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.
In my first year of teaching, I taught fourth grade in a school where the students were mostly African American. My students familiar with the names Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Ruby Bridges. They connected these names with African American history, but their understanding was fragmented. When one of my students asked, “Was Abraham Lincoln at the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I knew that something needed to be done to clarify—and more importantly, to honor—these figures and the history they represented.
An oversized hallway timeline was the answer. I started in February, and for the next three months, I shared books that recounted the contributions of African Americans to our shared history. After each title, my students and I printed pictures and wrote down facts to add to our timeline. This was the beginning of a tradition.
For the past ten years, when February arrives, I pull out the pieces of the timeline and coordinating books. But now, the row of books is far longer than the timeline. Each year brings new stories. There are stories of hatred and heroism, of injustice and integrity, of bigotry and bravery, of pain and perseverance. The stories in the following three books were new to my students—and new to me as well. Share them knowing that stories can be the most powerful weapon in our fight against injustice and the most effective tool for raising compassionate human beings.
written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome
One morning, Ruthie and her Mama and Daddy wake early to board the Silver Meteor, which will take them from North Carolina to New York. Author Lesa Cline-Ransome tells of their journey through simple poems, each describing significant moments of their Great Migration. Though they are “free,” Ruthie’s family continues to face persecution; for example, they are not allowed to eat in the dining car and are ignored by some passengers. Their dream of a life with new freedoms helps them persevere with optimism and hope. The Great Migration is a period often overlooked in African American history curricula, and my students were full of questions sparked by Ruthie’s odyssey.
- Compare & Contrast
Most students are familiar with the Underground Railroad. On a piece of chart paper, write “Underground Railroad,” then create a list of what students know about it. Supplement a few details if needed. After reading Overground Railroad, explain that Overground Railroad is a term that refers to a historical period known as The Great Migration. I told students, “At the end of World War I, many African Americans left their homes in the South and traveled North for a better life in cities, where most of them had better chances of finding work. Ruthie’s family was going to New York. Other families went to big cities in Illinois, Pennsylvania or Michigan.” Read aloud Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration: An American Story and Eloise Greenfield’s The Great Migration: Journey to the North. On another sheet of chart paper, write what the students know about the Overground Railroad. Using the class’s information, create a Venn diagram comparing the Underground Railroad to the Overground Railroad.
Ruthie’s teacher gives her the a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It becomes her companion as she undertakes a journey much like Douglass’. Though they lived many years apart, Douglass and Ruthie both share feelings of hope and trepidation. Like Douglass, Ruthie is “running from and running to at the same time.”
Gather several picture book biographies and place them in a designated spot in your classroom. For the next few days, encourage your students to read several (ideally more than 10). Prompt them to consider which biography resonated with them. Ask, “How is this person’s life like your life? How is this person like you?” Turn this into a larger biography project with the understanding that, as a part of the project, students must connect this person’s life with their own.
A Ride to Remember
written by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
In this biographical picture book, Sharon Langley recounts the story of her monumental carousel ride. Prior to 1963, children like Shirley and their families were not allowed to enter the local amusement park because of a segregation law. The process of integration was not easy; it included peaceful protests and a series of arrests before the park became open to everyone. The narrative thread, a conversation between Sharon and her mother, makes the Civil Rights Movement accessible for the youngest of readers. By focusing on a small yet universal childhood experience, Sharon’s story will spark empathy as students see the weight and grief of injustice and how segregation affected the daily life of all African Americans.
- Significance of Objects
The Gwynne Oak Amusement Park carousel, renamed the Carousel on the Mall, was installed on Washington’s National Mall in 1981. Using Google Earth, show students the carousel. Ask, “Why is this carousel so important that it is deserves a place along the National Mall?” Guide them to the idea that historical objects are valuable and special because of what they symbolize. The carousel itself is just painted wooden horses, but it serves as a reminder of the our Civil Rights journey. It is a tangible representation of the idea that equality means “nobody first and nobody last, everyone equal, having fun together.” Show students other historical objects that are significant for what they represent. Using the Smithsonian’s online collection, we looked at the Greensboro lunch counter and a broken bus window and discussed what these objects represented in the fight for Civil Rights.
- Local Civil Rights History
A Ride to Remember focuses on an incident in a local community that was a small representation of what was happening on larger scale around the country. Contact your local library and ask if they have any Civil Rights resources that tell stories from your community. If possible, invite a guest speaker to come share their experience of growing up during this time.
- The March on Washington
Sharon’s historical ride occurred on Aug. 28, 1963—the same day that Martin Luther King addressed the crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Give your students more context about this event by watching footage and reading aloud two excellent picture books, Shane W. Evans’ We March and Angela Johnson’s A Sweet Smell of Roses. Both books are told through the eyes of a child. Invite students to use what they have learned to write a first-person narrative imagining what it was like to be part of the march. Encourage them to include the sights, sounds, smells and sensory details of the day.
Big Papa and the Time Machine
written by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
When a young grandson expresses first-day-of-school nerves, he becomes a passenger in Big Papa’s vintage car on a journey through the past. Together, the pair visits the places that formed Big Papa and determined the course of his life. Each stop shows Big Papa taking action despite his own nervousness and fear of the unknown that accompanies all significant transitions. Bernstrom writes dialogue between the two that’s honest and full of wisdom. Without veering into didactic or overly saccharine territory, Big Papa shows his grandson that courage is not the absence of fear, but the choice to carry on through it. Both the textual story (the journey through historical events) and the subtextual story (acknowledging and facing our fears) are strong testaments to the courage and sacrifices of older generations and will help students understand that the freedoms and privileges they enjoy today were hard-earned.
- Time Travel
Oh, time travel, that most magical of concepts! Invite older students to plan their own journey though the past. As a class, brainstorm historical events to get ideas flowing, then let students take over with their own ideas. My students’ journeys included everything from “The 1998 National Championship game,” “my mother’s high school graduation,” “the 1960 Olympics, so I can watch Wilma Rudolph” and “my first day of kindergarten.”
Use butcher paper to create a long timeline. Let students work together to determine the earliest year of their journeys and then to decide how to mark the other years. After the timeline structure is in place, let each student add their journey stops to the timeline.
- Bravery Interviews
Big Papa acknowledges his fear and nerves at each new situation, but he explains, “ . . . sometimes you have to jump in an ocean of scared.” Later, Big Papa tells his grandson that being scared never goes away.
When I was in elementary school, I thought adults were never afraid. After I read this book to my students, I shared a few understandable instances in my life when I felt nervous and scared. Like Big Papa, persevering through these fears resulted in growth and joy. Ask students to interview parents, grandparents or other adults in the school. As a class, create some questions so that students will have purpose and clarity in their interviews. Realizing that everyone has fears and uncertainty can be a liberating concept for children. This exercise gives them assurance that their personal fears are not unusual or wrong.