Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Talking About the Founding Fathers

            Ever since a fifth grader told me that she could only think of three of our four fathers [forefathers] and asked me to name the fourth, I knew that forefathers or founding fathers is a term that we history teachers cannot take for granted. That is, when children use the term, we cannot assume that we are all sharing the same meaning.

            The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America can help because author Jonah Winter and illustrator Barry Blitt understand this confusion and step right in to address it. Jonah Winter’s writing combines humor with a friendly writing style. Here, for example, is how the book begins: “Americans always talk about ‘The Founding Fathers’ as if they were a group of dads who, after a brief huddle, just hauled off and founded America.” This is a style that welcomes readers.

            Illustrator Barry Blitt’s informative and amusing illustrations are a perfect match. Take, for example, the endpapers that show portraits of “Fourteen of the Most Famous Founding Fathers” divided into two categories: Varsity Squad and Junior Varsity Squad. When read together, the words and the illustrations should clear up this matter of “our forefathers” once and for all.

            But this book does more; it describes the Founding Fathers so that we can think about them as human. Here’s how:

·      It asks us to imagine how the Founding Fathers might think that we misunderstand them. Maybe, just maybe, they would be surprised to think that they were grouped together like a rock band or a baseball team—especially since some of them could barely stand to be in the same room together. They certainly didn’t all agree with each other. In fact, they argued constantly.
·      It provides some provocative statements that are openings for continued conversation. These statements are scattered throughout, but here are two:
o   “In creating a bold, new country, the founding Fathers had also created a lot of problems for future generations to solve.”
o   “This book is a showcase of the most famous Founding Fathers, though it is by no means a complete or perfect list. Our understanding of history is always changing.”

            The middle of this book consists of double-page spreads about each Founding Father. It’s a good introduction to learning about the origins of our country, but what I mostly like about it is that the author and illustrator understand their audience and are reaching out to them in ways they can understand. At the same time, they are raising interesting ideas for them to think about. That’s what good history books do. (Of course, here is also a great opportunity for discussing craft and structure, key details and ideas, and other things CCSS. We can examine not only what this book tells us, but how it does the job.)

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