Interpreting Critical Issues:
Comparing Past and Modern Plagues

Myra Zarnowski
Children's nonfiction is full of thrilling stories from the past. The challenge of making history, or "true" stories from the past, vibrant for students is the challenge of placing their questions and concerns at the center of the conversation. This challenge has been recognized by teachers and researchers at all educational levels.1 I refer to it as moving history from the shelf to the self. To do so requires tapping what we know about how historians make sense out of material-how they think about the past and why they find it a vibrant field of inquiry. On the elementary school level, moving history from the shelf to the self requires well thought-out planning; it will not happen automatically. Using quality nonfiction, teachers can show students how some authors share their thinking so clearly and directly with readers that their books show us what it means to practice "history's habits of mind."

This article describes one such book, James Cross Giblin's When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS,2 and discusses how it was used with sixth graders. First, I discuss the unique features of the book. Then I show how it was used to help students use the past to better understand the present.

The Power of Three Parallel Stories
When Plague Strikes was included in the 1996 list of Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, being described as "a vivid and readable history."2 It was also recommended by the Orbis Pictus Award Committee as an Outstanding Nonfiction Choice for 1995, and described as "a frank and informative book that helps readers understand the current AIDS epidemic."3 This book truly is vivid, readable, frank, and informative. The features within the book that provide this clarity consist of (1) generalizations that provide coherence, (2) comparisons among the parallel stories of plague, and (3) conclusions based on data from the three stories.

Generalizations for Coherence
When Plague Strikes
begins with a prologue that introduces the topic of plague and includes the following general statements:
This book tells the stories of three of the most serious and damaging plagues: the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s; smallpox, the only epidemic disease that has been wiped out completely; and AIDS, the modern plague whose mysteries remain to be solved. All three have had disastrous impacts on the affected populations and left lasting social, political, religious, and cultural consequences in their wake. As each of the diseases has run its deadly course, people have reacted in similar ways. Some reached out to aid the sufferers, other fled in terror, still others searched frantically for someone or something to blame. All these reactions came into play in A.D. 1347, when the Black Death broke out for the first time in what is today southern Ukraine. (p. 7, emphasis added) These statements provide readers with a framework for assimilating the information that follows about the three plagues. The author not only tells us that there are similarities among the plagues he will be discussing, but alerts us to what these similarities are. Statements such as this provide readers with "big ideas" and contribute to powerful learning. They provide the coherence that is often lacking in histories written for children.

Comparisons among Parallel Stories
Following the prologue, the author describes each of the three plagues (the Black Death, smallpox, and AIDS) in a separate section. After he describes the first two plagues, he uses this information to help readers build an understanding of the contemporary plague, AIDS. A few examples will illustrate how he does this. In describing physicians' responses to AIDS, the author refers back to the Black Death (the bubonic plague, or Plague with a capital P):

Like those physicians who deserted their patients in the face of the Black Death, some physicians in the 1980s flatly refused to treat people with AIDS. They tried to justify their denial of treatment on the ground that it presented an unacceptable hazard to them personally. (p. 135)
Similarly, in discussing the case of Ryan White and the Indiana school board that refused to allow him to attend school once they learned that he had contracted AIDS, the author once again reaches back for material about the Black Death. He writes:

It was an expression of the community's fear-the same sort of fear that led people in Italy and France to wall up victims of the Black Death in their homes. (p. 163) Additionally, in discussing the need to confront the AIDS epidemic, the author contrasts its persistence with the virtual elimination of smallpox:

Unlike the bubonic plague, AIDS has by no means been brought under control. Nor has another Edward Jenner come forth with the equivalent of a smallpox vaccine that will halt the spread of the AIDS virus and eventually wipe it out. (p. 187) In each of these statements, the author uses material from one or more historical events to help readers build an understanding of another event.

Conclusions Based on Data
In bringing this material together, the author is able to make powerful generalizations. He states:
When...a disease develops into a raging epidemic, it's easy to sink into despair, as many did in the face of the bubonic plague, smallpox, and more recently AIDS. It's also easy to blame our miseries on scapegoats-the Jews of Germany at the time of the Black Death, homosexual men in the age of AIDS. Every major plague that has afflicted the world seems to have brought out the best as well as the worst in people. There have always been doctors, clergy, friends, and neighbors who cared for the victims, often at risk to their own lives. And there have been others who refused all contact with the sufferers, even going so far as to wall them up in their own homes. (pp. 195-196) Giblin concludes that we are not doomed to repeat past behaviors if we "mobilize all our scientific and medical resources" and if, "above all, we ...remember our common humanity." (p. 196) In this way, the author acknowledges the continuing problems, but offers hope for the future if we learn the lessons of the past.

Studying Plague with Children
Last year, sixth grade teacher Lila Alexander and I introduced her students to When Plague Strikes. We wanted students to learn about the topic of plague using the author's generalizations to support their learning. In essence, students would be thinking alongside the author. Giblin was making a case for a particular interpretation of plagues, and backing up this case with relevant information. Thinking alongside him would mean collecting the data he supplied to support his case. In addition, we wanted students to examine and discuss the data offered, and then to extend the conversation by including their own thoughts on the topic. This would be accomplished in three steps: (1) collecting information on a data chart, (2) comparing the plagues, and (3) drawing conclusions.

Collecting Information on a Data Chart
Since Giblin claimed that there were definite similarities among the three plagues, a data chart was constructed for each plague, using the following three categories:

The charts were filled in as the students listened to their teacher read the book aloud and then engaged in discussions of the material.

Figure 1 shows how the author provided readers with information about small pox. Clearly, there was sufficient background information for students to think along with the author and to consider his case for understanding this plague.

While the teacher and the students were completing the data charts, they also collected words they needed to discuss the topic of plague, and posted them on a word wall (see Figure 2). These words served as a reference during discussions, and became even more useful when the students began writing their own books about plague.

Comparing Plagues
After completing the three charts and the word wall, students were asked to compare the Black Death (Plague) with AIDS. Figure 3 shows the comparisons they drew between the two plagues. These statements provided the basis for more elaborate student writing. For example, when comparing Plague and AIDS, one student wrote:
AIDS is caused by a virus, Plague is caused by a bacterium which lives in rat-fleas. With AIDS, the virus is spread by exchange of body fluids, especially by coming into contact with another person's blood. Plague is not spread that way, Plague is airborne. You could inhale Plague just from being in casual contact with another person. With Plague people became ill with fever, headache, redness of eyes, severe swelling of the lymph nodes, pain, and loss of ability to move. All this takes from five to seven days to occur. Kaposi's Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia are two of the diseases that occur because the immune system is damaged in AIDS. With Plague, sickness occurred two to three days after exposure. With AIDS, before you get the disease, you are HIV positive, and that can take days or years to develop into full-blown AIDS. With AIDS, you will eventually die, but with Plague, although most people died, some recovered.
The initial comparison was augmented with information derived from reading and discussion.

Drawing Conclusions
After sharing When Plague Strikes, students were given time to read more extensively on the subject of AIDS. After they did, they were asked to write about their thoughts on the topic of plague. One student wrote:
During the time when I read books about AIDS and Plague, I learned a lot of things about them. First, my reading taught me how deadly both diseases are, and one of them still exists now!!! I also learned that whoever catches either of these two diseases can have a very hard and sad time of living through them. Some people can even die. In fact, ninety out of one hundred who get Plague die and one hundred out of one hundred people who get AIDS die. That means that if two hundred people had either Plague or AIDS, one hundred ninety people would die.
The Bubonic Plague and AIDS made me feel mad and sad. I felt mad because of all the people who were killed by the diseases. I also felt sad because of all the people who were killed. In the future, I predict that the AIDS virus will be fully stopped. I predict that scientists will find the right drugs to stop the AIDS virus from spreading itself.
This conclusion, though clearly more optimistic than Giblin's, shows that students had their own ideas about plague. They did not merely absorb what they read; they interpreted it.

Well-written stories about the past provide students with background information presented coherently and in sufficient detail. But whether that information remains inert, fragmented, and disconnected from students' present day concerns is up to teachers. To engage students in a meaningful dialogue with the past, we need to invite them to ask questions and make observations. One way to invite students into the conversation is to highlight the historical thinking of nonfiction writers, and to use their insights and generalizations to scaffold the thinking of young historians. Thinking alongside an author, and then extending that author's ideas, is one way to help students connect with the past. The well-written story provides the basis for doing this.

Figure 2
Word Wall
autopsyscientific methodpneumonia

Figure 3
Comparing Two Plagues: the Black Death and AIDS

1.See on the elementary level: L. Levstik, "Building a Sense of History in a First-grade Classroom" in J. Brophy, ed., Advances in Research on Teaching, Vol. 4: Case Studies of Teaching and Learning in Social Studies (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1993): 1-31; and T. Lindquist, Seeing Whole through Social Studies (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995). On the secondary level: D. Kobrin, "It's My Country, Too: A Proposal for a Student Historian's History of the United States," Teachers College Record, 94 (1992): 329-342, and Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996); and B. VanSledright, "'I Don't Remember-the Ideas Are All Jumbled in My Head': 8th Graders' Reconstructions of Colonial American History," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 10 (1995): 317-345. On the college level: T. Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1990); and G. W. McDiarmid and P. Vinten-Johansen, Teaching and Learning History-From the Inside Out (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, Special Report, 1993).
2.J. C. Giblin, When Plague Strikes: Death, Smallpox, AIDS, with illustrations by David Frampton (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
3.National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, "1996 Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies," Social Education 61, 4 (April/May 1997): Special Supplement.
4.E. Aoki, E. B. Freeman, B. Elleman, R. S. Bamford, and M. Zarnowski, "Outstanding Nonfiction Choices for 1995," Language Arts 73 (1996): 436-444.

About the Author
Myra Zarnowski teaches at Queens College in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education. She has recently served on the Orbis Pictus Book Award Selection Committee for the National Council of Teachers of English.