By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
Back to school. Back to basics. And the most important bedrock for all of us this school year is remembering what it means to be American.
Already in 2017: We are heartbroken at the deadly turmoil in our streets over the very meaning of our collective history; we are fearful once again at the potential of nuclear war made possible by the lingering scars of our 20th century history; and we all are digging deep in response to catastrophic natural disasters in a compassionate, nationwide outreach that we like to think reflects our true American spirit. Our history shapes our hopes and fears every day in this turbulent year. But it is also becoming obvious in 2017 that we have lost our collective clarity about our past.
Add to all of that our raging national debate about immigrants, refugees and other newcomers from countries around the world. We are a nation of immigrants, yet millions seem to be forgetting that their own ancestors began to make America their home by learning the basics of our history.
Enter Kathleen Gripman and her brilliant idea for an American history that everyone can read—even newcomers to this country who are just starting to learn English. It’s called American History Made Easy and is available in both print and e-editions.
KATHLEEN GRIPMAN’S INNOVATIVE IDEA
“For many years, my professional specialty has been helping people who are new to this country to learn English. I work with international students, professionals who are coming to work with American companies—a whole range of adults who are moving here to make a contribution to our country. And, while I’m a professional providing a service of English as a Second Language, I care about these men and women and I was so frustrated to discover that one subject was a stumbling block: American history,” says Kathleen Gripman, an ESL expert who runs programs in communities west of Detroit.
“Most of these men and women wind up taking tests of some kind for everything from entering college and the U.S. citizenship process to earning various kinds of certification. And, a lot of that testing includes questions about American history,” Gripman explains.
But that testing posed a big problem!
“The old approach to teaching ESL students about our history was to give these men and women long lists of facts to memorize,” Gripman says. “The available textbooks about American history are up around an 8th grade reading level, or higher. Even with solid ESL classes helping them, these people new to our country might have reached a 4th grade reading level by the time they are trying to learn about our history. The result? Teachers would tell them to memorize a bunch of dates and names and facts if they hoped to pass the tests they were facing.
“That doesn’t teach people anything meaningful about our history. Memorizing random facts to pass a test gives them no context, no understanding of how America developed through the centuries.”
Gripman knows what she’s talking about. As a veteran ESL educator, she began with the typical work-arounds for introducing adult ESL students to American history. Because standard history textbooks are at a higher reading level, teachers would pass out simplified fact sheets. Gripman refused to do that. Instead, to provide more meaningful context, she began “to toggle together material from multiple books to give students some helpful context.”
That innovative strategy led to a huge project: Gripman researched the range of American history questions included on the varied tests that ESL learners aspire to pass. That helped her to build a detailed outline of the many chapters—from the colonial era to this new millennium—that students would need to understand. Then, she began to write her own history book, gleaning information from dozens of existing texts and other resources. Finally to lock in the details these new readers would be discovering in her book, she decided to add black-and-white illustrations.
That notion of illustrated text is as old as Gutenberg and as popular as the red-hot trend toward graphic novels today. Along the way, educators had learned a lot about the best illustrations to help retain information. “And, looking at the research on this, I found that simple black-and-white drawings would have the greatest impact, if we included them throughout the book,” Gripman said.
BENEFITS IN OUR COMMUNITIES
The result is American History Made Easy. The book can be used either in a classroom or for self-study. Between the covers, Gripman narrates the essential chapters of American history, written at an intermediate reading level.
Most importantly, Gripman decided not to distill America’s story into a series of dry facts to be memorized. “It’s so important to tell the story in a narrative style. That’s how we get the context, how we develop a real understanding of what happened,” Gripman said. “So, this book is easy to read and flows right along. I developed it for ESL students, but the book also could be enjoyed by anyone who wants an overview of the essentials of our history.”
There are other benefits in spreading the news of this book. One important example: School districts with a significant number of ESL students in middle and high school could get a real boost by adding this text to help struggling students.
“These ESL students tend to do very well in many subjects. Their parents can help them with math and science at home, whatever the family’s overall ability with English might be at that point. But when it comes to American history? Parents have no background at all. They can’t help their kids. So these students tend to do poorly on those portions of standardized testing,” Gripman said. “That’s another very practical benefit of this book. If a school has a significant number of ESL students who are dragging down scores on this portion of testing, getting them this kind of book can help bring up those scores. I could see this making a real impact in some school districts.”
And, as we say each week at ReadTheSpirit: Please, help spread the word.
Want to do a good deed this week?
Share this story about American History Made Easy with friends on social media. Order a copy of the book. Recommend it to a teacher, community leader, recent immigrant or social worker you know. Give it to a friend who isn’t much of a “reader” because of challenges with literacy. In 2017, ReadTheSpirit is determined to offer specific suggestions of small acts we each can take to help knit our nation back together again. This is one of those calls to action!