There are picture books that take a moment in history that I have a basic understanding of and expand it to the point that I realize that I know very little about that moment. That was the case with What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Barbara Jordan and her role in politics in the 1960s and 1970s was something that I knew little about.
A Purpose for Historically Based Picture Books in Learning
Barton’s writing and Holmes’s illustrations made me want to know more–more about the speech she gave during Watergate, more about her departure from politics due to multiple sclerosis, and more about that voice that was mentioned over and over again. I knew that primary sources would be a way that I could explore more.
Students who study that time period, political history, or political structures could have a rich experience through the pairing of these sources. Beginning with the picture book can allow them to make connections to elements of history and government that they know, the changing America in the 1950s and ’60s, structures of Congress, or the investigations against President Nixon. It can also expose them to Barbara Jordan and begin to put her in those times and places, disrupting a student’s understanding and opening them up to new learning.
Working with Longer Audio or Video Primary Sources
Barbara Jordan’s voice, as the picture book implies, is distinct and that can be used as an element of engagement when interacting with primary sources. Take her 1974 speech on the Articles of Impeachment where she speaks about the Constitution, Nixon, and Watergate. The thirteen-minute speech may be challenging for some students to make meaning from because of its length. It may be helpful to break the audio or video into sections. Titling these can support students in understanding the content of the speech while listening to the audio.
Support students by having a transcript of the speech as they listen to Barbara Jordan. Students can listen through a close reading lens documenting parts of Jordan’s speech that they felt were convincing. As students listen to the speech they can highlight, underline, and annotate on the transcript to identify parts of the speech and react to why they felt it was convincing. Students listening individually or in pairs on devices that they can replay portions of the speech may also be helpful.
This close reading analysis of the speech has the potential of leading to deeper learning. If wanting students to explore more, encourage them to ask their own questions based on Jordan’s speech. Students may want to explore Jordan herself, Watergate, Nixon, the impeachment process, or other topics touched on in the speech. This can be a powerful opportunity for student choice in small or large research around a common event.
Connecting with the Author’s Interpretation of Barbara Jordan
Students now have a strong background in Jordan’s speech. It can be beneficial to return to Chris Barton’s writing in the picture book. Returning to the page where Barton writes about this speech, ask students if the author’s portrayal is accurate. Discuss how Holmes’s illustrations show us more of the moment. Encourage students to evaluate the page, text, and illustration. What perspective is shown? Would students have added additional information given the format? Is there anything that is misleading? Does this page tell us what it should when looking at the moment within the context of Jordan’s life?
Exploring primary sources connected with picture books can give students an opportunity to look at an author’s work, the perspective they take, and the message they share within his or her story. Other primary sources related to Chris Barton’s story about Barbara Jordan are included in this curated set of primary sources.
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.