Friday, April 29, 2011

An American Plague

A Tricky Killer...
Nonfiction at its finest, Jim Murphy takes us on a ride through Philadelphia 1793 and the yellow fever plague that threatened to destroy the city, then the capitol of the United States in An American Plague. I myself sometimes have a hard time getting hooked in nonfiction, but Murphy knows exactly how to write so that you are wrapped up in the story of the yellow fever to tightly that you are tricked into thinking you are reading a narrative fiction novel about a nasty disease. He uses just enough quotes from those who were alive at the time and takes you deep enough into those peoples' lives that you don't want to put the book down for a second. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 is one of those instances in American history that is often left out of history books. This is one of those gross parts of history that upper elementary school students would LOVE. Just like how they think boogers and spit are cool, they will think the mysterious, yellow eyes, throwing up, being bled is way more exciting than what they read about in their textbooks. I learned so much from this book and I highly recomend you suggest it to your students who like these types of topics. Also, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is a great fictional companion to An American Plague.

Reading Level: Grade Level Equivalent 8.9 (could be used in middle school or upper elementary, there are just some content words that need to be pretaught which is why the reading level seems high)

Web Resources:
  • Audio Book Lesson: This webpage provides the audiobook version for chapters 1 and 2 of An American Plague. Using this audiobook, students will pay attention to sights, sounds and smells and answer discussion questions. Other activities are included.
  • Lesson Ideas: This page offers a variety of ideas to use with grades 3-6 in conjunction with An American Plague.

Vocabulary:  Thanks to The Reading Conqueror here are is some important vocabulary for this book:

Chapter 1- Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia, refurbished, George Washington, General Cornwallis, surrender, capitulation, revolution, Proclamation of Neutrality, “Diplomatic cold shoulder”, speculated
Chapter 2- laudanum, preeminent, malignity, Greek Humeral Theory
Chapter 3- pestilence, amiable, prestigious, William Currie, quarantine, acquaintances, fetid, exodus, camphor, melancholy, Vinegar of the four thieves
Chapter 4-5- apothecaries, legislature, paupers, almshouse,  putrefaction, insufficient, resignation, neutrality policy, consternation, Free African Society, erect, exorbitant, mobilized, shunned, peculiarly, battalion,  
Chapter 6-  pestilence, scrupulousness, malicious, conspiring, valiantly
Chapter 7- ingenuity, daunting, condemned, quinine
Chapter 8- Conviction, alleviation, rioting
Chapter 9- militia, parliament, quorum, abated, apace, emaciated
Chapter 10-end- inadvertently, squalid, privy pit, tepid, squabbles, sedulously, and pious

Before Reading:
  • Depending on what grade level this book is used in, you may need to support your students a lot especially when it comes to vocabulary. For this reason I would make a point to preteach a lot of the vocabulary before the students read. You can easily break the book up into sections or just by chapters so it is a reasonable amount of vocabulary at one time.
  • Have a class or small group discussion about what students know about plagues. You may even choose to start a KWL about plagues in order to access prior knowledge.
  • Another suggestion is using this book as a supplementary item for upper level students in your class or for a student who chooses to do a project or paper on the Yellow Fever.

During Reading: If using this book with the whole class, assign groups to present on each chapter or sections of your choosing. Being that some of the reading is difficult it will be very useful for a group of students to become "experts" on each section and then help the other students understand these sections. You may have the group of experts present to the whole class or have an individual from the expert group pair up with one person from each other group and discuss in small groups.

After Reading:
  • Extend the understanding of this nonfiction selection by reading a book such as Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.
  • Discuss as a group or in small groups how students think they would feel if they had the Yellow Fever or if someone in their family had the Yellow Fever. Discuss what types of medicine they may be given or what types of ways they may try to be cured. Use this discussion as both a review of the material and a way to connect a historical event to ones' own life.

Across the Curriculum: This book would best be used in a Social Studies classroom that is studying American History. It provides an opportunity for students to learn about an event in American History that is often overlooked.

Murphy, J. (2003). An American plague: the true and terrifying story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books.

Happy Reading (& Running) =)

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