Monday, March 28, 2016

Michael Shiner: A True American Original

“It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions…”   That’s how Charles Dickens described Washington, D.C., when he visited in 1842.  The only compliment he paid to Washington was the “very pleasant and commodious library in the Capitol.”

In Capital Days, Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of Our Nation’s Capital, Tonya Bolden recounts the history of Washington, D.C., often from the point of view of Michael Shiner, born enslaved but able to secure freedom for himself and his family.  He spent most of his life working at the Washington Navy Yard, keeping a journal that cataloged some of the city’s most important events, including numerous fires, laying the cornerstone for the Washington Monument and the inauguration of 11 presidents.

Bolden is the winner of the 2016 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award.  She is honored for all of her books, including many stories of American history, often from the point of view of African Americans.  Bolden will be honored at an Award Luncheon on April 9 in Washington, D.C., and everyone is invited.  Find the details here. 

Bolden’s books are rich with opportunities for student research and writing.

In addition to Michael Shiner’s journal itself, Capital Days is filled with pictures and stories drawn from original documents. Here is a poster published by the Anti-Slavery Society as part of its campaign to end slavery and slave trading in Washington, D.C. 

·       Ask students to create their own anti-slavery poster.  What would they say or show that might convince legislators to make slavery and slave trading illegal in the nation’s capital?

In 1807, three free black men who could neither read nor write established Bell School near the Washington Navy Yard where they worked. It was the first school for black children in the nation’s capital. 

·       Have one student pretend to be carpenter George Bell while another interviews him. Why did Mr. Bell think it was important to start a school? Who did he expect to attend the school (boys and girls)? What problems or challenges did he encounter in opening the school? Both students can write newspaper articles based on Mr. Bell’s answers.

Read the full quote about Washington from Charles Dickens, where he writes very disparagingly of “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere.”

·       Ask students to write a review of their own city, as if they were writing for Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Reading Michael Shiner’s journal was like having a conversation with him across the dinner table about daily events. In 1861, “they commenced hauling flour from the different warehouses in Washington, D.C., and Georgetown to the Capitol of the United States.”  The Capitol – still under construction – would serve as a bakery, barracks and hospital for Union troops.

·       Ask students to interview a long time resident of their community – perhaps a relative or resident of a retirement community.  Ask about details of a particularly important event in the community or even the nation and turn those details into a narrative description or story.

Capital Days is also an excellent tool to help students learn the importance of good glossaries, thorough footnotes and an index. In her Author’s Note, Bolden calls Shiner a “true American original.”

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