Subscribe to The Horn Book

Applying Martin’s big words

Martin's Big Words With the advent of the Common Core I have worked tirelessly this year to reboot my nonfiction units from something that was once a simple overview of headings, captions, and text features to an integrated understanding and application of nonfiction texts. I feel often, however, that I have come up short, particularly in asking my students to compare texts. Yet this past week I think I may have reached the level of critical thinking among students that the Common Core calls for, thanks to authors Doreen Rappaport and Deborah Wiles.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my first grade class has been conducting a close reading of Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words in conjunction with Wiles’s Freedom Summer.

My students had acquired a foundational knowledge of King via their “Social Justice” class; however, the illustrations and power of Rappaport’s work brought King’s famous speech to life. Rappaport’s text provides ample opportunities for students to dissect and truly analyze King’s dreams and thoughts.

Freedom SummerMartin’s Big Words, however, became overwhelmingly more concrete and powerful for students through a comparison with Wiles’s Freedom Summer. Focused on the friendship of young Joe and John Henry, this story is a subtle, yet powerful, look at race relations in American history. The young narrator’s point of view coupled with the text’s simple storyline makes this an easily accessible book for younger readers and lends itself to a class discussion on fairness, friendship, and Civil Rights.

In tracking the varying experience of Joe, a white boy, and John Henry, his black best friend, students were able to identify specific instances of racial injustice. Through this textual analysis, students seemed to truly experience what King was fighting for in his Big Words.

The combination of these texts and what students were able to notice was truly remarkable. I’d recommend this textual pairing to anyone in search of a thoughtful analysis of the 1960s.


Check out the Horn Book’s list of 25 more recommended books for suitable for Black History Month — and year ’round — here.

Whitney Raser About Whitney Raser

Whitney Raser is an ELA Curriculum Specialist at KIPP Academy Boston—a charter school in Mattapan, Massachusetts. She is particularly interested in the acquisition of language and literacy in early childhood settings, specifically those located in lower-income environments and special education settings.



  1. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks, Whitney! Here’s a question for all the teachers out there: what book pairings have you found that work well?

  2. Wonderful work here for sure! This extraordinary picture book will remain relevant for many a generation, and it’s one that has culled emotional responses from many youngsters wanting to learn about this great man. I remain convinced it’s the most artistically exquisite of all the MLK books, though coming from Brian Collier, that’s a given.

    In response to Lolly’s query, and I am assuming you are asking us to leave the MLK box here, I have always found that theme related pairings work exceptionally well, in addition to some obvious groups like the Pinkney and Spier versions of NOAH’S ARK and the Zelinsky and Hyman renditions of RAPUNZEL to name just a few.

    THE MATCHBOX DIARY and the sublime PEPPE THE LAMPLIGHTER work quite well together, and for some wordless mayhem I have always paired Bang’s THE GREY LADY AND THE STRAWBERRY SNATCHER with THE RED BOOK.

    Wonderful post.

  3. Teddy Kokoros says:

    Interesting article. I like the idea of pairing the books to give context. I am curious as to how Whitney’s classroom and others who have read Martin’s Big Words have handled the part of the book when MLK is assassinated. When I did an internship 10 years ago in a Kindergarten I actually skipped over that part because I was worried children would not be able to handle it and regretted the choice after. Since I have become full time teacher I no longer gloss over his assassination and have found it sparks a lot of lively and thoughtful discussion among the Pre-K children about violence, guns, and death. I usually email the parents before hand to let them know we will discuss MLK including the fact he was assassinated before hand to see if they have any concerns or reservations about discussing those topics. There have rarely been cases when there were concerns we could not address with the parents but in a couple instances parents strongly did not want third children to lose their innocence by hearing the full story so we gave the children an alternative activity to do during that time.

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I wish I could remember who it was who suggested pairing The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein with Piggybook by Anthony Browne. Maybe KT Horning or Susan Bloom? Or Cathie Mercier in criticism? Reading The Giving Tree from a feminist perspective sure does change things!

  5. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Wow, The Grey Lady with The Red Book. That would be a true “blow your mind” experience! And of course the folktale versions.
    I’d love to know what grade works best for the fractured fairy tales — told from a different perspective like Scieszka’s True Story of the Three Pigs, or the updated ones like Goldie and the Three Bears by Diane Stanley. I assume all the children need to already have ownership of the more traditional versions. But in what grade does that tend to happen? Kindergarten? First?

  6. Elizabeth Vaccaro says:

    I loved pairing My Ol’ Man by Patricia Polocco with Rocks in His Head by Carol Otis Hurst. Both set in the depression and both had the passion for something being the key to a better life. Could be extended to nonfiction reading about hobbies.

  7. Lolly, I have had decent success with THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and even THE STINKY CHEESE MAN, though both of these have always been great read-aloud titles because of the humor and the mauling of the traditional versions. Most kids always connect when there is potential for laughter, but Scieszka and Smith have always teamed up for great, witty books. Alas I think it is true what you say about the kids needing to have a grasp of the traditional versions, though the sedate Diane Stanley has never proven successful for me with the first graders. The books of course are too wordy, but God I really love them myself! Painterly elegance incarnate. The traditional tales are usually introduced in Kindergarten, and the First Grade is the setting to build on that will the more subversive renditions. I have found that the kids really like James Marshall. His Caldecott Honor winning GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS is a great choice, and of course they absolutely love MISS NELSIN IS MISSING and all the STUPIDS books.

  8. Maureen Milton says:

    When my 2nd & 3rd graders were studying dinosaurs and prehistory earlier this year, I read (over a few sessions) Kudlinski’s “Boy Were We Wrong About the Dinosaurs!” along with excerpts from the charming and dated Burton’s “Life Story” and the freshly minted Thimmesh’s “Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled” and finally Kerley’s “The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.” They are naturally interested in thinking about science as an unfurling of evidence and a coalescing of theory. In addition, in January, when we return from break, I usually read to K-2s these 3 titles: Berger’s “Germs Make Me Sick” (an unsuspected spellbinder), Shannon’s “A Bad Case of Stripes” and, of course, Stead’s “A Sick Day for Amos McGee.”

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind