Can Student Research Uncover a Newbery Error?

One of the best parts of being the reading teacher at a project-based charter school is the opportunity to use books to introduce, support, and enhance content area learning. We’ve used Number the Stars by Lois Lowry to build background knowledge about German occupation during World War II. I’ve read aloud Gary Paulsen’s Woods Runner while our fifth graders study the Revolutionary War. And Lois Ruby’s Steal Away Home teaches more about the repercussions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Underground Railroad than any textbook I’ve found.

Using Hope Was Here, the Newbery Honor winning novel by Joan Bauer, to study local Wisconsin government began simply as another one of those projects, but the end result far exceeded anything we teachers expected. The project was enjoyable, engaging, rewarding … and terrifying.

Hope Was Here is set in the fictional town of Mulhoney, Wisconsin. A typical Wisconsin small town, Mulhoney is located halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, has five thousand residents, and is home to the Real Fresh Dairy. Hope, the main character, and her aunt move to Mulhoney to work for G. T. Stoop in his restaurant, the Welcome Stairways. Soon after their arrival, G. T. announces his candidacy for mayor.

My role with the project was to read Hope Was Here aloud to the fourth and fifth graders and lead daily discussions about the political topics presented in each chapter. The classroom teacher then guided students in additional research about local governments in Wisconsin to complete their projects.

The project concluded with a classroom visit from our local mayor who mentioned her election in the spring several times. Students, however, remembered that the mayoral election in Hope Was Here occurred in the fall. Do some mayoral elections happen in spring and some in the fall, students wondered? Which ones? Why? There we were, at the end of the project (or so we thought), yet facing additional questions.

Education is enjoyable when books are used to support content areas. Education is engaging when books lead students to generate additional questions. Education is rewarding when students locate resources and independently discover answers to their own questions.

Wanting to know more about mayoral elections, students dove right into the Wisconsin State Statutes. Finding them slightly above our independent reading levels, we decided to email our question to the state. We soon heard back from a representative of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board who explained that spring elections in Wisconsin are nonpartisan elections. All local village, town, and city elections, including mayor, are nonpartisan elections, and therefore occur the spring.

But in Hope Was Here, set in small town Wisconsin, the mayoral election between G. T. Stoop and Eli Millstone occurs in the fall.

Yes, education is enjoyable, engaging, and rewarding, but what if your students uncover a mistake an oversight in a Newbery Honor winning book and ask you, their fearless (?) teacher, to contact the author? That’s when education becomes terrifying.

Yet I dutifully did as the students asked. Finding a contact link at Joan Bauer’s website, I composed an email as carefully worded as possible, hesitated, then clicked send. We waited a week, but received a warm and gracious response from the author herself. She began by saying that she liked how our class had dug so deeply into her book, but quickly came around to answering our election question.

“And, I must tell you, that I didn’t know about the spring mayoral elections in Wisconsin. I did a great deal of research about local politics, but I missed that one. Thank you so much for letting me know.”
She thanked us for letting her know about the election. She. Thanked. Us. We were floored, to say the least. After explaining how she needed Hope to not be in school so readers could really get to know her, she continued:

“It would have been quite a challenge to change [the election] to spring. But all of this is fascinating to think about.”
Do you know what an email like this can do to a room full of nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds? Teachers, you can imagine. These students just learned that research can uncover information even an author missed. They asked a question and successfully found the answer. Maybe most significantly, they experienced the incredible feeling that comes when an important somebody takes the time to acknowledge and validate a child’s efforts.

We quickly wrote an email thanking her for her time and asking if we could share her emails. The mayor and the representative from the Government Accountability Board were curious to hear her response. She quickly wrote back, saying:

“Please share this response — I think it’s wonderful that your mayor and other government officials are interested. It just makes me realize how right it was for me to put Hope and Addie in Wisconsin.”
Score one for the Dairy State! Add two for student research. And throw in a bunch more for gracious authors who not only give students and teachers great books, but who also take the time to acknowledge and encourage the hard work and dedication of children.

For more information about our story:
Hope Was Here: A Story Introduction
Hope Was Here: Our Conversation with the State of Wisconsin
Hope Was Here: Our Conversation with Joan Bauer

Brian Wilhorn

Brian is a grade 5/6 classroom teacher and reading teacher in central Wisconsin. He is @HelpReaders on Twitter and writes at Help Readers Love Reading.