For older students, discuss conservative, liberal and middle-of-the-road reporting. Give them a working media literacy vocabulary by teaching them the meaning of the following words: bias, evidence, exaggeration, slant and claim.
Read a short news article together. Let the students identify nouns, verbs, adjectives or phrases that appear biased. How could this article be rewritten or reframed?
Nelly Takes New York written by Allison Pataki and Marya Myers, illustrated by Kristi Valiant
For Nelly, New York City is home. Each morning, she is awakened by the city’s familiar sounds: the rumble of the subway, the rat-tat-tats of a street musician and the opening rattle of a store front gate. One morning as Nelly watches Mr. Patel, owner of the local corner cart, juggle bagels, he comments, “The Big Apple is tons of fun!” And so, Nelly and her dog, Bagel, set off on a mission to find this “big apple.” Their quest takes them all over the city, and they visit several NYC landmarks and neighborhoods before realizing “The Big Apple isn’t something you can hold or eat. The Big Apple is all of us—the Big Apple IS New York City.”
The accessible story and simple overview of a city provide a strong foundation for students familiarizing them with the terms and places they will need for further NYC study.
- Experience Nelly’s Journey
Prior to reading it aloud, tell students, “Some words in this book are going to look different from all the other words. Be on the lookout for words that are extra dark (this is called bold text) and in a different typeface.”
As you read, keep a visual running list of the bold words. At the conclusion of the book, ask students to discuss the words on the list. (They are significant NYC neighborhoods and landmarks.)
Use Google Earth (I created a tour prior to the lesson) to trace Nelly’s NYC journey. Show students Nelly’s bird’s eye view by using a 360 photo spherefrom the top of the Empire State Building.
- City Nicknames and Branding
Ask students to articulate the Nelly’s big apple and “Big Apple” confusion. Briefly tell the story behind the city’s nickname, emphasizing how it was used in the early 1970s as a marketing campaign to revive city tourism. Use this to launch a discussion about city nicknames and city branding.
Show students the tourism home pages and magazine advertisements of several big cities, and then let them take on the role of a marketing director. Provide pencils, oversize paper and colorful drawing materials, and invite them to design a magazine ad or airport poster that encourages people to visit their hometown or city.