Great Lives in Colorado History: What we learned by channeling our inner third-grader

Last week, DPS launched the Great Lives in Colorado History series. Written by local educators, the thirteen biographies completed so far introduce Coloradans of the past to third-graders of the present. The results are both educational and complete: In the two we borrowed to channel our inner eight-year-olds, we've already learned about divorce, Pearl Harbor and discrimination.

On the first page of Ralph Carr, Defender of Japanese Americans, author Beth Duncan (pen name E.E. Duncan) lays out the realities of both the day that will live in infamy and the aggressively anti-Japanese sentiments the former Colorado governor struggled against. Presented in short, direct sentences for their third-grade audience, the ideas are still a lot to take in.

"America was their home and their country. Because the United States was at war with Japan during World War II, people hated and feared all Japanese people."

The issue comes up, in what has to be a minimum of size 16 font, several times throughout the book's twenty pages of historical plot. At no point, however, is it difficult to understand, though the series' creators also never shy away from the mature realities of events, such as World War II, that add context to the characters in these books.

Lest students remain confused that the country behind the Pledge of Allegiance treated Japanese people pretty abominably, the book's most difficult terms (discrimination, liberty, democracy, immigrants) are highlighted in bold and defined in the back. Discrimination, for example, is defined for the Disney-channel crowd as, "treating others unfairly because of their race or something else about them they cannot change."

And while they might not be offered in bold, similarly overarching ideas are presented with intentional, if perhaps unsubtle, meaning. "Ralph was an excellent student," we're told. "He enjoyed writing, reading, and Latin." And later: "He stood up for what was right, even when it was not popular."

Each book, organized in the style of traditional reference material, includes a timeline, index and bibliography to help third-graders learn about the structure of nonfiction even as they read it. And while the book's agendas are predominantly academic and impressively informative, they don't stop there.

Because of its focus on justice and the ethical (a word defined in the back) implications of decision-making, Ralph Carr's story is one of two selected as required reading for every third-grader beginning in November, when students will actually receive the books. When Carr's wife dies of diabetes, our young readers are confronted with the idea of single parenthood and told that he "was very sad." He marries again in the same paragraph, fortunately, so there is little time to contemplate mortality.

"The hardest part was taking what I learned and putting it into third-grade language that was still interesting and exciting," says Cat DeRose, a teacher librarian at Trevista ECE-8 at Horace Mann. "It's a much more difficult skill than most people realize. You want to limit the vocabulary but still convey more complex ideas for them to learn from."

In Doc Susie, Mountain Doctor, our third-grade friends are introduced to the concept of divorce:

"Susan and John did not know other children who understood what it was like to have parents who were so unhappy that they could not live together anymore. Susan and John became good friends as they faced this sadness together."

They also learn about the inescapable reality of typos: "John, too, was happy get away from Pa's constant disapproval."

"I spent a lot of hours at the Colorado Historical Society in their archives for this project," Duncan says. "It's really exciting when you run across a letter that Carr wrote or a paper that he wrote about citizenship. I was pretty inspired by both of the people I learned about, their strength and their commitments, and I did my best to make sure our third-graders would be, too."

More from our Education archive: "The Mobile Classroom: New nonprofit caters to ill and home-bound students -- for free."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple