Wednesday, January 11, 2012

History From Hoover to Roosevelt & Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt from Children Two-Part Activity

For whatever reason, The Great Depression is a time period that is near and dear to my heart. My grandparents lived through The Great Depression. They had their first children during that time, and one of their very first babies almost starved to death. Condensed milk came to his rescue. It is the time period in which my mom's favorite show, The Waltons, is set. It is the time in which a handicapped man became the symbol of strength, determination, and courage. My dad also contracted polio (many years later), but he exhibits some of the same characteristics for which Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is remembered. Physically, he walks with a limp. Character-wise, he always presses on. He never says can't.

Those of us who know what that time period was like from the stories of our grandparents, through books, through movies, through documentaries, through blog posts, etc. have a respect for those people. When economic times are tough, we think of that time period. We think, "They made it through; we can, too." Students need to know about that time period. They need to know the desperateness of the situations of the people of that time. They need to know that kids of the Great Depression longed to be able to eat at all each day, to own any article of clothing at all, etc. They need to know that this time period existed so that they can appreciate today... because it isn't yesterday.

This activity is a two-part activity. The first is a PowerPoint presentation that gives the students a picture of history at that time from the time Hoover was in office to the time Roosevelt was in office. The PowerPoint is only supposed to give the students enough background knowledge to help them understand the letters they are about to read. The second part consists of reading letters from children to Mrs. Roosevelt.

These letters are copies of actual letters to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt from children during the Great Depression. We teachers call this a primary source. Something magical happens when a student gets to hold a primary source. As they (the students) so eloquently put it, "It makes history less boring." The letters to Mrs. Roosevelt range from children asking for used underwear to children asking for bikes and dolls. We know that the requests in these particular letters were never granted. Mrs. Roosevelt was very charitable and she answered a lot of requests, but she was only one person. She couldn't answer them all by herself.

It is a thing of beauty to hear 4th graders saddened and/or angered by the fact that a child didn't have clothes and that the President's wife didn't grant clothes to that child. I do not facilitate these conversations. I give the students questions to answer for each letter, and they are allowed to discuss within their groups. I just walk around and listen. I rarely have to say a word. Students help each other understand what they do not understand. Students talk through how they feel as they answer the questions. I don't have to tell them to; they just do.

The questions sheet used to include a question that said, "Do you think the writer's request should be granted? Why or why not?" for each and every letter. The students inevitably said, "Yes" to every letter. Now, after the students have read all of the letters that they have had time to read (usually about four each), I ask them, "Pretend that you are only able to give one of these kids what they asked for. Of the letters you read, which one would you choose and why?" I always look forward to reading these responses more than any of the others.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. Here is the activity:
  1. Show From Hoover to Roosevelt Powerpoint. The last slides will explain what children will do during the Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt activity.
  2. Randomly give out the Letters to Mrs. Roosevelt letters to students; Give out Letter Questions Sheet (I usually run a copy of this on the front and back so that students have four sets of the questions which is enough for them to respond to four letters).
  3. Explain your expectations for the activity including how much time the students will have to complete the activity (I usually give two history class times for the combination of the PowerPoint and letters activity). You may even want to respond to a letter on the Letter Questions Sheet in front of the class as a model. Depending on your comfort level and your students, you may allow students to complete the activity independently or in groups. If your students can handle working in groups, I recommend it. The students learn a lot from each other. I usually leave extra letters at the front of the room so that students can get a new letter as they finish reading and responding to a letter.  
  4. About twenty minutes before time is up, ask students to answer the following question on another piece of paper: "Pretend that you are only able to give one of these kids what they asked for. Of the letters you read, which one would you choose and why?"
I will post how I make the letters seem more authentic and old in my next post.


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