I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 by Lauren Tarshis

I Survived the American Revolution, 1776

Reviewed by Hank Bitten

I was introduced to the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis through my ten-year old granddaughter. She had visited the battlefields of Gettysburg with her family and discovered the I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 book in her classroom. Through the characters in this historical fiction book, she began asking probing questions about slavery, the way people lived, freedom, sickness, and President Lincoln. In fact, she wrote her own 16-page book reflecting her perspective about a family who lived in southern Pennsylvania!

This led me to read the I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 and I Survived the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 books. It also motivated me to suggest to the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies to invite Lauren Tarshis to our Fall Conference for K-12 teachers on October 16, 2020 at Rutgers University. These books and the message of Ms. Tarshis is that history is a story and the I Survived books are the stories of ordinary people in the context of significant historical events. The books are recommended for young readers in Grades 3-5 but the story engaged me as a grandfather with a reading age level many years past elementary school.

“There’s so much to be said for sparking interest in history at an early age. Of course, you set the groundwork of facts that students will recall later on as they study American history more deeply, and you begin developing the skills.” https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2010/11/teaching-history-by-telling-stories.html  

It is essential for teachers of young children to introduce their students to history through biographies, fictional characters, and monuments.  Children are fascinated about the stories, photographs, and videos of their family.  They enjoy seeing their parents as young children, learning about vacations, artifacts from their high school years, and the stories of great and greater grandparents.  Through stories, children connect the facts and develop an appetite for exploring the story deeper.

This is also the way many adults are learning. The content available on streaming networks are presented to us in episodes. Adults are learning about the history of kings and queens, heroes in wars, and documentaries relating to biographies and events.  Although some identify following the story through several episodes as binge watching, it is also engagement in history.

The core ideas in social studies education support learning how facts are connected through the concept of continuity and change, the validity of historical information, the perspectives of different people, and developing an argument or thesis.  Social Studies education is also about maps, populations, environments. sickness, battles, medical care, (geography) freedom, liberty, equality, tolerance, justice, human rights, taking a stand, (civics), and food, scarcity, trade, taxes, and the quality of life (economics).

The story of I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 is directly related to several Performance Expectations in the New Jersey Learning Outcomes for Grades 3-5.

6.1.5.HistoryCC.1 Analyze key historical events from the past to explain how they led to the creation of the state of New Jersey and the United States.

6.1.5.HistoryCC.2 Use a variety of sources to illustrate how the American identity has evolved over time.

6.1.5.HistoryCC.3     Use multiple sources to describe how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Governor William Livingston have impacted state and national governments over time.

6.1.5.HistoryUP.5     Compare and contrast historians’ interpretations of important historical ideas, resources and   events.

6.1.5.HistoryUP.6   Evaluate the impact of different interpretations of experiences and events by people with different cultural or individual perspectives.

6.1.5.HistoryCC.14   Compare and contrast the practice of slavery and indentured servitude in Colonial labor  systems.

6.1.5.GeoHE.1      Use a variety of sources from multiple perspectives, including aerial photographs or satellite images to describe how human activity has impacted the physical environment during different periods of time in New Jersey and the United States.

6.1.5.GeoHE.3      Analyze the effects of catastrophic environmental and technological events on human settlements and migration.

The story begins on August 29, 1776, with the battle of Brooklyn Heights but is narrated through events that began seven weeks earlier in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Nate’s mother died when he was only four and he traveled with his father who was captain of a sailing ship. Nate’s father was the victim of an unexpected storm, likely a hurricane or a nor’easter. Nate was orphaned and under the care of his Loyalist uncle and aunt in Connecticut.

Nate (Nathaniel Fox) is introduced to the house slave and son who were the property of his aunt and uncle. Students are introduced to colonial labor systems and the difficult situations that slaves endured.  When an unfortunate incident occurred between Nate and his uncle, he decided to run away.  This is a time for students to explore structured inquiry regarding the choices that young boys had in the 1770s. Although Nate, at age 11, decided to be a stowaway on the Valerie, could he have pursued work on a farm, learned a skill, or attended a school?  Although students should explore a range of choices for a young boy, they will conclude that the life of an orphan was very limited.  Most orphans lacked food, nurturing, and guidance. Students might explore the early life of Alexander Hamilton who was an orphan, the reasons for the untimely death of parents, and the number of children without parents at the time of the American Revolution.

Although Nate’s father had docked his ship in one of the slips along the wharf of Manhattan before, this was several years ago.  Students reading the book will discover a descriptive landscape of hills and trees and the twisting and narrow streets of Old New York. Through the experiences of Nate, they will also experience the difficult and frightening human environment of living in the area of the South Street Seaport in 1776. This is an opportunity to explore paintings and photographs illustrating how communities change over time, the impact of human activities on the environment, and how the occupation of soldiers and war change perspective.

In Chapters 8-11, students are introduced to the preparations for war in a city under siege and the sounds of military weapons. A cognitive understanding of muskets, canons, powder, drummers and Hessians are part of lessons on the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and Battle of Bunker Hill. The narrative of Nate’s experience in I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 provides an emotional understanding of warfare and the dangers of the new military technology in New York City.

My teaching about the desire for liberty and independence, the importance of equality and the pursuit of happiness, was primarily through the documents of Lexington and Concord, Tom Paine’s Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence. These primary sources, and others, led to a discussion with students about our identity as Americans. I was satisfied and taught the next lessons on the battles of the Revolution.

The narrative of Nate’s experience in hearing the Declaration of Independence read for the first time gave me a different idea for teaching this important document.

     “And then came the most shocking news: America wasn’t part of England anymore.  Not really.  Just last week, on July 4, 1776, leaders of the American colonies signed a letter to King George.  It had an important-sounding name: the Declaration of independence.

     Our captain read it to us a few nights ago.  I can’t remember the fancy words, but basically it said that the American colonies are joining together to make a brand-new country, a free country: the United States of America.

     That’s what this war is about. We are fighting for our new country.” (p. 59)

This quote captures the essence of the famous quote by Patrick Henry in 1775, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and the words of Nathaniel Hale, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” It moved me to think of what young Nate was thinking and what he was willing to die for.

The topic sentence in the middle of Chapter 12 forced me to stop and pause in my reading. “But there was something even more dangerous than Hessians, and it was lurking right in the camp. Nate discovered it on a boiling afternoon.” (p. 74) In addition to enabling students to connect a sequence of factual events and analyze different perspectives, stories nurture empathy, build long-term memory and create context in young minds. The visual images of mosquitoes, latrine pits, polluted water, lightning strikes and cloudbursts are vividly described with printed words. Teachers might direct their students to the investigate the decision General Washington made in Morristown, New Jersey in February 1771 to inoculate the soldiers in the Continental Army to stop the spread of this deadly epidemic and win the war.

See the source image

Providing opportunities for students to read historical fiction leads to student inquiry on a variety of topics.  We learn by exploring through internet search engines, visiting museums, interviewing directors at local historical sites, talking with a reference librarian, studying a monument, and analyzing images. For example, in New York City I have taken my students to Clinton Castle, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Alexander Hamilton’s house, West Point, and Federal Hall.  In New Jersey, I have taken my students to Fort Lee, New Bridge, Princeton Battlefield, Washington’s Crossing, Jockey Hollow, Morristown Museum, and the Old Barracks Museum. There are other places for students to explore but these educational trips allowed my students to experience history in their backyards.

By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24702440

Chapters 13-17 describe the battle of Brooklyn! It is carefully researched with a rich bibliography of resources by David McCulloch, Joy Hakim, Ron Chernow and others. What a story!

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