Do you know Mary Walker from Union Springs, Alabama? She is America’s oldest student because she did not learn to read, write, and perform basic math until she was 116 years of age. Let me take a moment to introduce you to a former slave who proved a person can achieve great things regardless of his/her beginnings.
Mary Walker was born in 1848 and into enslavement. She was not allowed to learn to read or write. Then at the age of 15 in 1863 with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation she was set free with her family. Yes, her family was free but without the skill set needed to understand written and financial transactions. The jobs available were sharecropping, house keeping, and so forth. She worked hard at a young age to contribute financially to her family even though it was only change she desired to help. Mary married at the age of 20 and continued in jobs such as cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and even sold sandwiches to raise money for her church. It is at this church she received her precious Bible that she hoped to read one day. Mary moved to Chattanooga at the age of 69 in 1917. She raised a family never knowing how to read or write, but she dreamed to be free one day. Finally, at the age of 114 she enrolled in classes and by 116 years of age she could read, write, and do basic math. Mary stated, “You’re never to old to learn.” At her death in 1969 at the age of 121, she was known to be the last surviving former slave. Before her death, she received various awards and was recognize by two U.S. Presidents and Canada.
This is by far my favorite mentor text to use to center a weeks worth of lessons around. The ELA, writing, and social studies standards are numerous in The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Hubbard and illustrated by Oge Mora. Also, outside of the standards students can learn about perseverance, overcoming great obstacles, and never giving up on your dreams regardless of circumstances.
As I read this book, I introduce the concept of enslavement in the south and the Civil War to build background knowledge. I discuss the Emancipation Proclamation, also. As a class, we discuss the effects of growing up during enslavement and how this impacted Mary Walker’s life (cause and effect). I am careful and sensitive with my language while teaching about this time period to young elementary students. I have found my students are excited and interested to learn the history of the United States. As we progress through the book and various lessons it is undeniable that enslavement, the denial of civil rights and segregation had a profound effect of Mary Walker’s life, but she persisted and over came many obstacles to learn to read. Side note, when Mary was interviewed about her life in the 1960’s she was still hesitate to speak out because of “the Klux”.
This lesson could be interpreted by many as CRT and be frowned upon in an elementary classroom or any school setting. Slave owners were white in the United States and regardless of personal feelings this is a fact. The laws in place during this time period kept Mary Walker and her siblings from learning to read and write. Is this Critical Race Theory or a factual recollection of the history of America?
Until next time….Dandelion Dreams
Never stop reading. learning. and questioning