My Travels with Alice
April 12, 2001
Today I feel like Will Parry, stepping out of his familiar Oxford, into another world. Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, is a story of multiple worlds and, like Will, I’ve noticed that the worlds I visit have many similarities to my own. My world is the elementary classroom; the one I’m visiting, the children’s library. In both worlds, children are central, reading critical, and books of paramount importance.
No doubt many of you have visited my world and have some sense of how we use historical fiction. The 5th grade teacher who sends her students to the library to do research on anything Chinese after reading Lawrence Yep’s Dragonwings, The 6th grade teacher who needs an assortment of titles at various reading levels for which her students will create book jackets. Or the 4th grade teacher who is looking for a good read aloud on the American Revolution to help her students better understand that war.
What I would like to do today is take you into some other parts of this world. Into the classrooms of some creative, well-meaning, and dedicated teachers whose exemplary methods, beliefs, and styles of teaching do and do not always take into account the particular issues surrounding historical fiction. Not having Will with his subtle knife, to cut a window so you can actually go into my classroom world, I’ve used another guide instead. While the characters in the following story are caricatures to some degree, they are based on my own classroom experience, observation of children and teachers, and a hefty amount of reading. Whether it is historical fiction or not, you can decide.
There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It was late and I was still at my desk in school. I’d just finished writing several reassuring emails to parents worried about next week’s standardized tests. This, after a meeting with my principal who, while pleased with my 4th graders’ in-depth study of the Pilgrims, wanted to be sure that I was also still planning to teach the spelling and location of all fifty states. Next to a pile of student journals was a reading workbook, dropped off a few minutes earlier by the 5th grade teacher next door who was concerned that I wasn’t preparing my kids well enough for next year. This workbook she told me would be just the ticket to be sure they had those reading skills down solid.
A bit discouraged, I reminded myself of the exhilarating historical fiction conversation I’d had with my class that very morning and their enthusiasm when they began writing in these journals; I knew reading them would cheer me up. I shoved the reading workbook into a bottom drawer and the states to the back of my mind. Taking the topmost journal off the pile, I was about to open it when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I called, wondering if it was my neighbor with another workbook. The door opened a bit and an unfamiliar little girl looked in. “Can I help you?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yes,” then “No” and then looked as if she were about to burst into tears. I grabbed a tissue from the box on my desk, ran over, and handed it to her. “What’s the matter? Are you lost?”
“How peculiar. A paper handkerchief.” She examined the tissue, cautiously wiped her cheek with it, and then looked up at me. “Have you seen a white rabbit?”
“A white rabbit?” My relief that she hadn’t burst into tears was now turning into annoyance. What was she doing wandering around here so late anyway? Where was her caregiver, her parents, whoever was supposed to be watching her? “There aren’t any rabbits here. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m Alice and I’m looking for a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat with a pocket watch. Please, you must help me find him,” she went on, pulling me into the hallway which seemed darker and to have far more doors than usual. “Let’s try this one.” Before I could say anything she had darted to the next door, opened, it and disappeared into the room beyond. As if in a dream, I followed her.
Inside was a beautiful classroom. Everywhere I looked were books: in baskets and crates, on bookshelves, on display racks, on tables, all beautifully organized and arranged. And everywhere there were children reading: in one corner a pair of girls, each with a copy of the same chapter book, read quietly aloud to each other; several children, stretched on an area rug leaned against pillows, engrossed in novels; at a table two boys talked quietly together as they turned the pages of a picture book. The books we could see were of all kinds: early readers, young adult fiction and nonfiction, fairy tales, biographies, informational picture books, classics, poetry, realistic fiction, historical fiction, series books and more. At the far end of the room we could see the teacher conferring quietly with one child. Alice stopped and looked around. “How lovely!” she said. “All these beautiful books and so many contented-looking children. This looks more like a playroom than a schoolroom!”
As we walked through the room, Alice stopped to look over the shoulder of a girl who was deep into a Dear America book. After a moment Alice turned to me and whispered. “Why is she reading her diary in school?”
Overhearing her, the girl looked up. “This isn’t my diary, silly. It’s someone else’s.”
“Reading someone else’s private diary! How could you?”
The girl looked startled, thought for a moment and then looked relieved. “Oh, but this is a really old diary. See? Look at this old-fashioned bookmark.” She held up the book so that Alice could see the ribbon bookmark. “She wrote hundreds of years ago. I don’t think it is the same as reading someone’s diary who is still here. That would be pretty terrible, I agree.” She returned to her book and Alice and I continued through the room.
“Don’t worry, Alice.” I said seeing how perturbed she looked. “While historians do often study real diaries, that one is fake.”
“What do you mean, fake?” she asked.
“The author made-up a character, researched a real historical situation, and then wrote a pretend diary from the point of view of that character.”
“Are you sure? That girl seemed to think it was real.”
“Well, some children do have trouble telling the difference, but ––“ I began, but stopped as we came close to the teacher who was having a reading conference with a small boy around Alice’s age.
“I’m sorry, but that book on Paul Revere is much too hard for you. This book is much better for you.” The little boy sighed as she took the book away and put another one in front of him. “The Time Warp books have also history in them and are funny as well. This one about the Middle Ages is my favorite. You are going to love it!”
The little boy slowly looked up at the teacher. “It was just that my family and I went on the Freedom Trail in Boston. I wanted to read more about that time. But if you think this is a better book for me, well….” His voice trailed off and he looked longingly at the Paul Revere book now well out of reach.
Alice whispered to me, “I don’t think he really wants to read about the Middle Ages, do you?” I shushed her and turned back to watch.
“It is perfect for you,” the teacher continued briskly. “Right at your level. Start reading. You’ll see.” And so he did, aloud and haltingly. When he stumbled over the pronunciation of a particular word or substituted a similar one, the teacher gently brought him to a halt and guided him through various techniques so that he eventually sounded out every word correctly. After a few painful pages, the teacher said, “That was just grand! You are really making progress with reading. Now I want you to read the rest of the chapter on your own. If you keep using the reading strategies I just showed you I’m sure you’ll get every word right all by yourself!” The boy glanced at the abandoned Paul Revere book one last time and then walked away, counting the pages left in the chapter as he did so.
“You seem to have a solid reading program going on here,” I commented. “Your room is beautiful and so full of books. And I can see that your students are very focused on learning to read.”
The teacher looked up, a smile lighting up her face. “Yes. I think the most important thing I can do is to teach all children to become life-long readers. I’m so proud of how long they can now read all by themselves. At first they couldn’t do it for more than ten minutes, but now they can do it for an hour! And that gives me lots of time to meet with them individually to work on their reading skills.”
“I noticed that you seem very focused on phonics,” I continued. “How about comprehension?”
“Oh, comprehension is very important too,” she replied. “But decoding comes first.”
“I see.” I said. “And how about whole class lessons? For that matter, do you do anything in content area reading, say in social studies?”
“Well, of course I read aloud every day. It is a great way to introduce new reading strategies. But the rest of the time it is all independent reading and individualized instruction. We don’t do much social studies since I think honing in on reading skills is much more important. I’m not much for history, anyway, although I do realize that some kids like it. That is why I have plenty of nonfiction and historical fiction around. Those series like the Time Warp Trio and American Girls are especially good for emergent readers like the little boy you just saw me working with.”
“Thanks so much,” I said as Alice impatiently tugged at my hand.
“What a pleasant, but rather dull classroom,” Alice said, back in the hallway, a few minutes later. “It looked so peaceful, but to read and read without talking about the stories themselves? My governess sees to it that I pronounce everything correctly too, but we also discuss the stories themselves. And that teacher doesn’t do any history at all? I can’t imagine that. And that fake diary was very odd.” She began walking along the hallway, trying the different doors. Most seemed to be locked, but before long we came to another one that opened.
Children’s voices filled the air as we entered. Looking around I saw table after table of chattering children, all with books in their hands. “What an unusual schoolroom!” said Alice to me. “These children are facing each other and I can’t see where the front of the room is.” Alice looked around curiously and said, “Where is the schoolmistress?” for indeed, no adult was to be seen.
Moving closer to one group, I saw that they all had copies of Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic.
“Wow” began one boy. “Wasn’t all that stuff in the concentration camp really horrible? I had heard that the Germans did something really bad to the Jews, but now I know exactly what they did.”
“Yeah. It was incredible. Killing six million people is pretty hard to imagine. I wanted to learn more so went on the Internet where I found some really horrible pictures.” said another boy.
“It was upsetting, but for some reason I want to read another one just like it,” said a girl. “Someone told me there’s a really good diary book about a girl named Anne Frank who hid from the Nazis.”
The girl next to her smiled, “I heard about that book too. I hope it’s a Dear America book; I love them.”
While the two girls talked further about diaries the two boys whispered and giggled together. Finally, one of the girls turned to them, “What’s so funny?”
“You know Mr. Schmidt, the music teacher?” said one of the boys, trying to hold back his laughter. “I bet he’s a Nazi! I mean he’s so mean and he talks just like the ones in the book!” As the whole group laughed, Alice looked at me questioningly and I hustled her away to the next group, which was discussing Michael Dorris’s Guests. All of the children were chattering away with the exception of one child who looked very withdrawn.
“I loved Guests. It was like Michael Dorris was writing poetry. It was sad and happy all at the same time,” said one girl with a dreamy look on her face.
“I liked it too. I’m so glad it ended happily. It seemed so serious that I was afraid it wouldn’t,” said a boy. “ It was cool the way he wrote about Thanksgiving from the Native American point of view. It’s too bad that they all got killed by the Europeans later on.”
“That’s not true,” said another girl. “My mom told me that there are a few left out west, but that they are really poor and it is really sad. She thought we should do a bakesale to help them.”
The withdrawn child had, I noticed, been looking more and more upset and with this last comment she got up and walked away. However, the rest of the group seemed oblivious as they excitedly began planning their bakesale.
Alice and I turned to watch the sad child leave the room. “She was crying.” said Alice. “Why, I wonder. And what exactly are Native Americans?
“Native Americans are American Indians. You’ve heard of them?” Alice nodded. “As for the little girl, I too wish I knew what upset her. Perhaps it was something that started before we arrived.” We moved on to the other groups, which were discussing books about African enslavement, the Irish famine, and Japanese internment.
More and more concerned about the misinformation and emotional intensity being expressed, I began looking for the teacher. Finally, after circling the room a few times, we found her behind a bookshelf correcting papers. Curtseying, Alice said, “Good day, Miss. This is a most interesting schoolroom.”
The teacher looked up, “Why, thank you! I am so proud of this class. At first they needed a lot of help learning how to do literature circles. Now they do it so well that I don’t need to be there at all. It is a true child-centered classroom.”
“Child-centered?” said Alice. “I’m not quite sure what that is. Don’t they still need a teacher to learn?”
“Oh, but they are learning – from each other,” said the teacher. “I don’t want them to feel that I’m the only one with the right answer. And they are much more free to express themselves if I’m not there to influence them.”
“But some of the books they are reading and discussing are very frightening,” said Alice worriedly. “And confusing. Don’t you need to be with them to help them understand?”
“Oh, but the authors do that! You have nothing to worry about,” said the teacher with a smile. “For this unit, I selected only the very best historical fiction by the very best authors. And since they know so much more about these topics than I do, they are the teachers, not me. And speaking of topics, did you notice the variety? I’m very proud of how multicultural it is. Did you see the group discussing Guests? I chose that especially for the one girl in this class who is part Native American. We live so far from any Native American groups that I felt it was especially important that her history was included.”
Returning to the hall, Alice turned to me and said, “Now I understand why that girl was crying. I would have too if I had been in her situation. And about the Germans. Did they really kill so many?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It was one of the worst events of the century after yours. I’m sorry, Alice, but I don’t think anyone yet has been able to completely understand or explain why it happened.” We both stood in silence for a moment before Alice moved on to the next unlocked door. With some trepidation, I followed her in.
This time it was the teacher’s voice we heard first. She was standing at the front of the classroom with a group of children. “That was wonderful! A great presentation on Frances Temple’s book, Tonight, by Sea. Is there anything else you want to say before the next group goes?”
“Just one last thing,” said one of the children. “Remember how we interviewed people a few months ago about their immigration to this country? Ours was a man from Haiti and he left at the same time as the people in this book. He told us a lot of history and I think it helped us when we started reading the book. I mean, it is a pretty upsetting story so knowing the history first made it better, I think.”
“This seems a bit more like my schoolroom than those other rooms.” whispered Alice settling down to listen.
I, meanwhile, wandered about looking at the books, charts, and student work on display. On one bulletin board there were beautiful child-created illustrations of quotes from autobiographies they had read. One chart listed the children’s ideas about historical fiction, revised several times in different colors. Another was a list of metaphors, puns, and other examples of literary language from a variety of books. Along one wall was a time line created by the children to support their studies of a particular historical period.
“Great!” said the teacher. “Now for the next and final group.”
“We read Karen Hesse’s book Letters from Rifka,” said the group’s leader while two children held up a poster they had created. “We all decided that this book is a good balance of good history and good writing. It seemed like the author did a lot of research. In fact, she interviewed someone about their immigration just like we did.”
“Can you give us some examples of how it is good history and good writing?” asked the teacher.
“Well, we knew that it was good history because it was full of stuff we learned when we researched Ellis Island on the Internet. For example, she writes about getting ringworm and there was a bunch of stuff about diseases at the Ellis Island Museum site. And then the way she writes about Rifka having trouble understanding English at first. That was just what people we interviewed said happened to them when they first came.”
“And we thought her writing was wonderful,” said another child. “Here are two examples from the book: ‘Hannah is like a fairy princess, so delicate, beautiful and sweet. You, Tovah, are like an old rabbi, clever and brave.’ And another one: ‘He had a thin face and straight back. His eyes were like the Teterev in the spring when the snow melts churning with green ice.’”
“These schoolrooms are so different from mine,” said Alice when we returned to the hall at the end of the presentation. “So many books. So many stories. So much talk! So much fun! I would have been content, I think, in that first classroom, just reading and reading so many beautiful books. However, I think it would have been a bit boring never to discuss them. And no history seems much too strange. As for that second classroom, I would not have been happy there at all. To read books about such frightening events in history without a teacher nearby would be dreadful, I think. That last classroom was the best of all. It felt safe because the teacher was right there as they talked and thought about stories and history. Perhaps, when I go home, I can suggest to my governess that she teach more as that last teacher did. More stories, more history, and more thinking.”
A sudden sound made us turn around. At the far end of the hall a small white figure could be seen. “The white rabbit!” Alice shouted and ran after it. Within moments she was gone. It didn’t take me long to find my classroom door and I returned to my desk mulling over Alice’s final words.
My stomach growled reminding me how late it was. As I started to think about what I wanted to do about dinner, an image came to me of myself at Alice’s age, stubbornly refusing to eat my dinner because the gravy had managed to find its way into the mash potatoes. “The Principle of Separateness” my father had laughingly called it although I wasn’t amused in the slightest. I wanted my food pristine. Meat with the meat and vegetables with the vegetables. No mixing whatsoever. As it was in Alice’s and my own elementary school classrooms where reading and history were two absolutely different food groups, rarely mixed by our teachers.
Fortunately my eating habits improved and I learned that mixing food was actually much tastier than keeping them apart. Similarly, educators have discovered that historical fiction can help them bring together previously separated topics of study. The trick, as with food, is to figure out the best way to do this. While I no longer care for my foods to be isolated from one another, I wouldn’t want them mixed helter skelter either. Just as chefs have to select and then play with ingredients to produce a memorable dish, so do teachers need to select books and then determine how best to use them with their students.
Another growl from my stomach. The journals would have to wait till tomorrow. In the hall the regular lighting was back as were the right number of classroom doors. And then I noticed a small package on the table outside my room, addressed to: “The Schoolmistress in Room 909” Inside was a thimble and a note.
I had hoped to return your handkerchief, but it dissolved in the Pool of Tears in the most peculiar way. Please accept my most sincere apologies and this thimble (which I received as a prize from the Dodo although it was mine already).
Most respectfully yours,
None of us need Alice as a guide or Will Parry with his subtle knife to reach the many worlds of the past. We are born with all the tools we need: the ability to imagine, the sense of story, and the desire to know. And it is here that those of us who work with and for children have the greatest responsibility: to educate them in the optimal use of these tools. While I may be the official teacher, children learn from librarians, parents, and authors too. Much of our teaching may be inadvertent; children learn whether we like it or not. But much of it is explicit and intended. And the problem with history and children is that, like everything involving children, we adults do not agree on how to do this. The three teachers in my story are composites of the many I’ve met and observed during my lengthy sojourn in the world of the classroom. And every single one has her own ideas of what it means to teach, what it means to learn, and how books fit into that equation.
Writer worlds, teacher worlds, librarian worlds, child worlds, past worlds. While Alice outgrows her ability to travel to Wonderland and Will Parry, in order to save existence, destroys the subtle knife, both retain their tools of mind. How fortunate we are that these are always with us in our travels. I, for one, will never tire of the journey.