Where's George?

Primary students learn the value of questioning their social studies book.

The textbook committee at my bilingual elementary school recently adopted a colorful new Spanish-language social studies primer. Gente que conozco is a translation of the Houghton Mifflin text Some People I Know, promoted as an "eclectic" interdisciplinary text -- just my style.

The book is quite beautiful, filled with illustrated real-life stories detailing different cultural experiences: for example, a Cambodian-American family's immigration; a Mexican-American family's holiday traditions; a European-American boy's diverse ancestry; and an African-American family's history of northward migration. The first chapter I turned to -- "¿De dónde vienen los cacahuates?" ("Where Do Peanuts Come From?") -- was a lesson about community interdependence: By what chain of actions did peanut butter wind up in your lunchbox sandwich?

The chapter begins on a white family's peanut farm in Alabama. As I turned the pages, I was curious to see how the story would address the "Father of Peanut Butter" -- and one of my favorite African-American heroes -- George Washington Carver. I skimmed the whole chapter, and, to my astonishment, George was not there!

This puzzling omission, it occurred to me, could be the basis for a lesson in itself. I invited my combined 1st and 2nd grade class to help evaluate the text, using a set of guidelines issued by the Council on Interracial Books for Children.

Critical thinking is difficult to teach, yet it is an important survival skill, especially for children of color, who don't always see themselves positively portrayed. In my bilingual classroom, the common problem of poor translations has taught the children to approach their schoolbooks with some skepticism. Sometimes we come up with our own alternatives to the author's wording. The more students "interact" with a text, the better they can assess its relevance to their own experience.

A good lead-in to critiquing a book's overall content is to emphasize the positive. When I handed out Gente que conozco, I asked the class to tell me what they liked about it. They found pictures throughout the book of people who looked like their friends and family members. "Angela wears a dress just like this when she dances with her folklórico group!" said one girl. Another pointed out that the Navajo weaver's loom resembled the one her own grandmother, in Mexico, used.

The peanut chapter was one of their favorites. They loved the life-size photographs: "Look, I can pretend to pick up this peanut-butter sandwich and eat it!" said one boy.

"Which do you like better -- creamy or crunchy?" I asked the class, enticing them to push beyond the textbook boundaries.

The 10-page peanut lesson is an attractive full-color layout that includes photos and picture-graphs. The photos show "real people" involved in peanut production and consumption: Alabama 2nd grader Josh Wambles and his family harvesting their crop; several laborers working in the peanut-butter processing plant; a young Asian-American woman stocking a grocery store shelf with peanut butter; and an African-American boy making a peanut-butter sandwich.

Although realistic, the photo layout is missing an important element: captions. Only the protagonist, Josh Wambles, is identified in the text by name. Workers and consumers (who include people of color) remain anonymous. These omissions suggest that these people are not important players in the peanut story.

The chapter narrative, we discovered, presents a similar slant. The story refers several times to "Josh's farm" (rather than his family's). Though many people appear in the photos, the text describes only Josh's and his father's actions. After the peanuts are sold, the book tells us, they are processed "by the machines," rather than by the people we see operating the machines.

The authors' decision not to provide any historical context creates the chapter's biggest weakness -- the absence of George Washington Carver. To exclude this great scientist and inventor is to ignore an essential ingredient in the peanut saga and an important contribution by an African American, as well as an outstanding success story.

This was my response, of course -- not the students'. It's my job as teacher to bring my prior experience and knowledge to the lesson, but I wanted their own curiosity to lead the way. "Has anyone ever heard of George Washington Carver?" I asked.

Several students waved their hands. "He was the first president!" one boy said. I explained that Carver may have been named for President Washington, but that he was an African American scientist who … invented peanut butter! They looked back at the peanut lesson -- just as I had earlier -- and couldn't find George. Everyone agreed that we should take a detour to find out more.

From the school library, I borrowed a beautiful book by Aliki called A Weed Is a Flower. In a sweet and simple but thorough style, the author tells and illustrates the story of Carver's life and accomplishments.

The children were spellbound as I read aloud. Aliki writes that little George was born a slave and that he and his mother were stolen from their Missouri plantation home. George, a weak and sickly premature baby, was eventually returned, alone, in the saddlebag of a horse. The orphan managed to survive his misfortune.

As he grew, so did his thirst for knowledge, but this was just after the Civil War, and children of former slaves were not allowed to attend schools with white children. From the age of 12 or 13, George supported himself while he moved from one community to the next, in search of teachers who could answer his challenging questions.

We read and talked about how George grew and developed as a scientist. He hoped to demonstrate that, by abandoning cotton in favor of soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans, African American farmers could become more self-sufficient. His innovations revolutionized agriculture in the South.

It's stunning to consider that George Washington Carver developed more than 300 uses for the peanut! The children were so interested in the challenges he overcame that we searched for more information about this remarkable man.

Our librarian helped us find two biographies of Carver through interlibrary loan. The books were for older readers, so I read aloud chapter by chapter, translating into Spanish as I went. I asked the students to compare the books: How are they illustrated? Which story gives more details?

The children noticed that the stories were slightly different: In George Washington Carver, Agricultural Scientist (by Sam and Beryl Epstein), young Carver walks from Fort Worth to Highland College in Kansas. In The Story of George Washington Carver, author Eva Moore describes George's dismay at boarding a shabby "Jim Crow train car" for the ride from Fort Scott to Highland. I understood that Moore had added detail in order to teach some historical facts, but the children were perplexed.

"How can you tell which one is right?" they wanted to know. "How would you know which book to read?"

Now we were getting somewhere! Comparing information and digging deeper are fundamental research skills. Further, these tough questions reminded me that history texts are not written in a vacuum. The Epsteins' book was written in 1960, Moore's in 1971. The changes in racial attitudes over that decade, I explained to the children, may account for the later book's greater frankness about discrimination. Equipped with a new awareness of the selectivity involved in writing books -- along with a new appreciation for George Washington Carver -- we were ready to return to Gente que conozco.

The activity section at the end of the peanut chapter begins by presenting a map of the United States and asking students to follow the route that peanuts travel from farm to market. We took the prescribed exercise in a different direction.

The students found where George Washington Carver was born (in Missouri around 1860). We traced his wanderings in pursuit of an education. Highland College (in Kansas) rejected Carver because he was black, but he gained admission to Simpson College (in Iowa). He later transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College at Ames, where he earned recognition as a brilliant horticulturalist.

African American educator Booker T. Washington invited Carver to Alabama to set up an agricultural program at the newly founded Tuskegee Institute. The students plotted George's path to Tuskegee, where he lived the rest of his days and conducted his famous peanut research.

The culmination of our journey was a book of our own: The 2nd graders wrote mini-biographies of Carver, using the three library books as resources. The absence of a great African American from our textbook taught us an important lesson about our responsibility as readers. Following George Washington Carver's inquisitive example, we experienced the value of engaging in dialogue -- with a text and with the world.