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5th grade social studies: One president, two picture book biographies, and the concept of theme

Read-alouds with 5th graders are a gift.

There are so many facts and skills and concepts 5th graders are expected to understand that it’s easy for weeks to go by in the library without a read-aloud, especially when you add scheduling conflicts for holidays or school pictures or field trips or testing.

But 5th graders love to hear a good story–who doesn’t?–and the connections and observations they make about the books we read together always impress me.

For example, take our last two weeks together in the library:

5th grade had just started learning about the Civil War in Social Studies, and all of this learning has been enriched exponentially by our 5th grade team’s historical fiction book groups (which Chandler and Camille have been blogging about, too).

So when the 5th grade teachers asked if we could spend some time in the library on the concept of theme, and if we could work on comparing and contrasting two texts in the same genre, I was excited to tie this in to what students had been learning about the Civil War.

Together, we read two excellent–but very different–picture book biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The books sparked tons of connections with students’ prior knowledge, and they also yielded an excellent discussion of theme and comparing stories within a genre.

The first book we read was Abe Lincoln Remembers by Ann Turner:

image from indiebound.org

This biography features beautiful, realistic illustrations and strikingly lyrical text told in first person from Abe’s point of view:

I’d fold up my legs like an umbrella

and sit quiet at the back of the school room,

gulping down learning like water.

The narrative begins with Lincoln’s birth in a log cabin and ends with him looking forward to a happy evening at the theatre with his wife. (Of course, when the story stopped there, students were quick to share with me what would happen to Lincoln on this fateful night.)

Before we read the book together, we discussed the concept of theme, which students had learned about in their classrooms the previous week.

Definitions the students shared included “a lesson you learn from the story,” “the author’s message,” “what the author is trying to tell you,” and “a big idea, like if he kept trying and never gave up then the theme would be determination.”

“If you tell me determination is a theme of the story, how can you prove it?” I asked.

The students knew they needed to provide details from the story to support any theme they suggested.

With that in mind, we read the story together with a shared purpose: determining what themes we could infer and supporting those themes with evidence from the text.

And, let me tell you, these 5th graders definitely get it:

themes suggested by Ms. Thompson’s class

themes suggested by Mrs. Wilcox’s class

I was so impressed by the insight and maturity our 5th graders showed when we read this book, and even by the vocabulary they used. The words abolitionist, liberation, determination, diligence, and humble were entirely their own.

The next week, we followed up this activity with a second picture book biography, Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books by Kay Winters and Nancy Carpenter:

image from indiebound.org

Students immediately noticed differences in this book’s illustrations, which are more colorful and cartoonish, as well as in the book’s language, which is in the third person and more straightforward than poetic:

But all the while he worked, he yearned to learn.

To anyone who’d listen he liked to say,

“The things I want to know are in books.”

I could tell you more about the ways this biography is different from the first one we read, but instead, how about I let our students show you?

Venn diagram by Ms. Thompson’s class

Venn diagram by Mrs. Wilcox’s class

(Okay, so I did give them one piece of vocabulary that you see here–in both classes, the kids could hear the difference between 1st and 3rd person narration, but they weren’t familiar with the terms for that difference. Based on this terminology, they also loved trying to figure out what on earth 2nd person was!)

These 5th grade kids simply blew me away with the level of detail in which they compared the two stories.

They saw that the perspectives and structures were different, understood that many of the themes were the same, and pointed out factual differences between the two books that I hadn’t even noticed myself.

One of the best outcomes of this conversation was that students gained a deeper understanding of why it was significant that the two books about Lincoln were so different from each other.

If you were doing research on Abraham Lincoln, which of these books would you choose?

Our 5th graders, I think, would suggest that you read both.

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2 comments on “5th grade social studies: One president, two picture book biographies, and the concept of theme

  1. LibraryLoriJune
    October 11, 2012

    Thank you for sharing so much detail about this activity! Sounds like you fostered some great discussions – sometimes we just need to get out of the way and let the students do the talking!

    • tanyamhudson
      October 30, 2012

      Thank you for visiting and for the kind comment! The kids were very much excited to share their ideas, and I love doing these kinds of activities and seeing what they come up with. 🙂

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