This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
William Gropper’s America, its folklore offers a unique visual representation of the United States, combining folklore, history, and geography. The map depicts popularized stories, such as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, the witches of New England, and even Pecos Bill riding a cougar, but it also represents several real historical figures such as Davy Crockett, Jesse James, and Calamity Jane, however exaggerated. This presents an opportunity to teach students strategies to decipher the difference between fact and fiction within the same primary source.
Stories based in fact are sometimes shared with exaggerated details to shape the meaning or to show the skill and prowess of the subject of the story. Most middle and high school students already have the ability to recognize the extreme unlikelihood that Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes, grew up to be a cowboy that relied on a cougar as his primary means of transportation, and used a rattlesnake as a lasso, but they might struggle with more nuanced details that could be true.
To teach with a primary source such as this in my classroom, I would invite students to identify folklore stories that they recognize and write a short summary for a few of them to be shared with the class. This would provide background information on a range of stories that some students may not have heard before. I would then ask groups to pick an image that they were unfamiliar with and investigate the story and general information about daily life around the time of the event. As students researched the story, they would make three lists: “what is likely made up,” “what I’m unsure of,” and “what is probably true.”
After students have the lists, they will research to find historical accounts from the region and time to support or disprove details they have collected. This process can help students to critically question the details of primary sources and build their skills in researching contemporary material to support their finding. Individuals or groups should update their lists as they research.
To tie the activity together, I would ask students to build a “historically accurate” version of the story around the image, using information they were able to confirm from their “what is probably true” list. After volunteers had shared their new versions of the folklore, the class would have a short conversation about the importance of verifying information from primary sources and understanding the context around the event. As an extension of the activity, we would discuss the importance of evaluating information in a primary source. Students would have a chance to explore other primary sources to find examples of potentially dubious claims and attempt to “fact check” the documents.
Let us know in the comments how you help your students distinguish fact from fiction.