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Last updated:
September 6, 2002

UW-RF History Professor Writes Textbook for Kids

What is the origin of the name "Wisconsin?" How did Wisconsin become known as the dairy state? What famous person grew up in Wisconsin, then became a famous political leader in Israel?

These topics and others are covered in "Wisconsin Journey, 2002," a new textbook by UW-River Falls History Professor Kurt Leichtle written for elementary school students. Some school districts will begin using the book this fall in their fourth grade classes, according to Leichtle, who said that is the year when the elementary curriculum introduces state history and begins to connect it to U.S. history.

Leichtle, who teaches a course in the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University on techniques for teaching social studies, said the most recent Wisconsin history textbook available to elementary teachers was written in 1974, and it is not appealing to students of today.

"Teachers have not been using a textbook, but have been drawing material from a number of other sources," he said. "This book will give students a comprehensive and consistent overview; a level of common understanding."

Leichtle said he used the technique of telling stories about topics that are relevant to children to make Wisconsin history meaningful to them.

He explained that the name "Wisconsin" came from an Indian word that means, "where the waters gather," then described a time long ago when most of Wisconsin was covered by water. Ferns grew higher than trees, and dragonflies with wingspans of more than two feet glided through the forest.

He told how, before the 1890s, the only dairy product was cheese, because that was the safest way to preserve milk. By the 1890s, when railroads could move perishable products quickly to markets, the dairy industry grew to include milk. The dairy industry in Wisconsin was established early in the state's history, and has thrived ever since.

To interest students in famous people, he told the story of Golda Meir, who was born in Russia in 1906 and came to Milwaukee when she was seven years old. She later married and moved with her husband to Palestine, then became prime minister of Israel.

Another strength of the book, Leichtle feels, is that it provides appropriate attention to the contributions of Wisconsin's Native American population. It describes the groups that lived in Wisconsin, how they lived, and how they interacted with the immigrants who came here from Europe.

While working on the book, Leichtle said, he found one of the most challenging aspects to be that he had only about 120 pages to cover all of the influences in the development of the state. Another challenge was to determine how to say things to a fourth-grader. "Fortunately, my son was in third grade at the time," he said. "I tried out some of the material on him." The story of Burmester's Grocery in the southwestern Wisconsin town of Loganville incorporates some of Leichtle's own family history into the book.. In 1929, Leichtle's maternal grandfather Albert Burmester established the business as an ice cream parlor, but during the Great Depression switched to selling groceries because, as he said, "most people could not afford to buy ice cream during the Depression, but everyone had to buy groceries."

Leichtle said he responded to a notice sent out by the publisher, Gibbs Smith , and he was selected to write the book. "This was my first textbook," he said. "There was lots of communication back and forth about what to leave in and what to leave out. I was certainly surprised to learn what a team effort it is to produce a book."

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