This is a message for teachers who encourage writing across the curriculum. Hear me. Educators impact learning when we require students to research hidden and unsung figures for biographical writing projects. Dr. King and Anne Frank are efficacious options. But popular names like these are already embedded in the curriculum. Can we lead students to discover bold and brave names that do not appear in history books? Might these unearthed personalities inspire students’ courage, creativity, and choices as they pursue college and careers?
I am a National Board Educator who writes picture books for children. My titles explore the lives of conquering pathfinders, whose contributions have fallen into the abyss of America’s collective amnesia. Have you heard of Opal Lee, James “Junior” Jamerson, or Charlie Butts? These indomitable, but unfamiliar activists, speak volumes to children in search of profiles, who represent justice, honor, and resiliency. When I discovered the valor behind these unheralded names, it was clear to me, that each one deserved further research. So, I wrote books about them.
Imagine the joy of students making such a boon of first-time discoveries during the research and writing process. Here is the challenge. How do teachers facilitate the search for such hidden treasure? Where do we point students to look? I want to suggest three sources to help learners find inspiring but unsung personalities to research for their variety of projects. These are the sources I use in pursuit of subjects for biographies and historical fiction books.
Start with local newspapers because they are prone to highlight trailblazers and champions situated in the students’ city or state. Most times, the valiant found in regional papers will not be featured in some encyclopedia. And yet, these figures will resonate with learners because they share a common cultural experience.
Besides regional papers, point students to large news outlets like The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. These papers will feature current national and international leaders, who are blazing trails in a myriad of fields from business and politics to science, theatre, and sports. It is also beneficial for students to search old newspapers in online databases. Here is where I find a treasure trove of personalities who are influential beacons of light, but not listed in anyone’s textbook.
A second source that will help students find unmined gems for biographical research is national and local museums. During the pandemic, several art and history museums have uploaded exhibitions online. It was a museum where I discovered the mesmerizing art of Jacob Lawrence, Carroll Cloar, Elizabeth Catlett, and Augusta Savage. I did not discover these names during my early education or college when I was required to take “Art Appreciation.” Can you imagine that? My art professor never spoke the name, “Jacob Lawrence.”
As an adult, it was also in a local museum where I first encountered the courage of 19th Century activists, Julia Britton Hooks, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell. While they all lived in the city of Memphis at some point during their lives, each one laid a brick in the foundation of what would become the American Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in Memphis during the seventies and eighties. Not once during my time in elementary or secondary school, did I hear these three important names. Do you follow my point?
Textbooks, libraries, and reference books do well in serving illuminating examples of bravery, creativity, and skill. However, there are overlooked informational tools like newspapers and museums that can expose learners to a galaxy of “stars,” they won’t find so easily in books. This brings me to my final suggestion. Before the ubiquitous camera phone, family photo albums kept generational records of the brave and heroic achievers in a kid’s bloodline. It is possible children will find wondrous inspiration in their family tree, if they are required to open the dusty pages of photographs inherited from family, who lived decades and centuries before this present age. Students can also find introductions to noteworthy figures in the online collection of famous American photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Carl Van Vechten, and Ernest Withers.
It was Ernest Withers who gave me a book of his civil rights photographs. These pictures were my initial encounter with Black Tennessee farmers, who formed the first grassroots voting rights movement in America. Dressed in worn clothes, the farmers and their sad faces moved me to research their plight. It was a valiant story of protest. Therefore, I wrote EVICTED—THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE. It is a book for children and adults.
Photographs also helped me to write OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GRANDMOTHER OF JUNETEENTH. Miss Opal is the Texas Grandmother, who walked across America and encouraged politicians to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Before writing her biography, she shared family photographs with me. In this collection was a portrait of her grandfather, Zach Broadus. He was poised like the finest dignitary. And as I researched his days as a farmer, preacher, and father of 19 children, Papa Zach’s vibrant life, spirited my book with hope, joy, and love. If not destroyed by fire or the elements, I have decided from this experience that photographs contain kernels of life that abide, forever.
Hear me. This is my message. Beyond library books and reference tools, when making writing assignments, teachers should point students toward atypical biographical sources like newspapers, museums, and photographs. These are the three roads that I travel when writing biographies and historical fiction. The meandering routes lead me to discover the bold, brave, and blameless, who are omitted from history books. Encourage your students to travel these unchartered territories. I promise. I swear. There is gold in those hills.
Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board Educator who writes books for children. Memory is her motivation. She writes to help students remember forgotten moments from American History. Her newest titles include Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free and Evicted—The Struggle for the Right to Vote. Free teacher guides for both books can be found at www.alicefayeduncan.com. You can find her on Instagram @alicefayewrites, on Twitter @AliceFa41743636, and on YouTube.
- This giveaway is for three copies of OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GRANDMOTHER OF JUNETEENTH + one 20-minute virtual author visit with Alice Faye Duncan. (One of the three winners of the book will also receive the virtual visit.) Many thanks to HarperCollins Christian Publishing for donating the books and to Alice Faye Duncan for donating her time to one of our readers/commenters.
- For a chance to win a copy of OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GRANDMOTHER OF JUNETEENTH and/or the virtual author visit, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, May 8th at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 12th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
- If you are the winner of the books, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – DUNCAN. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Congratulations to Paulette Simpson whose commenter number was chosen for this post’s giveaway.