History, literature, and economics in the middle school classroom

Her face with the bright smile and gentle eyes floated before my mind's eye. Her soft, lilting voice spoke in my mind's ear. Her words, the tale of her 90-minute walk to make the 7 a.m. school bell each morning, played over and over in my imagination. While reading Beverly Naidoo's novel Journey to Jo'burg: A South African Story , memories of my brief encounter with this young Zulu girl resurfaced. With each new chapter I read, I relived my experiences of August 7, 2009, at Siphambano Primary School in the Mtubatuba area of Kwazulu-Natal Province, South Africa (the heart of Zululand). I had the good fortune to visit this school on a study tour sponsored by the Council for Economic Education.

Journey to Jo'burg, set in apartheid-era South Africa, begins as Naledi and Tiro's baby sister is burning with fever. Naledi fears the little girl will be the next to die in her village. Naledi and Tiro set out on a journey over hundreds of kilometers to bring their mother, Mma, back from Johannesburg, where she works as a maid. Mma is in Johannesburg because the jobs are more plentiful, and she must earn enough to pay for her family's food, clothing, and—most importantly to Mma—education.

As I read about Naledi and Tiro's first-ever trip outside of their rural village, and the night they spend in a house in Soweto, I conjured vivid images of the locales they visited. When I was in South Africa with colleagues, we traveled through a dramatically different nation from the one portrayed in this novel. However, as I read the chapter when Grace, Naledi and Tiro's newfound friend, tells them the story of the Soweto uprising in 1976, I flashed back to our tour of the site of the protest and the Hector Pieterson Museum. This museum, named for the 12-year-old boy who was the first student shot by police on June 16, 1976, commemorates those who died at the uprising, as well as the events leading up to it.

Naledi's journey is an epiphany:

All of a sudden, lying there in the dark, it became so clear to Naledi. It wasn't just their schools they were talking about. It was her school, too. All those lessons on writing letters…for jobs as servants…always writing how good they were at cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening…always ending with "Yours obediently."

Naledi had never thought about it before tonight, but never, never, had she written about wanting to be…say a doctor. Yes, that's what she'd like to be. Imagine how useful it would be if she became a doctor, especially in their own village (p. 72).

In an unexpected twist of fate, one of my fellow educators on the South African study tour, Kris Bertelsen, also ended up working for the Federal Reserve System. Since 2011, Kris has worked as the St. Louis Fed's economic education specialist in Little Rock. In keeping with St. Louis's strategy of using children's literature to teach economic concepts, he has written an engaging, comprehensive lesson  to accompany Naidoo's novel. This middle grades-specific lesson is tied to national standards in world history and economics as well as some of the new Common Core State Standards. With this lesson, students will learn about human capital, analyze the impact of apartheid on the development of human capital, and apply their mathematical skills in answering questions related to educational attainment and their income-earning potential.

The St. Louis Fed's economics education team has created several additional lessons based on books and geared toward the middle school grades:

  • Exploring the concept of human capital. Jean Craighead George's book My Side of the Mountain   and Matt Christopher's book On the Court with…Michael Jordan   provide a springboard for these engaging lessons.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods can help you teach this lesson   about the factors of production and production functions.
  • Students assemble rail lines as part of this lesson after reading Ten Mile Day by Mary Ann Fraser. Fraser's story about the building of the transcontinental railroad provides an opportunity to teach students about competition and the role that incentives and division of labor play in increasing productivity.

Most of these lessons also have SMART interactive whiteboard activities. I encourage you to check out the St. Louis Federal Reserve education website to discover many additional resources for use with middle grade students.

By Amy Hennessy, economic and financial education specialist, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
February 14, 2012