I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
Written by Debbie Levy; Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN # 978-1-4814-6559-5
Grades K and up
“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” This statement, uttered just last year at a luncheon, was the advice U. S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave to young women today. The same stirring sentences are centered on the back cover of the dynamic picture book biography, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. Though the notion of dissent is the thread around which the significant events in Ruth’s life are presented, dispute and disagreement aren’t the focus. Instead, the numerous social injustices Ruth experienced throughout her life—as a Jewish girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, then later as a working mother pursuing a career in law in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—form the ethos of the book and the forces that have compelled Ruth to constantly challenge the status quo. We learn of young Ruth’s early encouragement from her mother in the power of dissent. We follow her objections to the injustices she experienced in school, such as being told to take cooking classes instead of shop and being forced to write with her right hand despite being left-handed. We then accompany her trailblazing through law school and the profession of law, despite being rejected for positions along the way because she was a Jewish woman and a mother. When she is ultimately honored with a seat on the Supreme Court, we also learn of the many ways she continued to dissent with rulings because of her firm commitment to social equality for all. Levy’s smart text is straightforward and informative, sprinkled with moments of clever humor. Baddeley’s colorful and spirited mixed-media illustrations seem a vibrant extension of Ruth’s energy. The book’s robust back matter includes photographs, a bibliography, quotation sources, notes on court cases, and further biographical information about this phenomenal female force in the highest court of the U.S. I Dissent is a lively, rich, and welcome addition to classroom bookshelves.
- The Four Female Justices of the U. S. Supreme Court. Gather a text set of biographies and other nonfiction and multimodal texts about the four female justices who have and are currently serving on the U. S. Supreme Court: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. A few books are listed below, but enlist the help of your school or local librarian as well. One amazing text to include is Nelson Shank’s portrait, The Four Justices. The Smithsonian’s website about the painting also includes some videos of interviews with each justice. Closely read, listen to, and analyze these texts with your students and examine the choices that the biographers have made about text and illustration. Which aspects of the justices’ lives have they chosen to highlight? What do the texts have in common in terms of tone, style, and content—especially concerning the challenges and accomplishments these women have faced? Do they focus more on the justices’ childhood or adult lives? How are the justices’ mentors, inspirations, beliefs, and accomplishments presented? When examining the illustrations, discuss how the art of the picture book biography enhances the readers’ understandings of the subjects’ lives and work.
- The U. S. Supreme Court. Use I Dissent as a text to help introduce a unit on the U. S. Supreme Court and the judicial branch of the government. Make sure to highlight the additional information included at the back of the book, particularly the section about how cases get argued before the Supreme Court. Some questions you might ask to provide students with lenses for learning include the following: What kinds of cases are within the Supreme Court’s purview? How many justices are on the Supreme Court? Why? How do the justices decide the outcome of a case? How long can a justice serve on the Supreme Court? Why? How does a judge get appointed to the Supreme Court? Given the recent passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as the upcoming Presidential election, why has there been much controversy over filling Justice Scalia’s vacancy? Who would your students like to see fill that vacancy? To engage your students in further critical thinking about the role of the Supreme Court, share Justice Ginsburg’s public rebuke of Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump, and the criticism she faced for it. Should the Supreme Court remain neutral in an election such as this? Why or why not?
- The Role of Women in National Government. Engage students in an inquiry on the influence and roles of women in the sphere of national government. Though they might not have held office until the last few decades, how have women played a role in the federal government system throughout history? What offices have they held, and what leadership positions are still waiting for women to assume? What challenges and accomplishments did they experience? What similarities and differences mark their personal and professional lives? Have students work in small groups to research the lives of some of these women, such as Condoleezza Rice, Frances Perkins, Shirley Chisholm, Jeannette Rankin, Elaine Chao, Janet Napolitano, Hilda Solis, Elizabeth Dole, Janet Reno, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. One useful resource is the MAKERS website, which features an impressive collection of women’s stories Have the groups present their findings in a variety of modalities—drama, art, song, essay, video, etc.
- Justice Ginsburg’s Dissents. Have students research the cases in which Justice Ginsburg dissented. Many of them are listed at the back of I Dissent. You can find case summaries online, as well as briefs and audio recordings of various hearing and arguments at https://www.supremecourt.gov. You might also have students watch the Annenberg video “The Nature of Dissent in the Supreme Court”. After reading and listening to Justice Ginsburg’s dissents, engage your class in a debate. Do they agree with her, or do they dissent with her dissents? Why?
- Justice Ginsburg’s Quotes. The back cover of I Dissent showcases one of Justice Ginsburg’s famous quotations. In fact, she has said and written numerous statements that inspire social and personal action and change. In books and online, have students search for statements by Justice Ginsburg that are particularly inspiring or significant. Collect and share these quotes with your students, engaging them in discussions about what they mean and why they are noteworthy. Have students pick one quote that inspires them. Have them work in small groups or individually to create a multimedia presentation around the quote, demonstrating what it means to them and why. See the Further Explorations section below for some online sources for Justice Ginsburg’s quotes.
- Female Fictional Characters as Role Models. Author Debbie Levy writes that as a young girl, Ruth was intrigued by “stories of girls and women who did big things.” While some of these girls and women were real people, others—such as Nancy Drew and the mythical Greek goddess Athena—were fictional characters. As a class, brainstorm a list of fictional female characters who are inspirational and admirable to them. Engage students in a discussion about why they selected these characters. On what traits, beliefs, and actions are they basing their selection? Have students bring in texts that contain these characters and mine the texts for specific evidence to support their opinions. Create a multimedia gallery (online or in the school) where others can learn about these inspiring female characters.
- Illustrations in Picturebook Biographies. Well illustrated picturebook biographies don’t just contain pretty pictures. The artists purposefully craft their illustrations to convey meaning about the person in interesting ways. Engage students in a study of the illustrations of the people and characters in this book. What do they notice about how each character is drawn, especially Ruth? How does that illustration support, enhance, or counter what we learn about the person in the written text? What artistic techniques did Elizabeth Baddeley use to do that (e.g., color, line, shape, placement, etc.)? Provide students with a range of artistic media, including digital media, and have them try illustrating another person from one of their own pieces of writing or from a biographical text they have read using the artistic concepts they learned.
- Vocabulary Lists. Highlight the words and phrases that Debbie Levy chose and Elizabeth Baddeley illustrated in large, colorful font. Close inspection of these words reveals that they are not randomly featured. Many of those words relate to a particular concept, while others are synonyms and antonyms of one another. Have students list these words and phrases, and challenge them to distinguish the distinct connotations each may have. For example, is “disagreeing” really the same thing as “objecting”? Challenge students to analyze and explain the intensity or impact of each word or phrase. Using a print or online thesaurus, have students add more words or phrases to their lists to help build their vocabulary.
- Typography. Engage your students in an inquiry into typography, pointing out the ways in which Elizabeth Baddeley used illustrative fonts to highlight particular words in I Dissent. Share an assortment of printed texts that utilize typography in different ways, especially older texts that may have been published decades or centuries before they were born. Take students on a walk around the school community and use smartphones, tablets, or other means to photograph the kinds of typography they find. You might even show older students clips of the documentary Helvetica, about one of the most ubiquitous fonts used in print. Challenge students to play with typography in their own poems, especially any concrete poetry they have written. You may also want to share how illustrators play with hand-crafted and digitally-rendered type in books such as Wet Cement, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, and Flutter and Hum.
- Who Should Be on the Supreme Court? In response to the question about when there will be enough women justices on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg is quoted as saying, “When there are nine.” Have students think critically about her answer. Is it enough that the Supreme Court be comprised of an all female bench? What other demographics, characteristics, or experience might matter? Why was it significant that Sonia Sotomayor, Thurgood Marshall, or William Rehnquist became Supreme Court Justices? You might want to share Lee & Low’s article and infographic about the diversity gap in American politics for students to analyze and consider for this discussion. Have students construct their ideal Supreme Court bench, listing specific names of people they would like to see serve as justices. Make sure they support their decisions with research and thoughtful arguments, and then have them create their own infographic about the composition of the Supreme Court, using digital tools such as Venngage, Canva, or Piktochart.
- Portrayals of Women in the Government. Despite the achievements of women such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others, women in leadership and government roles continue to face constant scrutiny about their decisions, actions, beliefs, language, mannerisms, and even physical appearance. Engage your students in a critical literacy discussion about why such scrutiny exists. How are such women portrayed in the media and in popular rhetoric? Who tends to voice such opinions and through what outlets? What are the assumptions underlying those views? How might your students participate in actions that work toward social justice for women in these roles?
Debbie Levy’s website
Elizabeth Baddeley’s website
Websites with Resources about the Supreme Court
Interviews and Articles about Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Websites with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Quotes
Barnes, P. W., & Barnes, C. S. (2012). Marshall, the courthouse mouse: A rail of the U. S. Supreme Court. Little Patriot Press.
Kramer, B. (2016). Sonia Sotomayor. National Geographic.
Krull, K. (2015). Women who broke the rules: Sonia Sotomayor. Ill. by A. Dominguez. New York: Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
McElroy, L. T. (2000). Meet my grandmother: She’s a Supreme Court justice. Millbrook Press.
O’Connor, S. D. (2005). Chico. New York: Dutton.
Patrick, J. J. (2002). The Supreme Court of the United States: A student companion. Oxford University Press.
Suen, A. (2009). The U.S. Supreme Court. Ill. by M. Skeens. Picture Window Books.
Thimmesh, C., & Jones, D. B. (2008). Madam President: The extraordinary, true (and evolving) story of women in politics. Ill. by D. B. Jones. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Winter, J. (2009). Sonia Sotomayor: A judge grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx. Ill. by E. Rodriguez. New York: Atheneum.