Have you ever heard of Charley Darkey Parkhurst? I certainly never had before I became a fifth grade teacher. In the presentation of history, there are so many interesting stories that are buried in between the layers of the usual “war centric” history we all learn in school. You know what I mean. “American” history instruction often focuses primarily on the founding fathers, the French and Indian War, The Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, The Civil War, etc. This presentation bored me to tears as a child. White men and wars. Blah blah blah. I couldn’t wait to finish American History in tenth grade so that I would never have to take another history class again. Then, when I became a teacher, I discovered how amazing history really is.
I actually learned so much of what I know about history from reading historical fiction as an adult. It’s far and away my favorite genre. There are so many rich history stories woven into fictional accounts. The adult historical fiction novels I’ve read number many, but I’m not here to talk about them. I’m here to talk about Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I fell in love with this novel back in 2013 when a student teacher of mine introduced me to it. We organized book clubs using this book that year and every year after that, but I just really began to appreciate this book, and more importantly, the real person, Charley Darkey Parkhurst, this year. When I started making products for My Teachers Pay Teachers Store, I decided to write a novel study for Riding Freedom. When writing the novel study, I needed to read and reread every chapter to find the precise details I wanted to include in the packet which really made me appreciate Pam Muñoz Ryan as the brilliant wordsmith she is, but it also made me appreciate Charley’s life. Her life was filled with obstacle upon obstacle, but Charley persevered through it all. The character of Charlotte/Charley is GRIT personified. Students can learn so much from her struggles.
So, how was Charley able to vote in a U.S. election? She lived her life as a man. She became a famous stagecoach driver who lost her eye in an accident, but managed to persevere and keep driving. By living as a man, Charley was able to accomplish feats women in the 1800s couldn’t fathom. Learning her story and discussing the implications with my fifth graders has been so rewarding. Would your students like to learn more about Charley? Give Riding Freedom a try. And, finally, always remember how much women, Black people, and other minorities have contributed to United States history. Watch your students’ faces light up when you share their stories with them.