In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.

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The Fuzzy Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction

I really appreciate Julie Danielson’s Kirkus blog post, “The Stories In Between” as she considers a topic near and dear to me — the blurry line between certain works of fiction and nonfiction.  Two picture books she considers are Greg Pizzoli’s nonfiction Tricky Vic and Deborah Hopkinson’s Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig. These are both works of history, something of particular interest to me. Julie refers to the following comment I made on a 2014  blog post of Betsy Bird‘s about invented dialog in picture book biographies:

… As you know I tried for years to write the story of Sarah Margru Kinson as nonfiction and finally was convinced to fictionalize it. The result is being called historical fiction, but it hardly is a novel in the conventional sense. I think it is a lot closer to some of the titles you cite here.

I’d love to see some sort of new genre that encompasses books like this, those that have fictional elements, but are based on true events and people. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is that I feel it will bring many more people to young readers’ attention. So many people did not leave the sort of paper trails needed to create a full work of nonfiction. As a result they are often not the subject of books for children and/or the same set of personalities get repeated attention. Additionally, the ones we need out there are may well be those who were marginalized in their time which is why the paper trail isn’t there. So if we were more open to books that stand on that fiction/nonfiction border and do so honestly and openly we’d have more diverse voices and stories.

With the current discussion on diversity and how to present slavery to children in their books, I think my final point about reconsidering or making a new genre in order to bring in more stories is all the more critical.

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SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books — Guess the Judge!

Today we begin revealing judges.  Here’s a hint for today’s: she was the very first EVER to win a Newbery Honor for her type of book. Find out who she is here.

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Frances Hardinge Gets Her Due!

US Frances Hardinge fans have been continually frustrated that she is not better appreciated on this side of the pond. On the other side…well, here’s a lovely bit of news — her latest book The Lie Tree has just been awarded the Costa Award’s Book of the Year. She is the first children’s book writer to win the overall award (over adult finalists) since Philip Pullman over a decade ago.

Happily The Lie Tree is coming out this May in the US thanks to Abrams. I can say that it is fabulous, my favorite of all her books to date, and well deserving of the award. It is historical, mysterious, creepy, engrossing, and wonderful. Now I am just hoping Abrams will bring out an earlier book of hers I also liked very much, A Face Like Glass.

 

 

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Lewis Carroll’s Caucus Race

As we in the US await the results of the Iowa caucuses, here’s a look at Lewis Carroll’s take on caucuses. (First part inked and illustrated by moi):

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and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

‘But who is to give the prizes?’ quite a chorus of voices asked.

‘Why, she, of course,’ said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, ‘Prizes! Prizes!’

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.

‘But she must have a prize herself, you know,’ said the Mouse.

‘Of course,’ the Dodo replied very gravely. ‘What else have you got in your pocket?’ he went on, turning to Alice.

‘Only a thimble,’ said Alice sadly.

‘Hand it over here,’ said the Dodo.
Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying ‘We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble’; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.

If want to see more of my Alice illustrations go here.

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SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books 2016 Edition

We’ve announced the contenders and later this week will begin revealing this year’s judges (who are yet again awesome). The Battle Commander (myself, Roxanne Feldman, and Jonathan Hunt) and our SLJ operator Shelly Diaz can’t wait for this year’s battle to commence. Meanwhile please read Shelley’s “Primed for a Fight: SLJ’s 2016 Battle of the Kids’ Books Contenders Revealed” for an overview and a comment from me about the possibility of this year’s YMA honors changing the game going forward.

 

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Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Sit-In and Martin & Mahalia

Some weeks ago I was preparing a lesson for our 4th graders as part of our Martin Luther King, Jr Day observances. The school (grades 4-8) was focusing on the music at the March on Washington and I thought of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Martin & Mahalia.  When I talked about it this week I mentioned that a recent book Andrea had edited was getting negative attention. The kids remembered she’d been to the school a few years earlier to share with them Sit-In. I then read both books to them and we all relished the history, the art, the design, and the poetic language. Aware that Andrea might need a pick-me-up several kids were inspired to write to her about these two books. You can read their thoughts here.

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