Using Trade Books to Teach Middle Level Social Studies

Robert H. Lombard

For many educators, trade books have become an important part of the middle school curriculum. In particular, the notable social studies trade books offer middle level teachers opportunities to enhance instruction by engaging students with powerful social content. Trade books can become a more essential piece of the social educator's instructional repertoire as interdisciplinary instruction becomes common. Even a brief conversation with an educator who has embraced literature-based teaching can uncover memorable trade books for teaching history or global studies to early adolescents.
Several literature-based strategies allow social educators to enhance interest and learning at the middle level through quality trade books. Many teachers routinely ask students to use nonfiction, reference, and biographical materials in learning experiences. Although that strategy will always have its place in middle level classrooms, there are productive strategies for social education that use other genres, such as poetry, short stories, and historical fiction. Young adult, or even adult, literature of these genres illuminates and clarifies how citizens took action during eras and at locations in which significant events occurred. Middle level teachers, for example, might use literature to help students deal with manifest destiny or imperialism by examining aspects of Rudyard Kipling's poetry. Young people might also study turn-of-the-century Indiana through the works of James Whitcomb Riley.

Another set of strategies involves using single works of historical fiction as the central point for building instructional units. Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils (1964), for example, has provided the basis for middle level units on the Civil War. Students reading this book might use maps of the setting to understand the geography of southern Illinois, write letters between home front and front-line characters, explore the impact of the war upon a family, or research Civil War connections with their own community (see Kelly 1992). Teachers taking this approach clearly recognize that Hunt's fictional view of the home front engages and informs students in ways textbook accounts of battles and political maneuvers cannot. Using multiple titles enables teachers to generate instructional units that enrich and diversify the curriculum.

Exploring American Heritage through Historical Fiction
Although books like Across Five Aprils have become "classroom classics," newer titles found in Social Education's annual listing of "Notable Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies" can form the basis for powerful teaching units. This article features 1995 notables (published in 1994) that seem particularly promising. Because the social studies curriculum typically includes U.S. history in grades five and eight, the strategies presented here list titles that explore historical eras or movements. Although many 1995 notables can be used productively in middle level social studies programs, these trade books have been selected because they are written in ways that engage young adult readers and treat topics that often appear in middle level curriculum guides.
Acclaimed authors often leap off the pages of any bibliography, demanding teachers' attention. The 1995 notables include a book by the Collier brothers, previous Newbery Honor winners. With Every Drop of Blood (Collier and Collier 1994) presents teachers with a work as powerful as My Brother Sam Is Dead (Collier and Collier 1974). The closing days of the American Civil War provide the setting for this story of two young men, Johnny and Cush, cooperating to survive the conflict's turmoil and uncertainty. Initially, Johnny struggles with a dilemma stemming from a promise made to his dying father, his family's needs, and duty to his neighbors. Student readers also examine the cross-cultural encounter between Johnny and Cush. Cush, a runaway slave turned Union soldier, has been assigned to guard Johnny after he is captured transporting supplies into Richmond, Virginia. As students read further, they discover how Johnny and Cush learn from each other as they survive the last days of the war. Students can gain insight into the last stages of the war and the anticipation of social changes that will follow.

With Every Drop of Blood provides an interesting means for engaging students in important social content from this era. Teachers can use maps of the novel's setting in conjunction with traditional battle maps to explain events in the closing days of the war. After students have read and reflected upon the book, they could use maps to locate events from the story or discuss the social roles of language. Because the Colliers include notes explaining how people addressed one another across racial lines at the time of the Civil War, these discussions would provide opportunities for students to analyze factors affecting language in our own time. The dialogue among the book's main characters also emphasizes themes, such as the futility of war, the condition of black slaves, and the political theories of the era, which might be explored through role play and follow-up discussions.

Steal Away Home (Ruby 1994) is another excellent book that can allow students to explore the motivations of and risks taken by people who supported the Underground Railroad. The protagonist, twelve-year-old Dana Shannon, discovers a human skeleton and a diary hidden in a secret part of her family's new Kansas home. This modern day mystery is solved through Shannon's persistent inquiry about information contained in the diary. She discovers that the skeleton is the remains of a brave African American woman who died along the Underground Railroad. Shannon and her friends also learn of the risks taken by a Quaker family who helped slaves escape through Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856. Steal Away Home puts a human face on historical figures and can motivate students to research events from their own community's past, as Dana did.

Another Newbery Honor author appearing on the 1995 notable list is Walter Dean Myers, whose Somewhere In The Darkness (1992) also earned him recognition from the Boston Globe/ Horn Book and Coretta Scott King honor competitions. Myers's The Glory Field (1994) provides an excellent means for student exploration of the entire African-American experience in the United States-from capture in Africa through times of slavery to the present. The Glory Field is a fictional account of five generations of an African American family. Beginning with a prologue delivered on a 1753 slave ship, Dyers describes the challenges facing each generation of the Luis family.

Young readers meet the first generation as it witnesses the end of the Civil War, freedom and the acquisition of family property, the Glory Field. The second generation flees its land during the height of the Jim Crow era, while the third generation moves to Chicago and attends college during the Great Depression. Civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s form the backdrop for the fourth generation, while a family reunion on the Glory Field places the Luis family in the present. Myers captures subtle changes in substance and texture as he illuminates cross-generational ties that connect the family across time.

After students have read The Glory Field (Myers 1994), teachers can help them explore African American experiences in the New World. This work offers a firm foundation for a complete unit, a solid introduction to a unit, or a strong series of concluding activities. Because cross-generational relations are an important part of this work, students might also analyze the connections that link the generations of their own families.

Robinet's Mississippi Chariot (1994) recounts African American experiences in depression-era Mississippi. This piece of historical fiction opens as Shortening Bread Jackson saves the life of the white postmaster's son. The novel's plot focuses on Jackson's attempt to gain his father's release from a chain gang by spreading a rumor that the FBI is investigating the case. Secondary story lines explore two important aspects of life in the shadow of Jim Crow: the relationship between black and white youngsters and the injustices that the old guard perpetuates. Because the entire town knows that the car was wrecked by the auto owner's son, it is common knowledge that Shortening's daddy was wrongfully convicted for auto theft. To gain his father's release, the younger Jackson exploits people's tendency to believe rumors, but the Jacksons ultimately flee to Chicago for safety and better opportunities.

As they follow Shortening Bread's maneuvers, students discover that a "Mississippi Chariot" is a hearse. Teachers may use this book to introduce young citizens to the ways the legal system treated African Americans, with intimidation and deceit rather than justice. To deepen students' understanding of the Great Migration, a historical event featured in Mississippi Chariot, teachers might show "Moving North to Chicago: 1900-1945" from the Geography in U.S. History video series (AIT 1990) as students read the book. This combination should raise questions and build students' background knowledge.

Social educators, with strong assistance from historical fiction, can place distant events from the past in personal contexts. Gold Star Sister (Murphy 1994) is the fictional account of a granddaughter's search for the son of a World War II soldier who died at the Battle of Attu in the Aleutians. Carrie O'Leary becomes close to her grandmother after Gram moves into the O'Leary home. While helping Gram go through her "Billy Box" of memories, Carrie discovers a poignant story from a past war that prompts her to take action. A friend of Gram's brother, Billy, wrote a letter to his infant son and asked Billy to deliver it when he got home. Billy died before he could fulfill his promise. Carrie's search for the lost son of Billy's friend requires considerable historical research and interviewing skills as Carrie gathers information to accomplish her mission.

Teachers may find Murphy's work useful because it portrays a middle level student "doing social studies" for a reason important to her. Carrie's investigations also debunk historical myths, such as "No foreign army has fought on U.S. soil since 1814." Carrie and her classmates discover that the Battle of Attu took place on U.S. territory. Social educators might use the questions raised by Carrie's investigation to study the battle of Attu, included in the National Register of Historic Places and also featured in a series of lesson plans, Teaching with Historic Places, developed by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although a lesson plan from this resource "Attu: North American Battleground of World War II" (Metcalf 1993) may need some adaptation for early adolescents, it provides background materials, maps, and photos that allow students to analyze why such an isolated battle on a remote island alarmed the nation. Other students may be motivated to explore World War II further by gathering oral histories from veterans who are family members or neighborhood residents.

Exploring Perspectives from Around the Globe
Historical fiction also enhances the second thrust of the dominant middle level curriculum: global studies, world cultures, and world geography. An important component of these areas of study explores the perspectives held by people in diverse times and locations. Exploring the various perspectives available in young adult literature enables students to gain insight into the lives of people living in other places. Two books from the 1995 list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books published in 1996 tell the stories of young women facing challenges in trying situations. These books provide a range of perspectives drawn from postwar Japan and present day Switzerland.
In My Brother, My Sister, and I (1994), Watkins fictionalizes her actual experiences in postwar Japan by recounting the tale of Yoko and her siblings struggling to survive without parents. The three endure an escape from Korea, fires, thefts, and illness as they fight to remain a family until their father's fate is determined. Falsely accused of setting a fire that killed two people, the youngsters must do their own detective work to clear their names. All eventually turns out for the best, including the release of their father from a Soviet prison.

Students reading this book as a part of their social studies program have an opportunity to explore the conditions of postwar Japan as they empathize with the home and school events in Yoko's life. Global questions concerning postwar relations, the division of Korea, and the beginnings of the Cold War can be raised and addressed when discussing this book. Additionally, children can consider personal questions involving how individual children face difficult situations. Middle level students might be asked whether they admire the characters or how they might have acted in Yoko's situation.

Teachers may also wish to share case studies of early adolescents confronting and overcoming obstacles. These cases could be from several areas of the globe and cover issues facing children, such as child labor, lack of educational opportunity, or torture (United Nations 1991). Cases like these permit students to consider how persistence in the face of adversity can make a difference. Additional learning activities generated from the issues raised in this book can include researching the plight of refugees in postwar Europe or Asia, analyzing the fate of refugees today, interviewing refugees who have reached the United States, or participating actively in helping refugees in other lands. This last activity could involve writing government officials or taking personal action to address the horrid conditions that refugees face around the globe.

Hicyilmaz's The Frozen Waterfall (1993) challenges students with intriguing and probably unfamiliar global dimensions. Through the character of Selda, a Turkish girl newly arrived in Switzerland, middle level students can vicariously experience what it is like to be "different" in a new land. Class conversations about issues of fairness, citizenship, economic opportunity, political refugees, and immigration policies can arise as students encounter Selda's struggles to find her own place in her new home. Teachers can use this book to prompt an analysis of international policies on immigration and human rights. Students can search the World Wide Web for information needed to compare constitutional documents and practices from several governments (see Activity 2). Data on the contributions that foreign workers make to the economies of other nations can also be gathered and examined. Data could be collected, categorized, and analyzed by nation (e.g., United States, Germany) or by group (e.g., Turkish workers, Palestinians). After gathering data, students might prepare and test hypotheses explaining why people might choose to work in other lands or why foreign workers might not choose to become citizens in their new homes.

This short selection of historical fiction from the "1995 Notable Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies," with accompanying activities, serves to illustrate the rich addition that young adult literature can make to the global studies and American heritage components of the middle level curriculum. Each work reveals significant issues and includes early adolescent characters actively engaged in meaningful social action. Students may well be encouraged to take action on their own issues and problems after encountering these works. As social educators discover engaging trade books that explore active citizenship, they can devise activities and strategies that explore historical and global connections at the middle level.

Agency for Instructional Technology (AIT). Geography in U.S. History. Bloomington, Ind.: Agency for Instructional Technology, 1990.Collier, J. L., and C. Collier. My Brother Sam is Dead. New York: Four Winds, 1974.---. With Every Drop Of Blood. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994.Hicyilmaz, G. The Frozen Waterfall. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993.Hunt, I. Across Five Aprils. Chicago: Follett, 1964.Kelly, J. On Location: Settings From Famous Children's Books. Englewood, Colo.: Teacher Ideas Press, 1992.Metcalf, F. "Attu: North American Battleground of World War II." In Teaching with Historic Places. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1993. Reprint. Social Education 57, no. 4 (1993).Murphy, C. R. Gold Star Sister. New York: Dutton, 1994.Myers, W. D. Somewhere In The Darkness. New York: Scholastic, 1992.---. The Glory Field. New York: Scholastic, 1994.Robinet, H. G. Mississippi Chariot. New York: Atheneum, 1994.Ruby, L. Steal Away Home. New York: Macmillan, 1994.United Nations. Teaching About Human Rights. New York: United Nations, 1991.Watkins, Y. K. My Brother, My Sister, And I. New York: Bradbury Press, 1994.

Robert H. Lombard is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at Western Illinois University. He teaches social studies methods and graduate curriculum courses.