Pairing Picture Books and Primary Sources: America’s Champion Swimmer Gertrude Ederle by David A. Adler

My students love athletes, but not just any athletes, the ones that are at the top of their game. Whether it is someone who competed in the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, or World Cup, students will ask for books about that person. But students will also see them in their world, on their shoes, in commercials, or on a box of breakfast cereal. It was while thinking about this phenomenon of an athlete as a celebrity and reading David A. Adler’s picture book America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle that I wondered if this same transition happened a century ago. I suspected that primary sources could help me find my answer.

The Picture Book Setting the Stage for Ederle’s Celebrity

America's Champion SwimmerGertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel in August of 1926. She also set the record for fastest crossing, beating the previous record by almost two hours. Adler’s book gives an engaging account of her growth as a swimmer and rise to notoriety. The book concludes by showing changes of records being broken as well as cultural beliefs being broken about women being the weaker sex. A double page illustration  of a ticker tape parade drawn by Terry Widener hints at the celebrity that had begun to set upon her after her most famous swim.

Exploring the illustration can let students begin to examine Ederle’s celebrity and the celebrity of top athletes. Encourage students to study the text and image. Ask them what they notice about the illustration and text. What does it make them wonder?

Bridge Understanding of an Event through a Primary Source Analysis

Parade for Gertrude Ederle coming up Broadway

Parade for Gertrude Ederle coming up Broadway

Bringing in a photograph of the same parade, students will have an understanding of what the photograph is, a picture of a parade for Ederle. Students can do a basic analysis to expand exploration of Ederle’s celebrity. Viewing a high-resolution digital version of the image will allow students to explore the many details in the photograph. Ask:

  • What details seem important to understand the event?
  • How is this different than a parade that you have seen?
  • If you could, what would you ask someone in the photograph?

Posing a Question and Expanding Understanding by Examining Multiple Sources

Evening Star, September 12, 1926

Evening Star, September 12, 1926

Until this point, students have just been experiencing the book and one primary source. Now that students have some background of Gertrude Ederle, you may pose a question: What happens when an athlete becomes famous?

Choose multiple primary sources from the curated primary source set that shows elements of Ederle’s fame for a gallery walk. To prepare the pieces, newspaper articles and images with captions can be clipped and enlarged to a full page. Visual images may benefit from being displayed with the accompanying title. To begin the gallery walk, give students sticky notes. As they walk and view the different primary sources, ask them to think about the question you posed. They can post the sticky notes around the primary sources to share their thinking about:

  • What they see or read that gives evidence of Ederle’s fame,
  • Their thoughts or reactions to what the primary source, and
  • Questions they have or things they wonder about after viewing the source.

Comparing Learning about the Past to Today

Bring students thoughts about Ederle’s fame to a discussion about sports celebrities today. Ask:

  • Why do some athletes become famous beyond their sport?
  • Where do we see these athletes in our lives?
  • Why do we want to see them outside of the sport that they are known for?

Looking at the fame of Gertrude Ederle can give students an opportunity to see, from a distance, a cultural phenomenon that is part of their lives. This can allow them to observe and question the event and bring that learning back to their own life experiences.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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