Carole J. Wilkinson, Teacher-in-Residence
Delaware Social Studies Education Project
University of Delaware
Brandywine School District
teachers have been charged with preparing students to meet the
Delaware curriculum standards in English language arts, mathematics,
science, and social studies. If one looks at the requirements
in any one of those subject areas, it can be overwhelming.
Because student promotion is linked to adequate success
on the state reading assessments, elementary teachers feel bound
to put reading at the forefront of their instruction. Soon success
on the state mathematics assessment will also be tied to promotion.
Where does that leave social studies?
years, time in the classroom for reading and mathematics has
been inviolable. Interruptions are allowed only at other times
in the school day. Those
other times are often during social studies lessons.
On a good day, there are about three and one half hours
of academic instructional time in which teachers are to teach
reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
Two and one half-hours are to be dedicated to reading
and writing, while math takes at least one forty-five minute
period per day. How,
then, is a teacher to teach the four strands of social studies
- civics, economics, geography, and history – as required in
the Delaware State Social Studies Standards with such limited
time left in an average school day?
studies have often been the subjects children denounce as “boring.” In the past social studies textbooks have not
always been stimulating enough to captivate children. History textbooks did not always have extensive
civics, economics, and geography lessons. Those individual subject areas seemed isolated in texts and in presentations.
While many publishers have made great strides in producing
child-friendly texts and in integrating the social studies strands,
how can we bring life to the social studies?
are the answers? Everyone
enjoys a good story, generally, so the logical approach seems
to be to teach the social studies through reading whenever possible.
With careful selection, one can find children’s trade
books through which two or more strands of the social studies
can be taught while the children revel in an absorbing story.
One of my favorite
children’s trade book is Foster’s
War by Carolyn Reeder (1998) because there are lessons derived
from this book that address nearly all of the sixteen benchmarks
for the grade 4-5 cluster in social studies. I find the children’s
curiosity about social studies topics ignited by this engrossing
story. They care about the history, geography, economics, and
civics that are associated with the story.
Life is infused into their study of social studies.
Foster’s War is a story about life on the
home front during World War II.
It takes place in San Diego, California
in the early years of the war and revolves around a ten-year-old
boy named Foster Simmons.
Foster’s closest friend is a Japanese-American boy, Jimmy
Osaki. Following Pearl Harbor, Foster watches the
Osakis suffer because of hateful prejudices against the “Japs”.
He later corresponds with Jimmy and his family who are sent
to a Japanese Internment camp.
The Simmons family
becomes very involved in helping the war effort.
They buy saving stamps and bonds, build a victory garden,
participate in metal and rubber scrap drives, volunteer in U.S.O.
canteens, serve as neighborhood civil defense wardens, scrimp
on foods and materials that are rationed, and volunteer for
the Red Cross Nurses’ Aide Corps. There are numerous other wartime activities and life-style changes
mentioned throughout the book.
Mel, Foster’s older
brother, is killed in the Battle of Midway in 1942, and the
family suffers through the loss, each in his/her own way. Foster
and his friends no longer think it’s fun to play war.
The story is, at varying
times, funny, poignant, and riveting.
The reader is alternately filled with rage at injustices,
empathy during sad or tender moments, and hilarity at childish
pranks. It is a book that children thoroughly enjoy reading.
topics in the book which lend themselves to economics lessons
are: 1) wartime shortages and rationing; 2)
defense stamps and bonds; 3) the black market; 4) sacrificing
candy or the movies to buy defense stamps (opportunity cost);
and 5) the entrance of women into the work force.
For example, rationing is a case where the government
interfered with the economy by setting a ceiling price for such
items as sugar and limiting how much a person could buy. One
can illustrate with graphs the ordinary supply and demand curves
and the market-clearing price.
With rationing and price fixing, however, those curves
are significantly altered. Further, international trade was interrupted
by the war. Most of
our rubber came from the East Indies, so we could not readily
get that vital commodity. Rubber
was demanded for defense vehicles, so the average drivers on
the home front could not buy tires.
In addition, gasoline was rationed. These two factors
caused a significant reduction in the use of cars, resulting
in a domino effect on the rest of the economy.
Japanese internment is a hot box for civics lessons. In my classroom the children were enraged by the injustice of that
government action, and eagerly sought more information. They explored the Internet to find out how
this could have happened. What
justification did the government have for denying Constitutional
rights to United States citizens?
In the process of searching for those answers, they studied
the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment, due process of
law, and primary source documents such as Executive Order 9066
and Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33.
They wanted to read stories written by internees telling
about their ordeals. They wanted to see how much was written
in their social studies textbooks about this travesty. They
were reading – BIG TIME! They were analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating.
The children wanted
to know where the Japanese internment camps were, what they
were like, and how long the people were imprisoned.
All of a sudden, there were geography lessons, ready
made, with little effort on my part.
They were learning about places – the climate, the topography,
the flora and fauna. They were exploring maps. When
they found that two of the internment camps in Arkansas had
no barbed wire fences or guards around them because they were
surrounded by swamps filled with four of the most poisonous
snakes in the world, they delightedly searched for information
about Arkansas’ geography! On the Internet they found pictures of many of the camps which lay
in isolated, desolate places with extremes of temperature, dust
storms, and other such disagreeable living conditions.
They yearned to know more about these places and searched
geography books for the answers.
War takes place in San Diego, California.
Throughout the story, mention is made of the port, shipbuilding,
the naval base, the warm weather, and the berry farms and orchards. The children put a sticky dot on San Diego
on the wall map. They
were gaining a sense of “place.”
They expressed in journals why the people of San Diego
feared a Japanese attack. They wrote about the Japanese Americans’ loss
of their fine berry farms and orchards when they were hastily
removed to internment camps and about the greedy Caucasian farmers
who snatched up that land.
They included in their journals the characteristics of
an ethnic neighborhood, such as the Japanese Americans had in
San Diego and in the internment camps.
Everyday they wrote in their journals some new or interesting
information they gained about social studies topics in Foster’s War.
Throughout Foster’s War the main character reads in Life Magazine about Pacific War battles and about numerous land and
water sites in the Pacific.
The natural extension of that was to place a sticky dot
on those locations on a wall map, along with the date of a battle.
Happily, the students sought to learn more about those
battles from their social studies books, other books, and/or
the Internet. Because
Foster’s brother was killed at the Battle of Midway, they were
especially curious about that one.
Here were geography lessons about location and regions,
as well as an activity in chronologically looking at history
and studying historic events. Through it all, lots of reading
was going on.
The children in the
book find playing “war” a favorite past time.
The girls in the neighborhood pretend to be nurses attending
to the wounded. They
continually remind one another of the Geneva Convention.
The obvious question that emerged was: “What is the Geneva
Convention?” Another trip to the Internet was called for,
and we found out that the Geneva Convention was a series of
conventions held over many years.
Part of the agreement reached by the participating nations
was the humane treatment to be afforded prisoners of war.
That new knowledge, most assuredly, was added to their
History Standard Three
asks students to interpret historical data.
In searching the Internet for information about Japanese
internment, a wealth of information was found that condemned
the internment. Books written by internees further supported
the claim that the whole historical episode was a mockery of
justice. It took considerable searching to find anything
current that supported the government actions. However, that was found; along with the official
government documents and newspaper and magazine articles written
in the early years of World War II, students analyzed and interpreted
the very diverse viewpoints about Japanese internment.
Needless to say, lively debate ensued.
for Delaware students is that they write well.
One of the concluding activities for the literature unit
was the following writing prompt:
Foster’s War Text-Based Writing Prompt
You have read Foster’s
War. Write the
text for a speech that Foster would present at a Town Meeting
explaining how children and adults can help the war effort.
Use information from both the book and other sources.
the following questions can help you plan your writing.
What activities did Foster and other members
of his family participate in that supported the war effort?
From your contact with people you have interviewed,
what other activities supported the war effort?
From the primary sources you have explored, what
additional activities supported the war effort?
Have you explained why each activity is important?
What order will best present your ideas logically
Is your sentence structure clear?
Have you corrected errors in spelling, capitalization,
the Delaware Civics Standards, students are expected to understand
that citizens have rights, as well as civic responsibilities
and that participation in the democratic system is essential.
War the family members and others in the community show
their sense of civic responsibilities by volunteering in the
Red Cross, the Jr. Red Cross, the U.S.O., and as Civil Defense
Wardens. They organize
civic groups to advertise, sell, and distribute defense stamps,
and bonds. They help organize and implement scrap drives. Victory Gardens proliferate in the community.
There is intense patriotic fervor and eagerness to support
the war effort. One of the assignments my students especially enjoyed during the
reading of Foster’s War
was interviewing people who lived during World War II. They wrote up their interviews and shared them with the class.
Often, interviewers discovered ways, other than those
mentioned in the book, in which people at home supported the
war effort. In responses
to the writing prompt, they included information gained from
the book, as well as from interviews and Internet explorations.
Following the writing activity, students met in small
groups and decided what essential information had to be included
in the paper to earn a “4” in “development” as defined in The
Delaware Holistic Scoring Criteria for writing.
The children critiqued each other’s written responses.
Time was given for each child to rewrite his/her paper
before submitting it for final grading, using the Delaware Holistic
While this essay suggests how to
use one children’s trade book to teach social studies through
reading, the message is applicable to many pieces of children’s
literature. Historical fiction centers around historical
events and people (content), and the chronology of events is
generally present in such a story, as well. For instance, Johnny
Tremain by Esther Forbes (1943) takes place in the early
stages of the American Revolution, and such people as Paul Revere
and Sam Adams play strategic roles in the story.
The Boston Tea Party, the plans and meetings prior to
it, and the battles of Lexington and Concord are chronologically
arranged. Frequently, diverse viewpoints are presented in a
story, as in My Brother
Sam is Dead by James Collier (1974), so analysis and interpretation
of conflicting data is possible.
Historical fiction has a place (s) in which it occurs. Geography lessons associated with location
and place naturally arise from the setting.
Often geography standard two is also addressed- i.e.,
humans modify or respond to the natural environment, as in Prairie
Songs by Pam Conrad (1985).
Sometimes students gain an understanding of the character
of regions and the connections between them (geography standard
four) in books such as Henner’s Lydia (1936) or Thee Hannah (1940) by Marguerite De Angeli.
An historical period
or event is often filled with major economic upheaval.
For instance, in the book Fever
1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), the economic activity
of Philadelphia is severely affected by the yellow fever epidemic
when hordes of people flee the city and farmers refuse to enter
the city with foodstuffs. Stores and businesses are closed, and some
critical human needs cannot be met. Abandoned homes are broken
into in the desperate search for food, money, and other necessities
of life. Bread is made with sawdust. Prices for the few products that are available
are outrageously high. Paper is not available for printing newspapers. Ships with international products refuse to
dock in the Philadelphia port.
Such a book as Fever
1793 serves as a fine springboard for economic lessons.
Civics lessons abound
in Mildred D.Taylor’s books, The
Gold Cadillac (1987), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), and
The Road to Memphis (1990).
These books detail the experiences of people who have
been denied their basic rights.
In summary, then,
the elementary teacher need not always squeeze social studies
into a separate spot in a schedule already bursting at the seams.
Teach social studies through literature and infuse life
into subjects that children, heretofore, may have thought they
didn’t like. A good story stimulates interest in the history,
geography, economics, and civics that contribute to its dynamic
character. Take it from
Anderson, L. H. (2000). Fever
1793. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young
Collier, J. and Collier, C. (1974). My Brother
Sam is Dead. New York: Four Winds
Conrad, P. (1985). Prairie
Songs. New York: Harper & Row.
De Angeli, M. (1936). Henner’s
Lydia. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
De Angeli, M. (1940). Thee
Hannah. New York: Doubleday.
Forbes,E. (1943). Johnny
Tremain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Reeder, C. (1998). Foster’s
War. New York: Scholastic Inc.
Taylor, M. D. (1987).The
Gold Cadillac. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Taylor, M. D. (1990). The
Road to Memphis. New York: Dial Books.
Taylor, M. D. (1976). Roll
of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Dial Press.
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