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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: Primary Sources--Enriching the Study of Historical Fiction

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Nov 1, 2014
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Some pictures really are worth a thousand words. “Migrant Mother,” the iconic photo shown on the cover of Marisa Silver’s historical fiction novel Mary Coin, instantly reveals the author’s inspiration for the novel’s unifying character. Shortly into the novel we recognize that the novel’s photographer, Vera Dare, is a fictionalized Dorothea Lange, the notable Depression-era photographer. Another main character, Walker Dodge, a contemporary university professor, has to dig deep to uncover connection between his own family and a photo of Coin he finds among family artifacts.

To deepen an understanding of this novel for students, I wanted to know more! Who was the real Mary Coin? What resources did the author use? Are there other photos? Time to dig into primary resources!

“Migrant Mother” is the best-known in a series of photos of Florence Owens Thompson that Lange took in 1936. It is officially titled “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” With only a quick search, I discovered an overview of Lange’s experience the day she took the photo, plus suggestions for learning more about Thompson. Included are overview and other materials such as the following:

* Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview, Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division  loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html

The Oakland Museum of California Collections: Dorothea Lange. View Lange’s personal archive of vintage prints, field notes, and personal memorabilia. tinyurl.com/kqoqsyd

American Story: “Mona Lisa” of Dust Bowl “never lost hope” is an intriguing resource for learning more about Thompson through text and an 1983 interview with Thompson. tinyurl.com/qz4ramv

I also thought of teacher-ready materials and Depression-era photos that will help students understand historical fiction novels such as
Mary Coin or Out of the Dust.

The Dust Bowl is a primary set consisting of digital photos, maps, an audio file, poem and a teacher’s guide. loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/dust-bowl-migration

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs is an extensive collection of photographs taken between 1939 and 1944. loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsac

These kinds of primary source resources are perfect for enriching and extending students’ understanding as they read historical fiction.

More Examples

Another novel, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, also got me thinking about supporting resources. Author Jamie Ford’s novel is the story of a young Chinese American boy in Seattle and his friendship with a Japanese girl who is sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho during World War II. Many internees stored their belongings at the Panama Hotel in Seattle before they left. What’s the historical background? I started with Ford’s website, features these items:

Interviews, essays and photos that inspired his novel. One photo is of Oscar Holden, the “real” character in the book. jamieford.com/hotel-photos

A link to the Historic Panama Hotel website; photos include some belongings left behind, newspaper clippings, and historic information. panamahotelseattle.com

A link to the National Park Service’s Minidoka National Historic Site includes primary source photos and background. information.nps.gov/miin/index.htm

Coincidentally, just when I was searching, I received a daily newspaper with an article about the present-day Minidoka Swing Band. Band musicians were internment camp children or are relatives of internees. I also revisited a Library of Congress primary source set which has historical documents and photos, including a selection of photos Ansel Adams took at Manzanar. The primary source set and the Adams collection are teacher-friendly and well-suited for
curricular enhancement:

Library of Congress Teachers Page, Primary Source Set, Japanese Internment  loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/internment

* Ansel Adams’ Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar  loc.gov/collection/ansel-adams-manzanar

These LC materials support two books for younger readers as well. Weedflower (middle level) is set on an Indian reservation in the Southwest and combines a mix of cultures. Baseball Saved Us (elementary) is the story of internment camp children who retained a sense of normalcy through play. Adams’ photo “Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation Center, Calif.” invites readers to observe, reflect and question when it is used in a photo analysis activity while students are reading the book. (See Figure 1.)

Another historical-fiction novel, House Girl, is about a contemporary New York attorney working on a slavery reparation case. Through her work, she discovers connections between art, a client, and slavery. As she begins her research, she compiles a list of the slaves, making a comparison chart of the harm they received. “Luke Towns” especially caught my eye. The author drew from an American Memory collection of more than 2,000 first-person accounts of slavery from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to gather names and information.

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives From the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938 memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html

Luke Towns, a centenarian, was born in Georgia in 1835. tinyurl.com/lek5ytg

The “Emergence of Advertising in America,” from Duke University Libraries, includes selected slave auction flyers. library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa/?keyword=slave+auction

“Analyzing Manuscripts,” a teacher’s guide, helps teachers as they encourage higher-level thinking when examining the narratives and flyers.
loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/resources/Analyzing_Manuscripts.pdf

 

Sue Monk Kidd researched primary sources and visited historic sites as she prepared to write The Invention of Wings, a novel loosely based on the life of abolitionist Sarah Grimke and her house slave. Quilts and quilting have key roles in the novel. Harriet Powers, a slave, created the quilts that helped Kidd as she researched background information for that part of the novel. There are several resources:

Harriet Powers, America’s Story from America’s Library, primary sources and background information for young learners americaslibrary.gov/jb/reform/jb_reform_powers_2.html

Harriet Powers, “Seven Southern Quilters from the University of Virginia”   xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/quilt/harriet.html

Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers (Mary Lyons, Scribners, 1993) is an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

Voice from the Days of Slavery from the Library of Congress American Folklife Center has audio interviews of former slaves. The interviews encourage listening skills and higher-level thinking through the examination of informational text.   memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/voices

Adding Pizazz to Teachable Moments With Younger Learners

A short time ago, I went with students on a field trip to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn. We enjoyed a presentation featuring live eagles and learned about our national symbol. Old Abe, the Wisconsin War Eagle, is featured in a special display. After surviving many battles, Abe lived in the Wisconsin Capitol basement; he later died from lingering injuries he suffered in a Capitol fire. Abe’s taxidermied body burned in another fire, but he is also celebrated at the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum. The field trip was ideal for a follow-up activity concerning this famous 8th Regiment mascot. Students were engaged learning how Abe was honored in a song, discovered states depicted in the “Historic Eagle Map of the United States,” and viewed artifacts in a digital primary source set. These primary resources also enrich two picture books: Old Abe, Eagle Hero: The Civil War’s Most Famous Mascot and The Legend of Old Abe.

* Rudiments of National Knowledge, “The Eagle Map of the United States”   tinyurl.com/mw2g5sy

* L.J. Bates, Esq. “Old Abe the Battle Eagle Song & Chorus Poetry”   tinyurl.com/qjq8z36

* Symbols of the United States Teacher’s Guide is a primary source set with posters, sheet music, newspaper cartoons, and photos illuminating recognizable symbols of the United States.   loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/symbols-us/

The Legend of the Teddy Bear is a children’s book about the creators of the children’s toy based on Teddy Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear. Age-appropriate supporting resources include Teddy Roosevelt’s letter and drawings to his son, a political cartoon, sheet music cover for “The Teddy Bear March,” and photos. Children will enjoy group activities with these resources, or discovering them on their own in America’s Library. There is even a short video of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in action.

* Teddy Roosevelt, Amazing Americans, America’s Library    americaslibrary.gov/aa/roosevelt/aa_roosevelt_subj.html

A Teachers Page blog post suggests pairing several Kate DiCamillo books for young readers with primary sources. Educational Consultant Mary Johnson advises teachers and media specialists to “make primary sources a daily habit,” both as learners and as teachers. Take that first step, and connect with others so you can learn together,” she writes. Check out both of these practical ideas:

* “Kate DiCamillo: Stories Connect Us, January 2014 (Includes book titles and related primary sources)   blogs.loc.gov/teachers/?s=Kate+Dicamillo

* “Five Questions With Educational Consultant Mary Johnson, July 2014    blogs.loc.gov/teachers/?s=Mary+Johnson

Professional Development

Barbara Stripling wrote in a recent ALA book: “As K–12 educators reimagine their instruction to integrate the teaching of critical thinking and literacy skills across the curriculum (as outlined in the Common Core State Standards), the benefits of using primary sources in all classrooms will become increasingly evident (“Introduction,” Interacting With History: Teaching With Primary Sources, Katherine Lehman, editor, ALA Publications, 2014). Taking her up on her advice ...

Creating Book Backdrops: Connecting Literature and Primary Sources is a PD activity that focuses on inquiry. Suggested activities and resources are included. This Library of Congress Teachers Page activity incorporates Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers, a children’s book based on the true story of Grace Bedell, who encouraged Lincoln to grow whiskers. A PDF Build and Deliver file, “Creating Book Backdrops Using the Inquiry Method,” provides strategies for developing your own book backdrop activities using other books appropriate for your age group. Suggested lists of book titles and correlating primary resources can be found at my website, maryalicea.wordpress.com. Select the tab for primary sources. The lists were created by Gail Petri, former LC education resource specialist.

Moving Forward

Creative media specialists will discover it’s relatively easy to find supporting resources for a work of literature. Locating age-appropriate and valid primary sources may take some time, which of course is often the key factor missing for teachers who want to enhance units of study. But media specialists can help! Be resource specialists, curriculum leaders, and collaborators in locating resources and encouraging teachers to augment literature study with digital primary sources. Media specialists have a long tradition of connecting books and resources; let’s continue the tradition with today’s digital primary sources.


Books cited

Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, Lee & Low Books, 1995.

The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford, Random House, 2009.

House Girl,Tara Conklin, Harper Collins, 2013.

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd, Viking, 2014.

The Legend of Old Abe, Kathy-jo Wargin, Sleeping Bear Press,
2006.

The Legend of the Teddy Bear, Frank Murphy, Sleeping Bear
Press, 2000.

Mary Coin, Marissa Silver, Blue Rider Press, 2013.

Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers, Karen Winnick, Boyds Mills Press, 1999.

Old Abe, Eagle Hero: The Civil War’s Most Famous Mascot, Patrick
Young, Kane/Miller, 2010.

Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse, Scholastic, 1997.

Weedflower, Cynthia Kadohata, Atheneum, 2006.

 

Contact Mary Alice Anderson at maryalicea@me.com.

 


 
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