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.
I loved history until the fifth grade. In my TV-less house, I spent most of my free time as a child reading, and historical fiction was one of my favorite genres. At the time, I didn’t realize it and wouldn’t have been able to articulate it—I just read and reread the books I knew I loved.
Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series? Check. Ask me about about the traditions, holidays and routines of Jewish families living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.
Doris Gates’ Blue Willow? Check. It pulled my nine-year-old self into the world of Janey, the daughter of migrant farmers, and her life the Great Depression. (Later, my deep fondness for it caused The Grapes of Wrath to fall flat.)
Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson? Check. I adapted it into a screenplay, which I produced with my dear (read: manipulated) little sister in the lead role of Shirley Temple Wong, the young Chinese immigrant living in New York City during the golden age of Jackie Robinson and the New York Yankees.
And, yes. I read The Little House on the Prairie series in its entirety. I can thank Laura Ingalls Wilder for my button collection and a summer spent hand-washing clothes in my backyard. The washboard is still in my parents’ attic.
Reflecting on these memories and the books behind them, two things stand out to me. The first is that these books have been rooted in historical detail, without going so far as to claim complete historical accuracy, by authors who lived similar stories or felt deep personal connections to the period and its circumstances.
The second is that children (and perhaps adults, too) learn best through story. Beginning in the sixth grade, history class took the form of lectures, note taking and textbook reading, and my interest in and love for history took a nosedive. I remember very little from my Advanced Placement U.S. History class, but I’ll never forget how I felt when reading Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for the first time and encountered the plethora of cruel racial injustices that occurred in the South during the 1930s.
How can children best begin to understand history? I believe it is through authentic characters and author connection, two elements the following books deliver with insight, thoughtfulness and grace.
written by Linda Sue Park
Since the death of her Chinese Korean mother three years earlier, 14-year-old Hanna and her white father have been on the search for a town where they can settle down. When they reach LaForge, a frontier town in the Dakota Territory, Hanna wonders whether she will be accepted or ostracized by the other settlers. As her father works to open a dry goods store and Hanna begins to attend school, the townspeople’s racial prejudice and xenophobia, which is both subtle and deliberate, quickly becomes apparent. Thoughts of her mother and of the women in the nearby Ihanktonwan community give Hanna the strength and courage she needs to persevere through hard months of isolation. A sensitive and much-needed response to the Little House series, Park’s novel offers students a new perspective on the era of westward expansion and its impact on the lives of those whose stories are often overlooked.
- Quote-Led Discussion
By the time they reach the end of middle school, many children have personally experienced suffering. Fear, loneliness, death, prejudice—these things cause lasting pain in a child’s life that we can’t ignore or trivialize. But children often lack emotional awareness or aren’t developmentally ready to express or even name these hard feelings. Encountering them in the context of a book can be comforting for students who are experiencing similar circumstances. It can even help them give words to a feeling they previously could not articulate. For other children, reading about a character’s hardships and hurts can provide them with a small empathy-sparking glimpse into what their classmates might be experiencing.
A book like Prairie Lotus can provide a point of entry for rich discussion. Start with Hanna’s story. Type the following quotations from the text (or find others) and print them out for students. Arrange desks in a circle or gather in a circle on the floor. Review classroom discussion guidelines, reminding students how to listen, express and respond. Read the quotations and ask a few open-ended questions, then release teacher control and let students do most of the talking. This exercise can also be done in small groups of students if you are able to rotate around the room enough to monitor the discussions.
“No, thank-you,” he said. Again, Hanna recognized the kind of astonishment she’d perceived before in so many other people. She speaks, she speaks English, she speaks English politely!”
“Their mothers were seldom better, and often worse. On spotting Hanna, they would cross the street hastily, sometimes covering their mouths as if she were diseased. Or they would pull their smaller children behind their skirts, protecting them. From what? Hanna always wondered.”
“Except for Hanna. She and Mama had never spoken about it, but Hanna had somehow absorbed the knowledge that there were times when it was useful—crucial—to hide her thoughts.”
“Then there were those like Dolly, perhaps not meaning to be unkind, but still unthinking. Cruelty was painful. Thoughtlessness was merely exhausting.”
“That’s no excuse! What’s got into you, Hanna—since when did you care so much about the Indians?” It was a reasonable question. I always cared about the unfairness. But I used to think only of how white people treated Chinese people. Now I know it’s about how white people treat anybody who isn’t white.”
- New Perspectives
For generations, history was taught through a single perspective. Read Linda Sue Park’s author’s note aloud to the class. Discuss how Prairie Lotus was a response to her childhood feelings as she read the Little House series. Read a few passages from the Little House series and prompt discussion about how narration and perspective can negatively influence a story and offer inaccurate or misleading information.
Read Brittany Luby’s Encounter or Rosalyn Schanzer’s George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen From Both Sides and discuss the varying perspectives. Read aloud more picture books and ask students, “Whose story is not being told?” and “How might this story change if another character was telling the story?”
For older grades, connect this to the social studies curriculum by guiding students through a classroom story-shifting exercise. For example, tell the story of the California Gold Rush through from the perspective of the Native Americans who had lived for centuries in the areas where gold was found.
Show Me a Sign
written by Ann Clare LeZotte
It’s 1805. Mary Lambert lives in Chilmark, a community on Martha’s Vineyard where about a quarter of the population is deaf and almost everyone communicates in Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Mary feels safe in her community but is aware of mounting racial tensions between the English, black and Wampanoag people, all of whom call the Vineyard home. Mary’s peaceful life is upended upon the arrival of Andrew Noble, an arrogant young scientist who wants to study the community and its deaf population. In need of a live specimen, he kidnaps Mary and takes her to Boston, where she becomes part of a cruel “experiment.” Against the backdrop of a riveting and well-researched story, LeZotte handles big issues with sensitivity while opening doors for rich classroom discussion.
- Chilmark vs. Boston
In Part 1 of the book, Mary lives a normal life. She is not treated any different from the other people in her community. She is surprised when she finds out, “We have the highest number of deaf residents on the island. I hadn’t noticed that before. He concluded that one in four residents are deaf compared with one in six thousand on the mainland. You could have knocked me down with a feather!” In Boston, Mary is considered a living specimen and begins to understand how deaf people are treated outside of the Chilmark community.
As you read Part 1 together, make note of people and their daily lives in Chilmark. How do they treat each other? How do they treat Mary? What is considered normal? When you reach Part 2, do the same for the people and life in Boston. I suggest recording these observations at the end of each chapter instead of recording posthumously.
Use this exercise as a launching point for a discussion about how we view and treat others. Before you begin, review the classroom discussion guidelines. I always remind students, “What is shared in our circle STAYS in our circle.” Prompt students with open-ended questions. You might ask, “Do we let others’ differences (because we all have them) change the way we treat them? If so, how can it be for the better?” “How can we learn from each other’s differences?” or “How do you feel when someone asks you questions in an effort to know more about you?”
- Ownvoices Narratives
Ann Clare LeZotte is a deaf author and librarian. Ask students how this might influence the story she wrote. Students might be unfamiliar with the concept and term “ownvoices.” (This explanation, from the term’s creator, YA author Corinne Duyvis, is a good place to start.) Use this as an opportunity to discuss the importance of writing and telling such stories, and what can occur when people attempt to write a fiction story without personal experience or thorough research. Guide the students through an exercise that helps them identify a topic or experience that they can use to draft an ownvoices narrative of their own. If possible, model it with students.
For example, as a child, I had a moderate to severe speech impediment. Years of speech therapy helped, but it’s still very much present today. When I shared childhood memories and a few of the thoughtless comments that I still receive, student began to grasp how we truly don’t know the many nuances other people experience, and how even thoughtless comments can be hurtful and exhausting.