I love the idea of a Living Museum, but I had a few concerns when I was reading over the instructions for this project. The introduction to the project as well as the grading criteria for it specifically explain that the people the students are supposed to choose as their subjects should be American leaders, explorers, inventors, or scientists. However, several of the people you’ve included in your list of suggestions were not, in fact, Americans.
- Jane Goodall [Jane Goodall IS NOT AMERICAN. Maybe you mean Diane Fossey?]
- Marie Curie [WAS NOT AMERICAN. She was Polish, married a French man, and did all of her work in Europe, with the exception of fundraising tours in the US in 1921 and 1929. However, she is constantly used as a token lady scientist on these sorts of lists.]
- Albert Einstein [ALSO NOT AMERICAN, although he did do a lot of work in the US and finally became a US citizen late in life. I’m iffy on this one. He wasn’t born or educated here, so I don’t like the idea of erasing the first half of his life in order to claim him as American.]
- Isaac Newton [Not even remotely American. He died in 1727 and never even set foot in the New World.]
- Christopher Columbus [NOT AMERICAN. As the “discoverer” of America, I suppose he is applicable. However, his contributions and the consequences of his actions are a bit complex for 2nd graders to understand.]
Sylvia has chosen to do her project on Marie Curie, which I have allowed because she was so excited and because it’s inspired her to read the Marie Curie biography I got for her some time ago. Not to mention the fact that there aren’t many other woman scientists who are household names, and it’s really important to me as a parent to make sure that Sylvia is encouraged in her interest in science. I have, however, had to discuss with Sylvia that Marie Curie was not American and try to explain why there seems to be such an obvious error in a list of recommended people for a project on famous Americans. I just wanted to be sure that you were aware of this inconsistency in the project instructions.
My other concern with your list of recommendations was that, while I can see that there is an attempt at diversity, it fails to be truly inclusive while at the same time suggesting a couple of people that I am not sure can be discussed in an age appropriate manner without over-simplifying their stories and glossing over some very ugly facts about American history.
I find Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas both to be quite problematic as people to discuss with very young children unless, of course, you are going to be discussing Columbus’ enslavement of the natives that he found already living in the New World or the importance of Pocahontas’ story as illustrative of (and her story later helping to perpetuate) white European colonialism and forcible assimilation of Native Americans into European culture. Indeed, Pocahontas herself, although already a wife among her people, was captured by the English, converted to Christianity, had her name changed and her previous marriage invalidated so that she could be married to John Rolfe, at which point she was taken back to England and exhibited as an example that Native Americans were educable after all. This all seems a bit heavy for children to understand at age 8.
As far as increasing the inclusiveness of your list, I do have a few suggestions of my own. I would also suggest including writers and artists along with “leaders, explorers, inventors, and scientists” to help account for the fact that, historically, all of the fields that you originally named in the assignment have been heavily dominated by white men. Also, there is no reason to devalue the arts by failing to include them as influential parts of American history.
Here are my suggestions for a more inclusive list:
Isabel Allende - Chilean-American writer
Luis Walter Alvarez - American physicist and inventor
Amy Tan - Writer
Chien-Shiung Wu - Chinese-American physicist
Wilma Mankiller - First female Chief of the Cherokee Nation
Grace Hopper - American computer scientist and Navy officer who helped develop some of the earliest computer programming languages
Madam C. J. Walker - African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist
Maria Mitchell - American astronomer
As I said at the beginning, I think the project is a great idea, and I’m looking forward to helping Sylvia with writing her paragraph about Marie Curie this weekend. Just wanted to let you know my concerns and throw a couple suggestions your way.
Thanks for your time.
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