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The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History Teacher’s Guide

By Jennifer Armstrong

The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History by Jennifer Armstrong



All history consists of stories about people and events. Jennifer Armstrong has pulled together a chronology of 100 uniquely American stories from our history, starting with the founding in 1565 of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, and ending with the contested 2000 presidential election. Each sumptuously illustrated two- to five-page account is meant to inspire, beguile, and inform young readers about our diverse and dramatic history.

“What I hope readers will get from this book is a sense of connection,” says Armstrong. “I love history, seeing the connectedness of events. Students see history as a series of isolated incidents, but what I find exciting is to see how, say, Thoreau going to jail connects with Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, a century later. I love discerning those patterns. The most important part of the book to me is that kids might then look at events today with a more enlightened perspective.”


Jennifer Armstrong is the author of more than 50 books for young readers. She is especially known for her works of history and historical fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Roger Roth has illustrated about a dozen children’s books (two of which he also wrote). In addition, Roth serves as senior lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and is a frequent presenter at area schools. He lives in Springfield, Pennsylvania.


How should a teacher read this book? It depends on the teacher and his or her students. Some of the stories review and reinforce what students already know, others foreshadow what’s coming up in your curriculum, and still others provide the sheer pleasure of learning something new and surprising about our country, culture, and people.

You could read it aloud chronologically as an overview of the broad range of American history. If you share a chapter every other day, three days a week, you can complete the whole book over the course of a year. It will take you five to ten minutes to read each story aloud, but longer to discuss the events, concepts, vocabulary, and information presented.

You might pick and choose, sharing stories that fit in to your curriculum, or ones that students can use as “starter dough” for further research. Photocopy a different story for each group of students to read and ask them to come up with a creative way to present what they have learned from it to the rest of the class.

However you decide to share the book, what you’ll find is that Jennifer Armstrong writes about history in a way that surprises, startles, and satisfies. No dry, dusty recitation of facts, these tales are told with verve, wit, and a sense of drama, just like the best fiction. As a model of exemplary expository writing, they will inspire students to approach their own report writing in a whole new way.


Ask your group to examine closely the cover illustration, which depicts a diverse parade of people wearing period costumes, who are following a marching, drum-beating Uncle Sam. Who can you identify, and what parts of American history does each person represent?

Explain to your students that this compendium may look substantial, but it represents just a handful of the endless numbers of stories from U.S. history. Have them break into small groups to brainstorm a list of 10 famous people and 10 events that they might expect to find in an American history book. Come together as a group and make a chart of their collective responses.

As you share the book aloud, it will be interesting to note which stories Armstrong chose to include and discuss why she might have considered each one significant. Before reading, photocopy the table of contents, which includes the year and the title of each story. Ask each group to read it over and write notes in the margins identifying or deducing the subjects, events, or people they recognize.

What about the stories from your chart that didn’t find their way into this book? Your class can start researching, writing, and compiling a scrapbook of the sequel: More American Stories.



Factstorming is similar to brainstorming, but instead of coming up with ideas, you ask your students to come up with all the facts they know on a particular subject. Break your class into groups of four to six. Give them two to five minutes to discuss and jot down everything they know about it, no matter how seemingly insignificant. When you get back together, compile a chart or a transparency of all of their facts, putting question marks in front of any statements that are unverified. From this, you can ascertain what they know and what they think they know. Either one may surprise you, or at least let you in on how to proceed with the story you are planning to introduce.

Factstorming Subjects:

• What do you know about the Iditarod? (“1925: Mush!,” p. 235)

• What do you know about the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts? (“1692: The Devil in Massachusetts,” p. 27)

Follow up by reading the corresponding chapter from the book. Then ask: What new and interesting facts did you pick up from the story that you didn’t know before? Make a list of five questions on things you would still like to know about the subject. (These five things can be the basis for subsequent reading and research.)

Portrait Gallery

As we learn from “1796: The Portrait” (p. 60), on the day Gilbert Stuart was to paint a new portrait of the first president, Washington had just been fitted with new false teeth. The portrait Stuart painted is the face on the dollar bill. Examine both the bill and a reproduction of the famous painting that you can find either in a Washington biography, a book of American paintings, the encyclopedia, or on the Internet. (For example, learn more about the portrait and the man at:

Each student can choose a different famous person from history, look up a portrait or photograph, and paint a new likeness. Just as museums do, have them write a caption explaining the identity of the individual and the circumstances behind the portrait. Set up a portrait gallery of their paintings and hold an opening with sparkling apple cider, cheese, and crackers for the artists, who can discuss what it was like to paint their “subjects.”

About the People

Some of the stories mention people who are not as well known as others yet helped shape our country. Use these stories as an opportunity for students to research and write up biographical sketches of these people.

• “1791: Plan for a Capital” (p. 57) introduces Benjamin Banneker, the free black man who drew up the plans for the capital city, Washington, after President Washington fired the architect, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. What happened to both of these men?

• “1819: Birdbrain” (p. 71) presents the painter John James Audubon, a failure as a frontiersman and businessman who was even thrown into jail for debt. Why do we remember him now?

• “1907: The Woeful Plight of Mary Mallon” (p. 208) is about the Irish American woman who became known as Typhoid Mary. What did we learn about disease from her and how has the treatment of sick people (and the Irish) changed in the last century?

When talking about point of view and the use of personal narratives, you can have students assume the identities of their subjects and write their stories as memoirs or autobiographies. To model this style of writing, read aloud “1805: The Great Divide” (p. 65), about the teenage girl with a newborn baby who was the translator for the Lewis and Clarke Expedition as they traveled westward through Shoshone territory. How Sacagawea, who was kidnapped as a child by a rival tribe, met up again with her best friend and her brother is a poignant story indeed. Ask students to imagine how Sacagawea must have felt that day, and have them write an account of her experience from her point of view.

Paving the Way

Many of the people profiled in the book paved the way for someone else. Elvis (“1956: All Shook Up,” p. 288) paved the way for future rock ’n’ rollers. Rosa Parks (“1955: The Walking City,” p. 284) paved the way for many in the Civil Rights Movement. Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment (“1752: Go Fly a Kite!,” p. 38) led to Thomas Edison’s electrical inventions, including the light bulb and even the electric chair (“1898: Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” p. 184).

Contemplate, discuss, and research the differences each trailblazer made in his or her field. Whose lives might each person have changed and how might they have been affected?

Story Arcs: Making Connections

At the back of the book is an index of Story Arcs. Armstrong has listed like subjects thematically, including “Disease and Medicine,” “Immigrants,” and “Disasters.”

What other connections can you make between two stories? For instance, there’s the description of the giant whale that sank the whaleboat, Essex, in “1820: The Whale’s Fury” (p. 74), and then, in “1856: Big Bones” (p. 117), there’s an account of the discovery of another gargantuan creature, the Hadrosaurus in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

What’s the most popular fruit in America? “1804: Going Bananas” (p. 63) describes the first time bananas were brought from Cuba into New York harbor, where they rotted, uneaten, because no one knew what to do with them. Then read “1821: The Lord’s Been Good to Me” (p. 78) about John Chapman, who spent 50 years roaming through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana planting apple trees. We know him as a tall-tale hero, Johnny Appleseed. That will also lead you to “1870: He Laid Down His Hammer and He Died” (p. 138) about another tall-tale hero, John Henry.

There are two stories about hoaxes, which should send students to the library and the Internet to research others. “1835: Astonishing Discoveries on the Moon” (p. 84) concerns the bogus story run in The New York Sun about the little furry winged moon people supposedly sighted by an astronomer with his powerful new telescope (which will also lead you to the story of the Apollo 11 moon landing in “1969: The Eagle Has Landed,” p. 295). One hundred years later, Orson Welles started a near panic across the U.S. with his theatrical radio broadcast about a Martian invasion (“1938: The War of the Worlds,” p. 257).

What If? Personal Connections

Trace how events from history have shaped or changed your own life. How would your life be different if:

• Alexander Graham Bell had not invented the telephone? (“1876: Hard of Hearing–East,” p. 148)

• Theodore Roosevelt didn’t go on a bear hunt? (“1902: Don’t Shoot!,” p. 198)

• Harry Burn, state legislator from Tennessee, didn’t listen to his mother? (“1920: Votes for Women,” p. 228)

• Scientists and engineers at the University of Pennsylvania couldn’t get ENIAC to work? (“1946: The Electronic Brain,” p. 271)

Predicting the Future

What will the stories of the 21st century be? What stories from our past will be continued in our future? Jennifer Armstrong says, “We don’t know the whole story because stories don’t always really end. Sometimes we don’t know where we are in a story until we look back on it, years later.”

Read “1923: The Curse of the Bambino” (p. 232). In his baseball career, Babe Ruth set the home run record, but it was broken by Hank Aaron, in 1974. Boston fans believed their team was cursed after Ruth was sold to the Yankees, but in 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series. What other amazing events will happen next in the world of sports?

The Scopes Monkey Trial (“1925: Evolution,” p. 239) took place a long time ago, but evolution and the separation of church and state is still an issue that is fomenting passionate debate today.

Students can ask their parents how their lives were different, and predict what their own children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be like in the 21st century.

Maps and Time Lines

Put up a large U.S. map on your bulletin board. As you share each chapter aloud, students can plot the location of each incident or event on the map, marking it with a pin and writing up a card with a brief synopsis of what happened there.

What are the milestones in American history? Attach a long stretch of white paper across one whole wall. Construct an illustrated time line across the paper, from 1565 to now. Students can fill in dates from the book and others from their own research. Have them glue illustrations and portraits by each date.

What have the milestones been in your students’ lives? Using 6-foot sheets of paper, students can draw and design time lines of their own decade or so, researching and filling in famous events, but also personal milestones. They can illustrate their personal time lines with photographs or postcards, documents, and mementos. If you scan each personal item on a scanner, students can take the originals back home and still have the image to glue to the time line.

Some subjects are so startling, they’ll get everyone talking. Ask a simple question, some before you read the story, and others after, and watch students discuss the issue, making predictions and inferences.

Ask before reading:
Who was and is Uncle Sam? Ask your students to share what they know about Uncle Sam, and make conjectures about the origin of the name. Then read the surprising story about the real person on whom the country’s nickname was based. ("1812: Uncle Sam," p. 69)

Ask after reading:
Why did Henry Brown decide to mail himself to Philadelphia? ("1849: This Side Up," p. 99)

Examine each of the cheerful, colorful, carefully researched watercolors accompanying each chapter. Discuss how they extend the text and further bring it to life. Compare the illustrations of famous folks (Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Marian Anderson, Muhammad Ali), and natural and manmade landmarks (California’s giant redwoods, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial) with photographs.

When students write their own researched stories from American history, have them also examine existing photos and paintings on which they can base their accompanying illustrations.

Students can use any one story as a jumping-off point for finding more information about a person or event in history. Cull a dozen of the stories and have students work in pairs to take one story, read it carefully, and search out your library’s additional materials based on that topic, in fiction and nonfiction books, articles, databases, multimedia, and online resources.

Librarians often create resource guides or expanded bibliographies, called pathfinders, but upper elementary and middle-school students can do so as well. Collaborate with your librarian and computer teacher to guide your researchers through the process, which you can carry into a more formal research paper, if you like.

Many schools have students set up their pathfinders and/or WebQuests online for others in the school or district to use, pulling in lists of resources, which they annotate with brief descriptions, puzzles, quizzes, illustrations, links, and creative design.

Just because expository writing is all about facts is no reason for it to be dull and unimaginative. Armstrong’s engaging style exemplifies the best of nonfiction writing. Each of her accounts pulls in the slang, idioms, and historical aura of the times. Her similes and metaphors take you by surprise, and add a note of whimsy and literary grace to her lively narrative. Read aloud some of her sentences, and have students look for more examples.

Some examples:

"But here on the edge of the wilderness, where the possibilities were as uncountable as petals in a field of tulips, here was where opportunity lay." (“1655: Keeping Watch, Keeping the Faith,” p. 22)

"Boston had been simmering for years, like a kettle of water heating up to boil lobsters." (“1775: The Midnight Ride,” p. 42)

"Professional British troops were marching across the colonies like columns of red ants. . . ." (“1778: Forging an Army,” p. 53)

Students can select one chapter and write it up as a current front-page newspaper story, coming up with a good headline, a news summary of the events, and a photo-like illustration. Good reporters include the who, what, where, why, when, and how.

Stage interviews where students assume the roles of the celebrated folks they’ve written about and drawn. Working in small groups, students can develop a set of two or three pertinent and interesting questions to pose to each person, based on events in the luminary’s life.

They can write this up as a real interview, with questions and answers, based on actual quotes from the famous person, if possible. Or they can write the interview as a script, which they can perform together.

Or it could all be done orally, based on how that personage might have responded to the press. Set up a Meet the Press—style panel of reporters at a table facing the interviewee. What you want your reporters to do is to find out how their subject was involved in the events that led to the story in the book.

As an assignment, ask students to watch interviews on the TV news to see what kinds of questions reporters ask. In their interviews, they can, of course, ask probing questions exploring personal and emotional connections not answered in the story, such as why President Nixon decided to resign over the Watergate scandal and how he felt when he left the White House by helicopter that last time. ("1973: A Break-In at the Watergate," p. 312). In this instance, the child playing Richard Nixon will be projecting how he might have felt or acted.

Videotaping the proceedings brings in a “you are there” sense of drama and excitement that your actors might relish.


Select a story that applies directly to your curriculum or to your students’ lives and read it aloud. What if the event never happened or that person was never born. What difference would it have made in the country or even the world?

Ask your crew to discuss, or do a Quick Write (where they have 10—15 minutes to respond on paper and then share their responses aloud), or write an essay about, or do further research on how that person or situation affected history.

Good chapters to use, one per century:

1590: The Lost Colony (p. 6)
What if Virginia Dare and all the Roanoke settlers survived?

1626: A Manhattan Real Estate Deal (p. 17)
What if the Canarsee Mohicans kept Manhattan Island?

1775: The Midnight Ride (p. 42)
What if Paul Revere never made his ride and John Adams and John Hancock were captured by British soldiers?

1848: Sutter’s Mill (p. 95)
What if gold had never been discovered in California?

1945: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (p. 267)
What if the Navajo never joined the marines as code talkers?

The stories in Armstrong’s book are appetite whetters. When you read a story aloud, pull out books on the same subject, both fiction and nonfiction, “booktalk” them to students, and hand them out to eager readers.

Reading about Paul Revere’s ride ("1775: The Midnight Ride," p. 42) can lead you to biographies about Revere–Jean Fritz’s And Then What Happened, Paul Revere (Putnam, 1996) has a particularly riveting description of that night–and both nonfiction and historical fiction books on all aspects of the American Revolution. Stage a reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s narrative poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

History is about making connections, and your library is the resource for finding related titles that extend your students’ knowledge base and literary experiences.

American music is part of our history. When reading a chapter like "1825: Marriage of the Waters" (p. 81), about the inauguration of the Erie Canal, describing how the bands played "Yankee Doodle," don’t forget to hand out the words and sing the song. And if you don’t know the old song, "The Erie Canal," your music teacher can sing it with your group.

As a research project for music class, students can trace the effects of history on American music, listening to examples of songs from various eras. When it comes to Elvis Presley ("1956: All Shook Up," p. 288), you’ll want to play a video or DVD so everyone can see him move as well as hear his classic songs.

Armstrong’s historical recountings are complete stories that are not only fun to read, but some of them are ripe for telling, as well. After reading a chapter aloud, have students retell it to each other as a story, incorporating all the details and picturesque language they can recall. For example, use "1901: The Gusher" (p. 195) about the first oil gusher in Beaumont, Texas, or "1912: The Golden Land" (p. 215) about Houdini’s East River escape in New York City.

What are your own American stories? Ask your students to go home and request that their grandparents or parents tell them an old and true story about something they experienced or recall from their own history. Have them tape record these stories to either play in class or learn to tell themselves.


Guide prepared by Judy Freeman, children’s literature consultant. Visit Ms. Freeman’s Web site at

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