Brooklyn Connections is the education division of the Brooklyn Collection where we focus on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula.
This post's author, Rachel Chapman, is a former science teacher and current school librarian at the George Westinghouse Educational Campus in downtown Brooklyn serving grades 6 through 12 where she enjoys engaging students in reading and research. Rachel received her Masters of Science in Library and Information Science (MSLIS) from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She brings over a decade of public education experience, has been a Brooklyn Connections partner teacher since 2018 and is currently advising Brooklyn Connections as a STEM Curriculum Consultant.
Archival research is a great way to engage your students in the context and real-world application of your curriculum or classroom lessons. The Brooklyn Collection has a plethora of images, articles, and ephemera that would complement a number of lessons and core texts across all content areas. Although my day job is as a public school librarian in Downtown Brooklyn, I was lucky enough to dive into the research this summer to help create more connections for future projects and am excited to be a “guest blogger” this month!
Fiction helps us develop questions for research.
A few weeks ago, Jen Hoyer from Brooklyn Connections joined me to share some books set in Brooklyn for a video series I do as a school librarian called “What to Read This Weekend.” I wanted to use a few of these books to focus on ways in which you could use fiction texts to develop research questions using the (digital) archival resources available through the Brooklyn Collection. Many of these novels connect directly with Primary Source Packets created by the talented folks at Brooklyn Connections, and I can’t recommend their partnerships enough, especially in helping our students become skillful researchers and ethical users of information during this ever-evolving digital age.
We can read fiction not to escape, but to feel at home.
Whether it’s investigating pictures of the neighborhood or researching the political and social movements that were occuring at the time period of the novel, archival materials will enrich the experience of the text for your students and allow them to see how their neighborhood and their community fit into history. (Alternatively, portions of these texts could supplement your Brooklyn Connections project curriculum!)
Here are a few Brooklyn-based suggestions:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a classic semi-autobiographical story of Francie Nolan who grows up in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. The Nolan family lived on Lorimer Street and much of the book is her adventuring around the neighborhood: Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg, and Scholes (“beautiful names for ugly streets,” as Francie says), riding the subway train across the Williamsburg Bridge, noting the smells of Newtown Creek (Francie “was proud of that smell. It let her know that nearby was a waterway, which, dirty though it was, joined a river that flowed out to sea”), and of course, visiting the Leonard branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn centers life in East Williamsburg in a different time, but one that is captured so well in the archives of the Brooklyn Collection. Supplement this text with a study on Newtown Creek, an investigation into the history of the Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods, or research on the Brooklyn Public Library branches.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a historical novel written for adults, explores the coming of age of a young woman, Anna, who, at 19 years old in 1942, begins working an uninteresting job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard meticulously measuring tiny hardware parts for Navy ships. This book explores the role women played during World War II, filling jobs men vacated when they left for the front. The role Anna really wants is that of a Navy diver, and she pleads with the lieutenant to let her attempt diving. The book starts with and flashes backward to Anna’s childhood and her relationships with her mother, her disabled sister, and the mysterious death of her father.
The images below took me back to the excellently researched novel, and although fiction, made me feel like I was also there along with Anna in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942. Although this is a book geared towards adults, portions of the text could be used to supplement lessons on the Brooklyn Navy Yard or specifically, the role of women at the Navy Yard during World War II.
PS. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia is the second in a middle-grade trilogy of three Brooklyn sisters growing up in Bed-Stuy in the 1960s with their father. In the first book, One Crazy Summer, the girls spend time with their mother and her Black Panther friends in Oakland, California. In this second book, the girls are navigating life back in Brooklyn and their father’s new love interest as the world is changing around them. The book explores what it means to be eleven years old living on Herkimer Street, longing to see the Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden, looking up to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and sharing a home with their uncle, who is struggling after his return from the Vietnam War. Delphine, the oldest sister, even dives into some library research and has goals of reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
This book would be an excellent pairing to discuss social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement as well as electoral politics and women in Brooklyn (including Shirley Chisholm, pictured below in 1970). Additionally, looking at the Fire Insurance Maps Online (FIMo) along with research into Herkimer Street in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood where the book takes place will help young people realize the historical significance of their own neighborhood.
Let Me Hear A Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson is a young adult novel set in and around the Brevoort homes in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the late 1990s. Told in the unique perspectives of three teens who are set on memorializing their murdered friend through his music by pretending he is still alive while simultaneously trying to figure out the circumstances of his death. The novel is part mystery and part historical fiction as it explores the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late 1990s, following the death of local hip-hop legend, Biggie Smalls.
Supplement this novel with the collection of images taken by Jamel Shabazz in the 1990s in the digital collection (including the one below featuring an advertisement “Love Yourself Stop the Violence”) or the history of the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood (maybe including the Brevoort homes from their architectural rendering in the 1950s to the present).
Pride by Ibi Zoboi is a young adult retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Set in modern day Bushwick, Brooklyn, Zuri Benitez, an Afro-Latina teen is trying to save her rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood from the likes of the wealthy Darcy family, who move in next door and totally gut their brownstone.
My students have all loved this novel, as so many of them can identify with changes they are witnessing in themselves as they begin their college application process like Zuri as well as the changes taking place in their neighborhoods. This novel tackles racism, classism, and gentrification in a way that is accessible to young people and a great introduction to teaching gentrification and redlining and how it has changed our city and others around the country.
This is not an exhaustive list of recommended books set in Brooklyn -- there are many other great books to supplement the Brooklyn Connections curriculum. So whether you are using primary sources to supplement your core texts, engaging your students in neighborhood research, or reading fiction to find a sense of “home” within the community of Brooklyn, the resources at the Brooklyn Collection and the education staff at Brooklyn Connections are invaluable in helping your students learn to be skillful researchers.
Don’t know where to start? Reach out to Brooklyn Connections or ask your school librarian! We love to help students, staff, and families with research.
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