Denver teachers rewrite history -- and their curriculum -- with 13 Colorado biographies

Cat DeRose has lived near Little Raven Street for years, but she has Denver Public Schools' third graders to thank for all that she now knows about its namesake.

And later this month, they'll be able to thank her back. DeRose's 23-page book, Little Raven, Chief of the Southern Arapaho, is one of thirteen that will be added to the district's third-grade social studies materials, so they can learn about the state at their own pace.

The idea itself is three years in the making. That's when a group of district social studies representatives met to brainstorm new ideas for the elementary school curriculum.

"The other teachers and I had been frustrated with the lack of materials available for third graders," says Beth Duncan, gifted and talented specialist and enrichment coordinator at Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment. "There are history buffs talking about all those people, but they're not student-friendly for third graders. It's been a need we've had in Denver Public Schools, and probably across Colorado, for a long time.

"Out of that need came the idea that we could write them ourselves."

The project quickly progressed from there, with its final fruition coming tonight at the Great Lives in Colorado History Series' official launch. In order to counter the students' lack of accessible educational materials, the district convened a group of nine volunteer teachers who, backed by the Colorado History Museum, selected 13 figures from a pool of historical names organizers agreed needed more -- and better -- attention in the classroom.

Funded by a series of grants and helped in large part by the museum and Colorado Humanities, the group found a publisher, Filter Press (appropriately located in Colorado), and used the district's textbook funds to purchase the books.

"The best part was learning more about who Little Raven was and what the impact was for the indigenous people," DeRose says. "First it was, 'You can have this land from Wyoming to New Mexico,' and then it was, 'Oh, oops, we discovered gold.' I think Little Raven saw the writing on the wall, knew it was never going to be fair for his people and just tried to protect them."

The hardest part, then, after months spent in libraries for primary and secondary research, was creating a finished product that is both informative and exciting for a group of people who are still pretty far from tackling Moby Dick. "It was difficult trying to imagine a third grader's world view and try to make it understandable at their level," Duncan says. "Trying to understand what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II is a very complex concept to a third grader."

The thirteen original books are the first in a two-part set that will continue to develop out of what its creators learned during the first round of editing, fact-checking, translation, guaranteeing permission for the images, designing and printing. "Our goal is for there to be a classroom set of 26 and 30 biographies so that each student can choose one and have their own person to focus on and become friends with and learn about throughout the year," says Michelle Delgado, social studies coordinator for the district. "I wish I had these books when I was in school."

Aside from their focus on historical Coloradans, the books serve two additional functions. When flipped over, the books are translated into Spanish to add to the district's limited bilingual social studies resources. During the planning process, the books were strategically organized to include a secondary focus on teaching students the features of nonfiction. Each one includes examples of a table of contents, photo captions, chapter headings, a timeline, a bibliography and a glossary.

"We met every month for the past two years to guarantee that we're making a series that will teach students as much about their state and the canon as possible," Delgado says. "It's an ambitious project, but it's still devoted entirely to the third graders and their way of learning."

Every third-grade social studies classroom in the district now includes one copy of each book and additional sets of those that focus on Ralph Carr and Josephine Roche, who will be the focus of a later program dedicated to the idea of justice. The books have also been purchased by other state districts, the Denver Art Museum and History Colorado, and there is interest from the governor's mansion. At the end of the year, each student will choose a historical figure from the books to read about and dress up as him or her for a large project.

"We had a lot of fun doing the research," Duncan says. "I hope they have just as much fun learning from it."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple