Teaching History With Picture Books

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As I read one of the classic children’s books, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, it turned out to be an unexpected history lesson.  This wonderful book begins with a charming little house on a hill, living through days and nights and the seasons.  She loves the countryside and the changes.  The early illustrations capture all the images of the seasons.  At this point in the book children are hooked, because they love the little house.  As I turned the pages they knew summer followed spring, then autumn then winter.  Each page was predictable.

The next page was the game changer.  A road is being built by the little house, yet the children couldn’t see what was happening on that page.  How could they not see?

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I went back and forth between the previous page and this page, asking plenty of questions.  Were they so focused on the house that they couldn’t see ‘the big picture’?  Once the children saw what was happening, the story changed; there was much more than just the little house.  We talked about steam shovels and trucks, and the smoke from the steam roller.  From this point forward, every page in this book shows a significant change, and we jumped in with both feet.  The tenement houses were built, and that was the trigger for history.  We talked about the buildings; they were different.  Then a child commented on the cars passing by.  Yes, they were different, too.

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The cars started most of the conversation.  I told children that my grandmother drove those cars and my mother was a little girl riding in those cars.  Generations are a concrete way to teach history to young children.  It’s their closest element to an abstract concept.  Children identify history through their parents and grandparents, and a few lucky ones may have a great grandparent.  It starts with something close to home, like a car, and that can be the catalyst to talking about history.  That’s exactly what we did.  The next page, and the next, and so on were steps in history.  Trains and subway cars were a natural curiosity, since children were captivated by cars.  Then came the twenty-five and thirty-five foot buildings.  We talked about Boston and about Groton, and who has the tall buildings.  We even imagined how high twenty-five stories would be.

Of course we never forgot about the little house, especially when she was moved from the city back to the country.  This was perhaps the most exciting page; it sparked great conversation.  Children asked how they did that, moving the house, and also asked how deep the hole was, and if the house was okay.  This is the pinnacle in education.  This page is all about math, science, engineering, kindness, history, and language.  I think that’s why children like this page.  There is so much to talk about and so much to learn.

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The rest of the book is wonderfully predictable, as it should be.  After all the lessons and learnings and dialogue that transpired while reading this book, the little house comes to rest at a new place in the country, much like where the story began.

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When I was in first grade, this was the one book I remember my teacher reading aloud.  Frankly, that is my strongest memory of first grade.  Now that I am the teacher, I have a greater understanding of how a picture book can teach history and beyond.  That’s what I do.

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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21 Responses to Teaching History With Picture Books

  1. reocochran says:

    Jennie, I liked this book and have a copy in my children’s reading collection, for my “grandies.” 🙂
    My goodness, it does include history and details of changing for people, buildings and environmental safety.

  2. Your posts are so inspiring…to us oldsters too (not just your youngster students!)
    I remember reading this book to my kiddos and thinking how the pictures reflect olden times, yet are timeless in reflecting our human ways of living…without being hopeless.
    Keep up the great work.
    peace

  3. frenchc1955 says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  4. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    A wonderful post on education!

  5. Amy Reese says:

    One thing my son did once was interview his grandpa. It’s true so much history can be learned in how things change from generation to generation. This sounds like a wonderful book!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thanks, Amy. It’s a great book, and has withstood the test of time. Yes, I remember this from my first grade. Thanks so much for reading my blog. I look forward to reading yours.

  6. Loved this story. I don’t think I ever had a teacher teach that way. But then, I don’t remember much about those years. :/

  7. What a wonderful post! I worked as a preschool teacher for several years. I found young children very attentive to details. This is a wonderful way to introduce young children to history. Well done 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Charles! I’m away this week so I will look at this when I return. BTW, I just received one of seven Early Childhood educator awards for Massachusetts.

  8. Sounds like a great little book!

  9. Deb says:

    I learn so much from picture books as an adult, I can imagine it having an even greater impact to a child. This is a beautiful reminder of that.

  10. I love to watch the expressions change on their faces, the excited widening of their eyes as they are emotionally enveloped by the art on the page… It always reminds me to really look at art — not just skim it, and to really take my time when reading to hear the voice of the author, and let the characters come alive… That is the history that stays with you.

  11. Thank you for bringing this wonderful picture book to my attention. Also, thank you for showing us how you use the book in class. I wish my kids could have had you as their pre-school teacher.

  12. I remember a cartoon that is similar to this book. It may be based on it. But watching it over and over again helped me to be conscious of how things change. I would look at my house as a kid and imagine that one day towering buildings and massive highways would be built all around it and the neighborhood would be gone, or changed dramatically. Its all still the same today, but there are areas I knew as a kid that are as different as this book and the cartoon showed.

    I teach 5th grade, but I think I can still read this too them, or show them the cartoon for a lesson on rural, suburban, and urban environments and how there is a change over time. They would probably get a kick out of it.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you! You are so right that looking at the book can stimulate incredible conversation and learning. I wish I could read this to 5th graders. Really. It would probably take me an hour. Love it!

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