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Using tradebooks to make your life easier and your students smarter

Long time readers know how much I love maps. I don’t really know for sure when the infatuation started but Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton may have had something to do with it.

I ran across Katy recently for the first time in years as I was sorting through bookshelves containing some old books. For those of you too young to have read Katy and the Big Snow as a child, a quick recap.

Katy is “a brave and untiring tractor” who pushes a bulldozer in the summer and a snowplow in the winter, making it possible for the townspeople of Geoppolis to do their jobs. In this particular story, Katy drives around all over the town – north, south, east, and west – with her snow plow, opening up the town so that citizens could complete a variety of different public and private tasks such as delivery the mail, putting out a fire, and shopping at a grocery store.

It’s a great book for a lot of reasons but one big reason is there’s so much to look at, especially in the margins. I loved that book growing up.

The best part of the book, I’m sure we’ll all agree, is the double page city map towards the beginning of the book. It’s got so many fun little details to explore. Even decades later, I’m still loving the numbered flags that correspond to the locations highlighted around the edges.

And now, years later, I’m seeing the book through a different lens. It’s not just a fun book with an interesting story. It’s also a great way to hook kids into geography and social studies. Using trade books like Katy can help you integrate a wide variety of compelling questions and historical thinking skills into your instruction.

Need a few examples? How about these sample questions from the newly approved Kansas state social studies standards.

  • How does the physical environment, climate, and ecosystems influence the way people live?
  • How does physical and human geography impact my life?
  • What are the responsibilities of land ownership and management?
  • How did American geography impact Confederate secession?
  • Does the government have a duty to help those in need?
  • What is our responsibility to the environment?

These are the kinds of questions we can use to guide our lesson planning and the kinds of questions our kids can use as they create products that demonstrate learning. Using Katy as both a hook activity or even as a primary source document seems like a great way to integrate social studies and ELA.

What might be some social studies skills that could be introduced through the use of Katy?

Elementary examples. A student:

  • observes, explores, and compares human and physical characteristics of the community to create maps.
  • reads maps to analyze change in a community.
  • creates community maps that include title, symbols, legend, compass rose, cardinal directions, grid system, and measurement or scale.
  • draws conclusions and answers geographic questions.

Secondary examples. A student:

  • demonstrates understanding of the relationship between local environment, and human political and economic activity.
  • constructs maps to describe spatial and cultural patterns.
  • uses technology and other representations to explain relationships between geographic and/or political areas.
  • discusses possible reasons for differences between areas with similar environments yet distinctly different cultures.
  • analyzes the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment.

What might it look like in terms of a lesson plan? 

For elementary kids, there would be multiple ways to use Katy directly as part of social studies instruction. You can find four specific activities here but some general ideas could include:

  • Start with basic map reading by looking at the very cool map at the front of the book. Talk about the compass points. Parts of a map. Compare to a map of an actual town or city. Find the numbered flags and connect to the different buildings around the page margins.
  • Demo for your kids by drawing a simple diagram of your school’s neighborhood. Have your kids think about what houses and buildings are in the neighborhood and draw and label them. You can use paper and colored pencils for this but don’t forget tech tools like Google My Maps and the National Geographic MapMaker for this.
  • Lead a conversation around the different community services listed and described in the book. Are there some public services that are more “essential” than others? Should Katy have snow plowed certain areas of town first? Why?

The point of all this Katy stuff is pretty simple. Trade books, both fiction and non-fiction, are things that we need to use as part of our social studies instruction. So as an elementary teacher, you should also be sure to use the following two books literally cover to cover full of lessons:

Where can you find great trade books? Start with the NCSS Notable Trade Books for Young People. It’s a list that NCSS vetted classroom teachers create every year highlighting newly published books aligned to and supporting social studies content and process. The list provides a way for K-8 teachers, and even high school teachers, to find fiction and non-fiction resources that fit whatever you’re teaching.

And it’s free. With a new list every year. Going back all the way back to the turn of the century. Thousands of books. All aligned to social studies instruction. If you’re not already Googling it, what are you waiting for? Better yet, just follow this link.

You can also use this quick post about using trade books to get some ideas for supporting historical thinking.

For you secondary teachers out there, Katy could be a different and engaging way to introduce similar geographic and history concepts and content. It seems like a perfect way to start a conversation focused on a more grade level specific book like The Republic of Nature.

And I can hear a few of you middle and high school teachers:

We don’t have enough time as it is. Using trade books, or picture books, or historical fiction takes away from covering content.

Jennifer Sniadecki and Jason DeHart would disagree. Authors of MiddleWeb’s Picture Books Set the Stage for MS Learning, Jennifer and Jason suggest:

To put it simply, picture books do much work in minimal time, and can convey ideas that may otherwise be left out as we rush to the next class period. Moreover, these books fit neatly at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson.

You can get a couple of other perspectives on using trade books at Why and How I Teach With Historical Fiction and Using Trade Books to Teach Middle Level Social Studies. Both provide research, rationale, and examples.

Another example of a primary level book that can be used to introduce secondary level content is titled Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights. It’s perfect for helping you introduce the ideas and vocabulary of civic action through an engaging alphabet book format.

From “Assemble. Take action. Create allies,” to the final page “Be zealous,” your kids are encouraged to explore complex ideas. Think about the conversations and possible activities that could happen in your classroom with:

  • Educate. Encourage. Endure.
  • Be fearless. Fly a flag. File a lawsuit. Have faith.
  • Inquire. Inform. Imagine. Invite.
  • Ask questions. Never quit. Quietly do what’s right.

The book’s author, Andrea S. Libresco, shares that some of her favorites are those that “juxtapose seemingly contrasting activities:”

  • Stand up. Speak out. Sit down. Sing loud. Be silent.

Think of the academic discomfort, and the resulting discussions, that students may experience as they dig into the meaning of these different activities. Are some activities “better” than others? Do different people engage in different activities?

Are some more effective in different places and times? What activities are being used right now?

Libresco suggests using the book as a catalyst for further research by students to help them grapple with what it means to be civically engaged and to help them find ways to get into what Congressman John Lewis calls “good trouble.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? Our job as social studies teachers is to train our kids to change the world.

I also ran across a number of book lists that provide some more options:

  • The Bank Street Children’s Book Committee, the Bank Street College Library, and the School Library Journal got together and developed this list intended to be a starting place to help you create a supportive space to explore a variety of issues and help promote an inclusive, democratic, and just society.
  • Where to Find Diverse Books by a group called We Need Diverse Books.
  • The group Social Justice Books curated more than 50 lists of multicultural and social justice books in a variety of topics for children, young adults, and educators.
  • The Anti-Defamation League says that “Books matter. Books have the potential to create lasting impressions. They have the power to instill empathy, affirm children’s sense of self, teach about others, transport to new places and inspire actions on behalf of social justice.” Use this searchable list.

The Library of Congress has a great sampling of suggested books that spark the imagination and transport readers to new and exciting places. They’ve also provide links to matching online LOC resources.

The American Library Association is an obvious place to find all sorts of book lists:

Need a list of Best Books for Every Year of School? Perfect for finding books by grade level.

How about 19 New Books That Aren’t on High School Reading Lists But Should Be?

And definitely don’t forget graphic novels and comics:

A cool thing that we haven’t talked about? Using trade books and fiction is doable whether you’re face to face this fall or in some sort of hybrid model of instruction. The conversations could happen in Zoom or Google Meet. Digital handouts could be sent out prior to virtual discussions.

I like the idea of copying a few pages of a trade book, pasting them onto individual Google Slides out of order, and then sharing a copy of the slides to each kid via Google Cardboard. They are asked to re-arrange the slides into the correct order and add a slide explaining their thinking. Or they can predict what comes next and how the story might end.

When we start to think about different ways to integrate social studies and ELA, about different ways to teach history using content that may not seem like a perfect fit, we open ourselves up to a huge range of possible lessons and activities.

And if some of those involve maps? That’s just extra icing on the cake.



3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Awesome post Glen!!

    Cyndi Kuhn
    College of Education, Kansas State University

    July 9, 2020
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the quick comment – great hearing from you! Hope things are going well there in Manhattan.


      July 9, 2020

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