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 September of 1940, a little more than a year before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an address at the University of Pennsylvania on the occasion of its 300th anniversary. “We cannot always build the future for our youth,” he declared, “but we can build our youth for the future.”
We cannot create easy and utopian lives for our students, however much, as teachers, we might wish we could. But we must prepare students for the future by showing them how to be brave, responsible and compassionate. We must help them grow into thoughtful communicators, courageous leaders and gracious servants. One of the best ways we can do this is by introducing them to real people who, when they met with trials in their lives, held fast to their convictions.
These three books tell the stories of women who overcame challenges to make an impact on the world. But another, perhaps more important thread, also runs through each of these women’s lives: Their childhoods were shaped by the faithful encouragement and love of a caring adult. As you share these books with your students, remember that you, too, are building the future.
We Wait for the Sun
by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe
illustrated by Raissa Figueroa
Civil Rights activist Dovey Johnson Roundtree shares a childhood memory in We Wait for the Sun, recounting an early morning ritual she shared with her Grandma Rachel. “In the hour before dawn,” the pair slip into the cool night air and head to the forest where blackberries grow. Then, “as if by some secret signal,” other women appear and join in their “silent march” and “secret mission.” As they pick the berries, the women trade whispers and stories. When their buckets are brimming, Grandma Rachel pulls Roundtree into a hug and together they “watch the pink turn to red, the red to gold,” experiencing a glorious sunrise and the dawn of a new day together. We Wait for the Sun is a poignant tale that reveals the importance of noticing beauty in amid of suffering and captures the power of a grandmother’s love.
- Narratives of small moments
We Wait for the Sun relates Roundtree’s memory of a small moment in time. Read other books that zoom in on a small moment, then discuss how the authors use descriptive language to make the memory come alive. Find examples of sensory language in Roundtree’s text, and ask students to articulate how these words add depth to the memory.
Invite students to choose a moment from their own lives. After they have brainstormed and chosen a memory, guide them through the narrative writing process. Remind them to use both figurative and descriptive language and to address at least four of the senses to make their small moment memories as immersive as Roundtree’s early morning adventure.
- Historical context
Share portions of the book’s extensive back matter with students as well as resources that offer additional context for the courageous lives of Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her grandmother, Rachel Millis Bryant Graham. A bulwark in her community, Graham was sought out by activist and presidential advisor Mary McLeod Bethune, to whom Graham introduced her granddaughter. Read Eloise Greenfield and Jerry Pinkney’s Mary McLeod Bethune and discuss how these women drew strength from each other and empowered future generations.
- Metaphorical language
After learning more about Graham and Roundtree’s lives, give each student a slip of paper with the following passage from the book:
“The darkness isn’t anything to be afraid of, child. If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn how to see, and you can find your way. Hold on to my apron, now.”
Lead a discussion about metaphorical language to help students understand how Grandma Rachel’s words to her granddaughter are about more than their early morning walk. Ask students to identify how Grandma Rachel’s advice foreshadows Roundtree’s future.
Osnat and Her Dove
by Sigal Samuel
illustrated by Vali Mintzi
Osnat Barzani is born in 1590 in what is now Iraq, into a culture with rigid gender roles where people believe that reading is “for boys” and “girls spend their time on chores.” Yet young Barzani convinces her father, a rabbi who created a yeshiva, to teach her to read. When she marries, her husband encourages her studies, and soon Barzani begins teaching the Torah at the yeshiva. Eventually, after the deaths of both her father and her husband, Barzani becomes the leader of the yeshiva and the first female rabbi in history. Osnat and Her Dove is an inspiring story of a young Jewish hero, filled with wonderful cultural, religious and historical detail. It’s a testament to the power of knowledge and the importance of parental support.
• Context clues
Using context to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts is a skill that students will use their entire lives. As you read Osnat and Her Dove aloud, record any new and unfamiliar words when you encounter them. After you finish reading, go down the list of words and help students find clues in the text and illustrations to make informed guesses about what they mean. In addition to vocabulary words in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Turkish used throughout the text, my students and I also enjoyed learning more about the geographic locations mentioned, including Amadiya, Mosul and Iraq.
- Folklore and facts
Samuel’s author’s note explains how she incorporated facts and historical writings with folk legends and popular tales to craft her narrative. Lead a class discussion about the difference between historical fiction and informational books. Ask students, “What can we learn from historical fiction books?” and “Why do you think authors choose historical fiction to tell the story of a real person’s life?” Read additional historical fiction picture books and invite children to discern fiction from facts. Older students can organize their findings in a “fact or fiction” T-chart graphic organizer.
Hold on to Your Music
by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
adapted by Emil Sher
illustrated by Sonia Possentini
The story of author Mona Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, begins in Vienna, Austria, in 1938. Jura's piano teacher tells her that he is no longer allowed to give her lessons because she is Jewish. When she returns home, Jura’s parents explain that many Jewish people are being made to feel “that being Jewish is a crime.” Distraught and confused, Jura is comforted when her mother tells her, “Whatever tomorrow brings, Liseleh, you must always remember to hold on to your music.”
Soon Jura is sent to England via the Kindertransport, an organized evacuation of Jewish children from Europe, and ends up in a refugee hostel on Willesden Lane run by Mrs. Cohen. Encouraged by Mrs. Cohen and the other children, she continues to play the piano. Her practice and skill land her an audition at the renowned Royal Academy of Music, where she is accepted. At the end of the war, Jura performs in a recital in a large concert hall; as she takes her bow, she remembers her mother’s words and reflects, “I held on to my music and never let go.” Accessible and hopeful, Hold on to Your Music depicts the impact of both anti-Semitism and World War II on a young girl’s life and reminds us of the importance of persevering through uncertainty and hardship.
One of my favorite informational books of 2020 was Deborah Hopkinson’s We Had to Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport. Filled with personal accounts of young people whose lives were saved by the Kindertransport, it provides important historical context to Jura’s experience.
Show older students the first 30 minutes of Mark Jonathan Harris’ Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, which was made with the cooperation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is narrated by Judi Dench. As you read firsthand accounts from Hopkinson’s book aloud, ask students to write down facts and insights they gain as they listen. Next, ask students to synthesize the information in their notes by incorporating it into a letter they imagine a child might write to their parents about their experiences during the Kindertransport.
- Something to hold onto
Jura’s music was a source of encouragement for Lisa and the other Willesden children. It was also her personal passion and became her career. Ask students to reflect on something that brings them joy. Give them time to journal their thoughts to the following prompts:
- What is an activity that brings you joy?
- How do you feel when you are engaged in this activity?
- How does it lift your spirits?
- What are some things you can do in the future to make sure you “hold on” to this thing?
Extend the activity by inviting students to consider how they can make their dreams a reality. Give them time to consider a personal or career ambition. What would it take for them to accomplish this goal? While students journal and plan, play The Children of Willesden Lane, an album that collects many of the musical pieces that inspired Jura when she was young.