slice of life: linking the past to present reading skills

Today our class tackled primary resource reading. Kathleen Tolan style. Years ago, I had the opportunity to learn with Kathleen at TCRWP. She is one of those teachers who leaves an indelible mark on you.  Her unrelenting commitment to students and their ability to learn complicated things.  Her energy was inspirational. Kathleen was someone you wanted to approximate.

Our class has been researching the California Gold Rush as a part of a unit on reading history. Today our class studied primary documents from for the first time. Their background knowledge from reading a field trip to the Wells Fargo Museum gave them some prior understanding.

We looked at this picture as a whole class.


I notice a ship.
It looks like the man is waving at the ship.
Maybe he’s the captain.
I think Randolph M. Cooley wrote this.
Where’s 88 Wall Street.
We should Google it.
Maybe the man waving is Henry Barber.
It’s a Clipper Ship.
Maybe it is taking gold back that they found.
I notice the miners.
It’s really close to the ocean.
But the gold mines were 150 miles away.
Maybe they wanted it to look like they could just get off the boat and get gold.
Maybe they wanted to make lots of people come.

I love the mixture of historical knowledge they synthesized–how far away the goldfields really were from the ocean — mixed in with their ways to solve a question–Google an unknown location. Absolutely perfect fourth-grade thinking.

From this whole group study, I sent teams of 3-4 students on a primary research inquiry. They rotated through the documents leaving their comments behind. The one below was met with wonderings.


Are they brothers?
Taking a break from mining?
What are they talking about?
Are they finding a place to mine?
Is one the boss?

The next cartoon really puzzled them.


Why doesn’t he buy food if he has so much gold?
Is it fake gold?
Maybe he’s homeless.
How is he starving if he has pure gold?
It’s fake!
Maybe it’s fake to fool peeps.

That last comment evoked conversation:
“Look at the title it says to raise prices, to ruin fools. Maybe things were so expensive you couldn’t get anything to eat.”
“Maybe this was in a newspaper to warn people.

To find these images, I did a quick search on Gold Rush images. The cartoons of the time were fascinating. This last one is so simple yet provocative.

It always amazes me who sees what in this kind of work. Interestingly my crazy-for-graphic-novels kiddo made put the text and the picture together.
Not surprising.
The wonders of the past and present collide.