Recently I was working with a group of elementary and classroom teachers in Florida. I was tasked with helping them incorporate effective instruction with primary sources around the topic of Reconstruction. Of course, I wanted to focus one activity on the pairing of primary sources and picture books.
Selecting the Picture Book
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate was a powerful choice. It is the story of a formerly enslaved man who would eventually be elected to the US Congress. It is a compelling story that is unknown to many students. The story also is primarily set during Reconstruction and does an exceptional job of showing the strengths and downfalls of the time period through the words and illustrations.
That strong sense of time and place throughout the story would allow for so many connections to other learning when teaching Reconstruction. It could also encourage questions from students that could spur their own research or allow for a different and heightened form of engagement as learners seek the answers to their own questions.
Considering Primary Source Connections
While that same sense of time and place would allow for many primary source connections, I wanted to focus my attention on John Roy Lynch. The idea of expanding on this lesser-known individual was appealing. The challenge though was sharing how these pairings with the picture book could be purposeful and thoughtful while working with teachers from early elementary through middle school. The interactions with both the primary sources and the picture book would look quite different between those youngest learners and students who are entering their teenage years.
To show my youngest learners might interact with a primary source, I selected an image. In fact, I selected a pairing of images, both portraits of John Roy Lynch. The reason I selected two images was because of the possibility of distractions. John Roy Lynch had a prominent mustache. I was wondering if it might distract students during a quick analysis of the photo. Other visual elements have been distractions. I thought that putting two portraits of Lynch side by side might be one way to avoid that distraction.
For older learners, I selected a writing by Lynch where he focuses on reasons why Black voters should continue to vote for a Republican ticket. While set after the years of Reconstruction, it focuses on Lynch and references elements that students who studied Reconstruction would be familiar with. The dual messages of the source, there is no beneficial reason for Black voters to vote Democrat and continued reasons to vote Republican, are complex but accessible to middle school students or possibly even fifth-grade students.
Interacting with the Picture Book and Primary Sources
As I selected primary sources for this picture book I was also thinking about how students would interact with both. I ask when the primary source will be introduced in relation to me reading the picture book. I consider the purpose and outcome of that interaction. I wonder if it would be beneficial to only listen to and watch the reading of the picture book or if other actions could help the learning. And all of that is also impacted by when this activity takes place within a larger unit of study.
Interacting with a Primary Source Image
For this pairing, the purpose behind the portraits with younger learners would be to ground the picture book in reality. Students often ask if the events in a nonfiction picture book really happened even after I’ve told them that a story is about a real person and part of their life. The photo, which certainly has a strong resemblance to Tate’s illustrations, can show students that this is indeed about a real person in history. That grounding would encourage me to share this source before reading the picture book.
I may ask, “Look at these two images. What is a single word or pair of words you would use to describe who this person is or how he presents himself? What makes you choose those words?”
After taking students’ responses, I may ask, “Let me share one piece of information about this man that you will find out very early in our story. He once was enslaved but in these pictures, he is a free man. Let’s read a story about him and his life.” This last statement is not only to connect the photos and the person in them to the Reconstruction Era, but may cause some students to question their concepts about formerly enslaved people during this time period.
Interacting with Primary Source Text
With a nonfiction picture book often being 32 to 40 pages, it is impossible to include everything about the focus of the book. Whether a person or an event, the author has to choose where to focus attention to tell the story.
In The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, Barton references Lynch’s future work but going in-depth about that work wouldn’t serve the story. This is an opportunity for students to use primary sources and use the picture book as a jumping-off point. That moment within the story can be paired with items from that future work, like the pamphlet mentioned earlier by Lynch.
In the pairing with text for older students, I encourage the use of a jigsaw method done collaboratively to gain an understanding of the four-page document. I also like to encourage some elements of student choice.
I may tell them, “As your group reads their paragraph, mark words and phrases that you feel are important to understand Lynch’s message. As you do, select a focus task that you will use to share information with the rest of the groups.”
Tasks may include:
- What is the most important point?
- What are you finding challenging, puzzling, or difficult to understand?
- What question would you most like to discuss?
- What is something you found interesting?
Through this work with the classroom teachers in Florida, we were able to explore multiple interactions that students of varying ages could make with one picture book and multiple 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.