"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” -Frederick Douglass
Halfway through February, we are also halfway through “Black History Month,” a time marked here in the U.S. to highlight the accomplishments of black Americans, sometimes in the face of terrible injustice. Here at RCLS, classroom teachers honor that history in the classroom, most often through texts that recount the courage and character of historical figures. Because we are in the business of building “strong children,” we leverage these and other stories of American heroes––black and white and otherwise––for encouraging compassion, courage, and character.
Consider some of this month’s lessons and activities:
K-2 students are spending part of every Friday reading and learning about an African American inventor, scientist, musician, athlete, or leader––some average folks and others, national heroes. Teachers highlight books for independent reading and post activities on SeeSaw for additional study.
As the social studies curriculum gets more sophisticated and students build more awareness of current events, Grade 3-5 students spend time throughout the school year engaging in study that concerns the histories of various ethnicities and cultures in the U.S. In February, teachers spend more time with read-alouds, particularly biographies, that highlight the accomplishments and characters of well-known black Americans. In 5th grade, students to research the life of an historical figure and then construct a “history bio-poem,” giving students the opportunity to tell the stories, themselves.
In Middle School, the history curriculum is replete with the contributions of African Americans and people of various ethnic backgrounds to Minnesota, U.S., and world history and cultures. In Literature, texts such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry give rise to classroom conversation about the reality of life for black Americans during the civil rights era, and in English, students study the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. as masterful argumentative texts. Indeed, if parents have not recently watched one of MLK’s speeches––“What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”––or if they have not recently read important texts––“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of America’s treasures––our middle school students and teachers encourage you to join them in doing so.
In our efforts to build strong children at RCLS, we do so in partnership with our school parents. To that end, we offer a recommended reading list for you and your child at home. There are few tools so effective as narrative for shaping hearts and minds. As children read about the lives of others or they enter what one literary theorist calls the “laboratory of fiction,” they can test ideas and try on feelings, thereby developing understanding, admiration, or empathy for others. Ultimately, by the example of others and within the framework of the truth of Scripture, students learn how it is they, too, might be faithful men and women of courage, compassion, and accomplishment.
RCLS literature teachers are impressively well-read, so you may consider their recommendations here to be gold. Here they are, just a dozen of them––most biographies and a few favorite fiction titles––but each works to do all that good literature (and a great parent and school together) should do: build strong children.
Martin’s Big Words, Doreen Rappaport
This award-winning, beautiful picture book is an introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words and legacy. The story recounts Martin’s memories of his minister father’s “big words” and his corresponding ministry to use words to inspire change. This book underscores the power of our words as it puts forth Dr. King’s ideals for a world that values all. Mrs. Strohschein counts this among her favorites of the host of King biographies on the market––an inspiring but new take on MLK’s well-known life story.
How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, Andrea Davis Pinckney
A vibrant picture book, How Four Friends… celebrates the four young men who sat at a Woolworth’s counter and subsequently sparked one of the civil rights movement’s most momentous events. The book is a helpful introduction to the concept of “civil rights” and makes the historical event accessible to kids.
Henry’s Freedom Box, Ellen Levine
There was once a young man who mailed himself to freedom, and did you know––it’s true! Be aware that this story presents the hard reality of slavery, but it does do so in a way that will not overwhelm elementary children. Still, perhaps this is one parent and child read together. This is a Caldecott winner, so you can expect marvelous illustrations.
Rosa, Nikki Giovanni
This book, perhaps appropriate for the upper elementary reader, introduces children to the person of Rosa Parks, that heroine of the American civil rights era. Her strength and integrity take center stage as the reader learns about her rather average life leading up to the day she took the only empty seat on a public bus, one in the “white section.” This beautiful book, complete with watercolor images, is a poignant reminder that every society––our society––needs individuals to stand (or sit) for the whole.
Reaching for the Moon, Katherine Johnson
This is a gem of a book—and real-life story. This is the autobiographical account of one of the black, female mathematicians who played a critical role in American victories in the space race in the 1960s, a story made famous by the movie, Hidden Figures, a couple of years ago. It is an exceedingly appropriate title for the elementary or middle-school reader. Johnson’s is a story of strength of family and strength of character in the face of prohibitive prejudices. Daddies, please read this book to or with your daughters. It will inspire you both.
Defying Hitler: Jesse Owens’ Olympic Triumph, Nel Yomtov
This might be a great text for the reluctant reader. A brief, graphic novel, Defying Hitler lends the middle-grade reader an understanding of the racism that African American athletes faced even abroad—in this case, in Nazi Germany. Most adults know the story of this sports hero. Owens dominated the 1936 Summer Olympics, right in front of one of history’s most racist dictators.
The Story of Ruby Bridges, Robert Coles
We would be remiss not to include a biography of one of America’s bravest African Americans––a child!––on a recommended reading list for elementary children. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges is an American icon––the little girl who was at once the object of abhorrent hate and the face of inexplicable grit in the country’s battle to integrate schools. This is both a great introduction to the concept of civil rights as well as a provocative story of courage. Six years old! Can you imagine? We think it is productive to do so.
Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
The fictional account of a ten-year-old orphan during the Depression, Bud, Not Buddy might be considered a classic children’s selection. Although highly readable for a 3rd-5th grader, Mrs. Woolman thinks this story deserves to be read with parents for its potential to provoke meaningful conversation about mature subjects. Follow along on Bud’s adventures as he comes of age in the face of racism and adversity of many kinds. Bud, a model of perseverance, will surely endear himself to you and your child.
Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, Thomas B. Allen
Most of us were introduced to this 19th-century hero in American history classes, but few know the depth and breadth of Tubman’s cause and commitment to freedom. This National Geographic title offers new facts about Tubman and her contemporaries who not only led other enslaved Americans to freedom, but also acted as spies for the Union. Their lives were always at risk, but their commitment to providing freedom to others saved countless lives. This text, with potential to inspire further study, makes a new contribution to our appreciation of Tubman’s remarkable life.
Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
This multi-award-winning title is a collection of poems. That means you and your child can read short bits at a time, but there is plenty here to prompt meaningful conversation. Woodson’s verse is inspired by her own experiences growing up in the 60s and 70s in the south, in the days of the remnants of Jim Crow laws. This is a great selection for the middle-school writer or avid reader who loves language and stories, just as Woodson, herself.
My Year in the Middle, Lila Quintero Weaver
The coming-of-age story is always a good choice for the middle-school reader. In 6th grade in Alabama in 1970 as George Wallace ran for governor, tensions in the state and in the classroom were high. Lu, a budding track star, develops a friendship with fellow runner Belinda, but this inter-race friendship is frowned upon in the racially polarized classroom and climate of the age. The tension of the story resides in the main character’s struggle to do what is right, even when it cost her some social capital. There is a worthy lesson there for most preteens, yes?
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
This is certainly a classic read and one that students may encounter in future years of learning, but it’s not necessarily required reading in Rochester high schools, so I include it on this list. It is not long––something like 100 pages––and it is not difficult to get through, even if it is a 19th-century text. Instead, Douglass’s provocative account of his enslaved life is gripping, and his take on education as a means to freedom rings true. Perhaps it is fair to say that this brief but important narrative is for the motivated 8th-grade reader, but it is, nonetheless, one of my top picks for American autobiographies, writ large. Note that the edition pictured here also include Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, another classic autobiography that might be best saved for high school reading.