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The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial


At Lesley University, we are eagerly anticipating our annual Evelyn Finnegan Children’s Literature Lecture, and are thrilled this year to be hosting illustrator E.B. Lewis. Lewis will be joined by author Susan Goodman, faculty in Lesley’s MFA program. In honor of the event, we offer today’s blog entry featuring their recent collaboration.
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial
Written by Susan E. Goodman, Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Published by Bloomsbury, 2016
ISBN 978-080273797

Grades 2 and Up

Book Review
In 1855, just prior to the Civil War, the city of Boston became the first major city in America to integrate its schools. But what events precipitated this early civil rights milestone? The school integration case of Roberts vs. the City of Boston, litigated in 1849, is the subject of a powerful nonfiction picture book collaboration by accomplished author and educator Susan E. Goodman and acclaimed illustrator E.B. Lewis.  Historically accurate, visually compelling, and vitally relevant to contemporary events, this book is a crucial teaching tool for today’s classrooms. In 1847, four-year-old Sarah Roberts began attending her neighborhood school, the Otis School, “one of Boston’s best.” Her parents’ quiet defiance of the laws that kept black and white children apart was soon noticed and Sarah was escorted home by a policeman. Recalling his own childhood journey across town to the Smith School for African American children, “a school that only owned one book,” Sarah’s father, Benjamin Roberts engaged the second African American lawyer in the United States, Robert Morris, to take the battle to the courtroom. Morris was joined by anti-slavery advocate Charles Sumner in a packed courtroom to plead Sarah’s case and, by extension, for the rights of “every other African American child in Boston.” The case was lost, but, together, Sarah, her family, this African American and white lawyer team, and the community of Boston had taken “the first step” toward change. Through activism across the state, they achieved their goal in 1855, when the legislature voted to integrate schools throughout Massachusetts. The final images of the book bring readers a century forward to the 1954 Supreme Court Case, Brown v. the Board of Education, and Goodman’s reminder that the slam of the gavel echoed with the “sound of Sarah’s first steps to school.” Lewis’s images, as always, lend deep emotional resonance, and here, offer an interpretive lens for the time period. Goodman’s storytelling is engaging and forward facing. Her exemplary author’s note illuminates the process of nonfiction writing, discussing: research, educated guesses, and decisions about language. Ultimately, Goodman offers her readers a poignant reminder that the stories we tell, and how we tell them, truly matter.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Desegregation, 1847 and 1947. Have your students read about desegregation efforts 3,000 miles and 100 years apart from one another by presenting The First Step and Separate is Never Equal in a Duet Model. Have students compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the two cases. What were the “ripple effects” of Sarah Roberts’ efforts locally and nationally? What were the “ripple effects” of Sylvia Mendez’s efforts locally and nationally, which lead to Brown vs. the Board of Education? Have students represent their comparisons and contrasts with infographics (use a digital tool like Pictochart) or hand-written graphics.

Research and Writing Nonfiction About Your Community. Have students draw from the author’s note and then research an event in your town, city, or county’s history. Specifically, have them reread Goodman’s authors note. How does she remind us that her everyday life in Boston helped her to understand the research that she was doing? What reminders of the past exist in your town? Take students to the local library and/or your local historical society to conduct research. Encourage students to look at primary sources related to the event, such as newspaper articles, signs and posters, official letters and records. If some local residents were around when the event happened, have students interview them. Once they’ve gathered enough information, have students consider the various ways they could write about and illustrate the event. For example, have them try out different ways of organizing information they have gathered to create a coherent presentation, or try writing from different points-of-view. Once they’ve settled on some directions, have them write and illustrate a nonfiction picture book about that event, drawing on the writing, illustrations, and book design of The First Step as a mentor text.  
Writing Nonfiction Leads. After reading the book as a whole, review the opening visual narrative, from the end papers through the first pages of text. Have students listen to the language as you reread the first double-page spread. Notice the descriptive language (vivid verbs such as dash and wailed), alliteration, and imagery. How has Goodman introduced all the elements of narrative (character, setting, and conflict)? How have both the author and the illustrator shared the responsibility of “opening up” the narrative and inviting the reader in? How do both the author and the illustrator introduce the historical time period? Use this opening to compare and contrast to other nonfiction picture storybook leads, and allow students the opportunity to practice their own vivid introductions via text and illustration.
E.B. Lewis Illustrator Study. Select a range of picture books of different genres (fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction) that E.B. Lewis has illustrated. In any of the books you select, you will find his signature watercolor illustrations. Before sharing the written text of any of the books with your students, have them explore his illustrations in-depth. To accomplish this, insert sticky notes over the written text in all the books. Have the students do a close reading of the illustrations in pairs with a single book. What do they think is happening within the illustrations? How does he build a visual narrative from beginning to end? Who are the people in the illustrations? How are they portrayed? Are there differences in how children and adults are represented? How do perspectives and points-of-view shift within the illustrations? Finally, have them guess the genre of the book based on the details within the illustrations and the clues they provide. Have pairs report out to the whole class, sharing their evidence. Finally, allow students to remove the sticky notes and read the actual books, or you can read them aloud to the class if your students are not yet able to read independently. How have their thoughts about the books changed? What was reinforced? What do they learn about the art of illustration? Finally, have your students compose their own original narratives (fiction or nonfiction) on a topic of their choice. Next, have students swap with the partner with whom they originally worked, and illustrate one another’s narratives with watercolors, emulating Lewis’s work.
Susan E. Goodman Author Study. Susan E. Goodman has written numerous nonfiction books for children. Gather a range of books she has written, and share them with your students. Ask students to identify patterns in the books, such as topic, theme, content area, and point-of-view. Have them also examine Goodman’s writing style, looking at qualities such as word choice, sentence structure, organization, and tone. Visit Goodman’s website to gather more information about her as an author, as well as her books. How does her background and interests influence what she writes about in her books? How does she approach the research process associated with writing nonfiction for children? Compile students’ findings from the author study, and encourage them to try some of the writing and research techniques that Goodman uses in their own nonfiction writing.
Grades 4 and Up
Evaluating Nonfiction. After reading The First Step, bring your students’ attention to the headings in Goodman’s author’s note (Writing Nonfiction; Gathering Facts from Places We Trust; Trying to Get at The Truth; The Right Words Matter; One Story Many Messages). Divide students into small groups, each assigned to one section of the author’s note. What is Goodman’s message to her readers in each section? Have your students turn her main points into questions that they could consider when reading any nonfiction book. Have the groups report out their findings. Next, as a class, read a range of nonfiction picture and chapter books and apply the criteria developed by students. Make sure, of course, that all readings include a reading of the author’s and illustrator’s notes. What do students think of nonfiction books without such notes and/or bibliographies? You can pull a range of titles from your classroom collection and school library; you can also focus on reading nonfiction books of interest to your students, titles from the twenty-five year history of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, or titles on topics that you are currently studying in science or social studies, for a more integrated approach.
Three Steps Forward, One Step Back. In a double page spread representative of the accessible text and expressive illustrations throughout, Goodman and Lewis explore the “long twisting journey” of the “march toward justice.” Images recall the Emancipation Proclamation, the assassination of Lincoln, the KKK, and the lingering effects of Jim Crow. This spread is foreshadowed by earlier text that describes the court case as “three important steps forward” and the “loss as “a giant step backward.” In the back matter, Goodman includes a timeline titled “Marching toward Equality: An Integration Timeline,” and invites readers to decide for themselves whether the specific incidents represent progress or are set-backs. Engage in this discussion with your students and then invite them to reflect on this interpretation of change. Are they able to make connections to other historical movements? To other works of literature?
Segregation and Your School. After reading The First Step and perhaps other books about desegregation listed below, research the history of integration at your school or in your district. What is your school district’s history? How were previous citizens provided access — or barred access — to a quality education? At what point did girls start attending school regularly? Immigrants? African-Americans? Asians? Latinos? What barriers existed and how have they gradually eroded? What barriers still exist? Who is your community’s “Sarah Roberts?” Students may want to interview local historians and explore the resources available at your state and local historical society, as well as local newspapers in the collection at your local public library. Have your class compile a timeline or history of public education in your community, celebrating your successes and honestly portraying the negative events and policies, in order to embrace the complexity of your local community.
Segregation in Today’s Schools. Have your students read The First Step and other books about school segregation listed below. What connections do students see to contemporary efforts to desegregate schools? For example, In The First Step, Morris urged the court to consider the needs of children and advocate for neighborhood schools; today, urban schools across the United States are highly segregated because of the concept of neighborhood schools. Have students identify the successes and failures in the historical cases and use those as a “lens” for exploring this critical problem in today’s classrooms across the country. Have students explore resources below in order to conduct research. What recommendations can they make to your local or state Board of Education? Have students create podcasts, write persuasive letters, and/or make presentations to advocate for change in the ways they they believe might be most effective. Note: A variation on this teaching idea first appeared in our entry on Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Kids Speak Out Survey. Author Susan E. Goodman has created an online survey to gather children’s thoughts and ideas about school integration. Read about the data she has gathered at the website for The First Step and consider inviting your students to participate in the survey. The survey data will be tabulated and students will have the opportunity to view the results on the website. As an extension, invite your students to consider how they might use a survey tool to advocate for change within their communities.
Critical Literacy
One Story, Many Messages. In her author’s note, Goodman includes a section titled, “One Story, Many Messages,” in which her reflections prompt deep consideration of the stories embedded in our history and how and why these stories are told. Reread this section aloud to your students followed by the section on Sarah Roberts on the previous pages. Ask students to discuss and interpret these two passages, considering the implications. Who is visible in the documentation of history and who is not? How might the untold stories be uncovered and told? What is the role of an author in deciding whose perspectives are represented and whose are not? Extensions of this activity could go in several different directions. Staying close to the text, you might invite your students to write a piece of historical fiction, bringing Sarah’s voice to the forefront. Staying close to the topic of school integration, use the resources below to explore how perspectives are represented by different authors, for example compare Ruby Bridges’ autobiographical writing with picture books in which she serves as subject. Finally, taking a step further out, you might invite students to search for and tell untold stories in your community (see researching and writing nonfiction above).
Further Explorations

Digital Resources
Susan E. Goodman’s Official Website
E.B. Lewis’s Official Website: Books
The First Step Official Website
“Long Road-Roberts vs. Boston” from the Massachusetts Historical Society
“In Pursuit of Equality” from “Separate is Never Equal: Brown vs. Board of Education,” Smithsonian Institution
“Boston School Desegregation and Busing: A Timeline of Events,” WBUR
Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
Abiel Smith School, Boston, National Historic Site, National Park Service
African Meeting House, National Historic Site, National Park Service
Equal Educational Opportunity, a “Times Topic,” The New York Times
The Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
Brown vs. Board of Education Timeline, Teaching Tolerance
“Beyond Brown,” PBS

Bass, C. ( 2015). Seeds of freedom: The peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama. Ill. by E.B. Lewis. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 

Bridges, R. (1999). Through my eyes. New York: Scholastic.


Coles, R. (1995). The story of Ruby Bridges. Ill. by G. Ford. New York: Scholastic.

Fradin, J.B. & Fradin, D.B. (2004). The power of one: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. New York: Clarion Books. 


Jurmain, S. (2005). The forbidden schoolhouse: The true and dramatic story of Prudence Crandall and her students. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers.

Levine, E. (1993). Freedom’s children: Young civil rights activist tell their own stories. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 

Morrison, T. (2005). Remember: The journey to school integration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rappaport, D. (2005). The School Is Not White: A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement. Ill. by C. James. New York: Hyperion.


Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal. New York: Abrams Books for Children.

Tougas, S. (20120. Little Rock girl 1957: How a photograph changed the fight for integration. North Mankato, MN: Compass Point Books


Tuck, P. (2013). As Fast As Words Could Fly. Ill. by E. Velasquez. New York: Lee & Low.


Cooperative Children’s Book Center, “School Stories: Selective K-12 Literature about the School Experience”


Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.