What could be more exciting for fourth graders than to read a book and have the author visit their classroom? On April 26, Gwen Harvey, former director of education at the Arizona Historical Society and the author of “Esperanza Means Hope,” visited Tucson Hebrew Academy.
“They’re so excited,” said their general studies teacher, Chris Graves. “You’d think Justin Bieber was coming. They’ve been jumping up and down since this morning.” Graves was gratified by the insight her students discovered in reading, discussing and thinking about the book. “Esperanza” depicts a Mexican-American girl’s life in the Old Pueblo in the late 19th century.
“It’s really special for fourth graders to have an author visit and especially when it’s historical fiction taking place in your own community,” she says, “a mix of story and history, including Jewish history.” Students had participated in activities relating to the book, including painting a scene and describing it in their own words. They jumped at the opportunity to discuss “Esperanza” with Harvey, who sparked their participation by asking questions: Does Esperanza have a good imagination? What sort of girl is she?
“Esperanza is a kid who likes a little bit of action,” replied Sam Goldfinger. Another student, Eliana Tolby, said, “She doesn’t mean to get into a lot of trouble but she loves her dog so much that sometimes she does.” What about Esperanza’s inner thoughts? “She’s like a poet,” said Tolby.
Harvey put a new THA SmartBoard to good use with her PowerPoint presentation, showing the class original photos of people, places and documents from the historical society, where for more than 20 years she created exhibits and got her idea for “Esperanza.”
To set the scene for “Esperanza” Harvey gave a brief overview of local history. The United States, she noted, gained about a third of its land as a result of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Gadsden Purchase, or treaty, which was finalized in 1854. Harvey carefully wove different perspectives of 19th century history into her talk, telling the class that she tried to be faithful to the facts, while writing an exciting story.
Fourth grader Carmel Gelbart understood the nature of historical fiction: It’s about something “that could have happened in the past but we don’t know if it did or not.”
Jewish pioneers played a part in Tucson history during the 19th century, which Harvey portrayed in “Esperanza,” showing photographs of some of those pioneers. Brothers Lionel and Barron Jacobs came here from San Francisco to open a store in 1867. Jacob S. Mansfeld arrived from northern Germany to sell newspapers, then books, and was one of the founders of the University of Arizona. Alexander Levin, also from Germany, established Levin’s Garden, which was a park and brewery.
Not only did THA fourth graders hear about the dedication it takes to write a book, they got to understand what ordinary lives of diverse ethnic heritage — Europeans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans — were like more than 100 years ago.