Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How a Public Law Became a Children's Book

The quickest way to raise a public school teacher's anxiety level is to add something to an overcrowded curriculum. Public Law 108-477 does just that. It requires public schools to provide an educational program on the U.S. Constitution on September 17th, Constitution Day. In 2005, the year the law went into effect, the teachers at my elementary school wondered how they would find the time to present a meaningful Constitution Day lesson on short notice. Enter the specialist team, consisting of the librarian (me), the art teacher, and music teacher. We decided to lighten the classroom teachers' loads by taking responsibility for Constitution Day. The music teacher and the art teacher promised to plan lessons for grades K-3, and I took on grades 4-6.

From the beginning I was enthusiastic. The students at my school in Northern Virginia are from all over the world. Many of them speak Spanish, Vietnamese, or Urdu at home. They can tell me about the history of Bolivia or the government of Bhutan, but they may not know how many U.S. senators we have from each state. One problem with standardized testing is that it assumes a homogenous society where all kids have the same healthy background knowledge of American culture. But a child who just came to the United States last year may not know how to pronounce the word 'constitution' or know that July 4th is considered America's birthday. Even children who were born in America may have gaps in their knowledge of American government. How many families discuss the Articles of Confederation at the dinner table? How many third graders can explain representation based on population?

American government is taught in elementary school. But it is presented on a particular schedule in prescribed amounts at specific grade levels. And Ancient Greece, Native Americans, map skills, economics, Mali, China, magnets, and simple machines must often be taught in the same quarter. When classroom teachers are held accountable for a long list of "essential knowledge" for standardized tests, it is inevitable that some topics will be "left behind" in the scramble to cover everything required. The dedicated classroom teachers I know work many additional unpaid hours to prepare students. And they are frequently frustrated by an inability to linger over subjects students are excited by or need more time to comprehend. In a test-driven educational environment, a teacher may have to accept that her class is able to spout the parts of the water cycle quicker than the houses of Congress, because she is responsible for the rest of the curriculum.

However, the rules in the library are different. While I am expected to support the curriculum, I also have the freedom to enrich it. When Constitution Day came along, I grabbed the opportunity to teach more than was "required" about the creation of our government. I spent hours researching the topic and crafting lessons that would leave an impression and be fun. The fourth through sixth graders come to me for forty minutes in the afternoons, tired from morning academics and often sweaty from the gym. Library lessons need to be engaging, or I spend the afternoon mentally counting to ten, biting my lip, and using my "teacher stare."

So I printed off copies of the original Constitution from archives.gov on gold parchment paper and encased them in plastic sleeves, allowing the kids to see the giant "We the People" that begins the document and examine the signatures at the end. I created a crossword puzzle, I made the pieces for a game I found on the Internet, and I wrote a play. It wasn't a long play. Only four minutes. That's all the time we have on our in-house television show, a program that I, like many school librarians, am in charge of. When I passed out the script to my fourth graders, I had the power to promise a live captive audience. The chance to be on television made my classes stand up straight and speak loudly with expression. I chose thirteen students to represent the thirteen original colonies in a play that briefly covered the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and how a new form of government was created at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We held rehearsals and made costumes of poster board cut-outs in the geographic shapes of the colonies. And on Constitution Day, September 17, 2005, thirteen fourth graders proudly performed live via in-house television for our school. It was a moment of triumph for me and for them. But then it was over, and I was left with this four-minute skit. Was there a way to share it with other students? Could I expand the text and publish it as a play or a picture book? I brought the script to my writing group and we discussed it. There's not much of a market for plays. However, someone suggested that I try a graphic format. Why not? I am a writer who loves a challenge. So I laboriously expanded my skit into a document with text boxes and speech bubbles. This is no easy process because those little buggers migrate all over the page. But I learned how to manage them and ultimately produced a manuscript I sold to the wonderful Emily Mitchell at Charlesbridge. Under her direction, I further expanded the book with historical notes and a bibliography. Then off it went to the illustrator, Jef Czekaj, who somehow knew that it should be illustrated as a play. When Emily told me that he had devised the illustrations in the conceit of a school play, I was too flabbergasted to reply. Did Jef have a sixth sense about the performance at my school? I haven't had the courage to ask. But the result is Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, featuring thirteen exuberant young actors dressed as the original thirteen colonies, dramatizing the conflicts and compromises of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Watch a video trailer of Unite or Die.

Have fun with this Readers' Theater Guide and share Unite or Die with your students.

Visit Jacqueline Jules online.

Posted by Jacqueline Jules, author of Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation.


Anonymous said...

This is FANTASTIC! As an art teacher myself, I appreciate how you and your colleagues took on this task. I love how you all worked together to integrate your curriculums for the betterment of the students. I am sure they will always remember what they learned. CONGRATS!!!

Anonymous said...

Those students are very lucky to have you. Congratulations!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

As a retired teacher who worries about how much teaching of social studies is being ignored while students study test-taking skills instead, I think this would have been a wonderful addition to our any teacher's library.

Elizabeth Varadan

Ms. S said...

We just adapted your reader's theatre into a class play at ATS!!! Just around the corner from you. My 4th grade class LOVED it!!!