A multidisciplinary approach to teaching the novel Blue
By Leslie Bradbury, Rachel Wilson, Eric Groce, Kirby Bell, and Carly Mize
The novel Blue, set in rural North Carolina during World War II, shares the story of one young girl and her family as they navigate the difficulties associated with the polio epidemic of 1944 (Hostetter 2006). Using this compelling young adult novel as a focal point, a group of fifth-grade teachers and university educators created and implemented a series of lessons that combined science, language arts, and social studies activities into a meaningful learning experience for the students. See Supplemental Resources for additional information about the setting of the book and information about polio. The individuals in our group had worked together in various combinations prior to this unit, but we were excited to collaborate to use all of our expertise to develop a truly integrated experience for students. We were familiar with the research that pointed to the benefits of integrated learning experiences for students (Bradbury 2014). Positive outcomes such as increased student achievement in science and language arts (Romance and Vitale 2001) and improved engagement in science learning (Patrick, Mantzicopoulos, and Samarapungavan 2009) motivated us to try something new with a book that was a regular feature in these fifth-grade classrooms.
Over a period of approximately seven weeks, the fifth graders read the novel and participated in science investigations to help them understand the transmission of the disease as well as its impacts on various human body systems. In addition, they engaged in social studies lessons to help them better understand the context of the time in which the novel was set and completed language arts lessons where they were introduced to new vocabulary and examined issues of point of view along with other Common Core English Language Arts Standards. The integrated unit provided an opportunity for the seamless connection of content areas where student understanding in all areas was increased.
The fifth-grade teachers began the unit by conveying a sense of excitement about the upcoming novel study. Each student was presented with a copy of the book in an envelope to build a sense of anticipation about the activities to come. The teachers wanted the students to feel as if the novel was a gift to each student. As a whole class, they engaged in pre-reading activities in which they developed questions based on the cover of the book and the table of contents. They read the prologue and the synopsis on the front cover. Students felt anxious and excited as they learned that the novel was set in an area close to where they lived.
Our team knew that one of the more challenging aspects of using the novel Blue with fifth graders would be the vocabulary and historical knowledge required to understand the setting of the book. The social studies educator involved in the project took the lead on helping students understand the historical context by sharing images from the time period along with memorabilia such as ration books and propaganda posters to help students understand how civilians in the United States experienced the home front during World War II. Additionally, learners were introduced to several of the dominant societal themes during the war years including service, sacrifice, flexibility, and teamwork. Within these themes, students focused on the industrial transformation within the nation as well as the evolving role of women to aid in the war effort. The fifth-grade teachers determined an appropriate pace for reading the chapters and scaffolded the students to understand the vocabulary and other ELA-focused information through activities such as journal writing, opinion writing, and class discussions. One way that the teachers supported all students in understanding the vocabulary was by making PowerPoint slides with images to correspond to the vocabulary words. For example, Wisteria flowers play a prominent role in the book, so the teachers added images of Wisteria to correspond to the definition so that students would have a visual when they came across that word in the text. Additionally, we knew that students would need to understand aspects of disease transmission and human body systems to comprehend what happened to various characters throughout the novel. Exposing the students to multiple representations of contextual information such as photographs and direct experiences as they grappled with understanding across content areas to understand the text was an essential component in our planning. We felt that by providing multiple means for students to engage with the content, they would be able to develop a richer knowledge of the ideas presented in the text. Additionally, we felt more students would be able to access the material and develop an understanding of the content ideas from all three disciplines. Using multiple representations enables students to build more complex mental constructions about ideas, conceptual ideas, particularly those students who are struggling learners (Taylor and Villanueva 2014).
Because it is impossible to detail all of the activities in such a lengthy unit in a short article, we will focus on the science activities that supported student understanding. One of the first science activities occurred during the second week of the unit. At this point, the students had read four chapters of the novel. They had read that the main character’s (Ann Fay), father had left to fight in WWII and that local community events were being cancelled because there had been so many cases of polio diagnosed in their area. After completing these chapters, the fifth graders generated a list of questions they had about polio and shared it with two science educators from a local university. The science educators planned a day to come to the elementary school to facilitate a simulation activity in which the students transferred liquid contents between cups and then were “tested” at the end to see if they had contracted the disease (see Supplemental Resources). Once the simulation was completed, the visitors answered many of the questions about polio that the students had asked. Questions included, “How do you get polio? Do you have polio forever? and Are doctors and scientists working on a cure for polio?” We used the simulation activity to explain the idea of disease transmission and to introduce the concept of a carrier, that someone could be carrying a disease without knowing it, and pass it on to someone else. Like the characters in the story, the fifth graders did not know who was infected with the disease, even though they were interacting with each other. The simulation activity and question answering session took approximately one hour.
Following the visit, the students continued to read additional chapters. We have provided an overview of the timeline of the unit online (see Supplemental Resources). About a week after the first visit, the fifth graders participated in another science lesson where they modeled how the nervous system works using a simulation that involved passing messages to different parts of the body (Corbitt and Carpenter 2006; see Supplemental Resources). This activity took about 20 minutes, and helped the students understand that nerves transmit messages through the body and that when the polio virus attacks nerves it could cause different parts of the body to be affected depending upon which nerves had been impacted. This concept was essential to understanding the novel because even though several characters in the story were diagnosed with polio, they exhibited different symptoms and effects. The modeling of nervous system function helped students understand how that was possible.
Near the end of the unit, the students participated in two more modeling activities. In the first one, the fifth-graders built lung models using plastic bottles, balloons, straws, and tape to help them understand how the lung functioned (see Supplemental Resources). Once the models were complete the students were very excited to pull down on the balloon at the bottom of the model and then watch the balloon inside of the bottle inflate. We asked the students to complete a data collection sheet in which they had to compare the components of their model with a labeled drawing of the lungs. In this way, they were able to recognize that the straw represented the trachea, the balloon represented a lung, and the balloon stretched across the bottom represented the diaphragm. We then showed the students a brief video that demonstrated how the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm caused the rib cage to expand and contract. Once the students understood that the diaphragm was a muscle, they were able to make the connection that if the nerves going to the diaphragm were attacked by the polio virus then a person’s ability to breathe would be impacted. We included this model and additional representations of the lungs because there were references to iron lungs in the book. We shared photos of people in iron lungs with students so that they could understand what the term meant. We found the Smithsonian Museum of American History site to be a useful resource for finding photographs related to the topic (See Online Resources). The fifth graders were fascinated by the idea of iron lungs and how they worked by changing the air pressure surrounding a patient so that air was forced into their lungs. By understanding how actual lungs functioned, they could better understand how the devices helped people to breathe. The modeling activity and sharing of the video and photos took approximately an hour.
Our final modeling activity involved using wooden dowels, PVC pipe, black waterline/poly pipe, balloons, and rubber bands to create a model of the knee (see Supplemental Resources). This model was our most complicated. Sections of PVC pipe, black waterline/poly pipe, and wooden dowels were precut and attached together by parents so they could be ready for the fifth-graders to use in assembling their model. After assembly, students enjoyed making their knee joints move like their own. They completed the knee model data collection sheet by drawing their model and using a diagram of the knee to identify the quadricep muscle, tendons, and bones in their working hinge joint. After their drawing and labeling, we showed students a video of a knee joint moving and students answered questions about how they thought polio might affect the joint. Students realized that similar to the lungs, the nervous system also sends messages to the quadriceps muscle to move the knee joint, and when this connection is severed by the polio virus, people would have a very hard time walking on their own. The fifth graders observed photos from the Smithsonian Museum of American History of children with leg braces and crutches from the World War II era. By understanding how a knee joint functions, the fifth graders could understand how a leg brace would help children with polio to walk. This modeling lesson took approximately one hour to complete.
Our culminating assessment for the unit was to have students create their own pair of “Blue Overalls” while working in small groups. Overalls were chosen because Ann Fay wore them throughout the book. In this assessment, students had to identify three main events, two time period references, and one science understanding to represent through drawing, writing, and symbols. They attached their collected artifacts to a pair of overalls. In some cases, students attached their materials to actual overalls, in other cases, they created overalls out of blue poster paper to serve as the background for their project. This assessment enabled students to share their understanding of content from each discipline in their final product. See Supplemental Resources for complete directions and a scoring rubric for the project.
We gained many valuable insights from implementing this lesson with the fifth-grade students. Each of the teachers involved in the planning brought their own unique area of expertise to the project. Two participants focused on locating appropriate science activities to support student understanding, another brought an extensive knowledge of the historical context of the novel and supporting materials, and two others brought deep understandings of the language arts standards as well as the interests and developmental levels of their students. The combination of our team with many areas of expertise working together to plan lessons and gather resources from multiple content areas made our project feasible and led to a richer experience for students. We would encourage anyone interested in developing an integrated novel study to think carefully about developing a team with different members able to make different contributions.
As we reflected on the integrated unit, there were several factors that we all felt were essential to the project’s success. The fifth-grade teachers believed that helping the students comprehend both the vocabulary and the historical context were critical to helping the students understand and enjoy the novel. There were several activities that were done very early in the novel that helped develop this understanding of the history, while the vocabulary and science modeling were introduced at the time the ideas appeared in the reading.
We all felt the students were engaged and inspired by the integrated unit. In fact, once they finished Blue, the students were adamant that they read the subsequent books in the series. The teachers reported that the students were constantly talking about the book and referring back to the activities even after they were done reading it. They were so excited about the unit that they kept asking the teachers what book they would be reading next. This enthusiasm for reading was fueled by the interdisciplinary nature of the unit where students could see how ideas from multiple content areas intersected to help them understand a fictionalized account of an actual event that occurred in their area.
One of our most rewarding follow-up incidents that let us know that students were truly inspired was when one of the students dressed like the main character of the book, Ann Fay, and went to an event to meet the author. We believe that this integrated experience led our students to a deeper love for literature. The co-teaching experience led students to a rich engagement with the text.
Our work on this project makes us excited to think about the next novel that we might use as a platform for this type of multidisciplinary integrated experience that fuels our creativity as teachers, and our students’ passion for learning.
Lung Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp-gCvW8PRY
Smithsonian Museum of American History Site related to the polio epidemic: https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/historicalphotos/index.htm
Download unit resources at https://bit.ly/3bp0DBJ
Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards: https://bit.ly/3nGG2vq
Since we wrote this article, fifth-grade students reading the novel Blue have had their own personal experience with a global pandemic as SARS-CoV-2 swept the globe. The fifth-grade teachers have reflected on the many ways that the students’ experience have impacted later implementations of the unit. The teachers noted that some of the vocabulary words that used to be new for students at the beginning of the Blue unit—pandemic, quarantine, isolation, virus, and epidemiologist—are now words that the students are already familiar with before they begin the book. The students are now able to relate to the characters’ experiences of not being able to attend school or church because they have had those experiences themselves. The teachers commented that the virus simulation experience that occurs early in the unit is much more powerful for students given their own experiences with Covid. In addition, when students see the image of the polio virus that the teachers share, they are able to notice how similar it looks to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As a group they spend time comparing and contrasting the images. Finally, the students are able to experience a sense of hope as they recognize the role that scientists and doctors play in helping societies address these difficult issues.
Leslie Bradbury (firstname.lastname@example.org), Rachel Wilson, and Eric Groce are professors at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Kirby Bell and Carly Mize are fifth-grade teachers at Green Valley School in Boone.
Bradbury, L.U. 2014. Linking science and language arts: A review of the literature which compares integrated versus non-integrated approaches. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25 (6): 465–488.
Corbitt, C., and M. Carpenter. 2006. The nervous system game. Science and Children 43 (6): 26–29.
Hostetter, J.M. 2006. Blue. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.
Patrick, H., P. Mantzicopoulos, and A. Samarapungavan. 2009. Motivation for learning science in kindergarten: Is there a gender gap and does integrated inquiry and literacy instruction make a difference? Journal of Research in Science Teaching 46 (2): 166–191.
Romance, N.R., and M.R. Vitale. 2001. Implementing an in-depth expanded science model in elementary schools: Multi-year findings, research issues, and policy implications. International Journal of Science Education 23 (4): 373–404.
Taylor, J., and M.G. Villanueva. 2014. The power of multimodal representations. Science and Children 51 (5): 60–65.
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