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About This Book

A poet, a president . . . two lives of service embedded in the context of a brutal and bloody civil war. Robert Burleigh
and Sterling Hundley’s picture book biography for intermediate and middle grade readers is a deeply moving and
thought-provoking presentation of time period and personality. A partial biography focusing on Walt Whitman’s
life during the Civil War years and emphasizing Whitman’s love and admiration for President Abraham Lincoln,
this book blurs genre boundaries. Burleigh’s lyrical language reads sometimes like a poem and sometimes like prose.
Endnotes and a bibliography provide evidence of a meticulous research process and documented facts, while voice and
inference add fictionalized elements. Hundley’s illustrations lend powerful emotional impact and play with scale and
juxtaposition, realism and expressionism. The teaching ideas that follow are invitations for you and your students to
explore this book on its own and as part of a text set, both as a work of history and as a work of art.

Language Arts
Biographies of Poets O Captain, My Captain as Mentor Text
Include O Captain, My Captain in a text set of biographies for Biography Writing
of poets, including both picture book and chapter book Throughout this biography, Robert Burleigh uses quotes
biographies. Collaborate with your local school or public from Walt Whitman’s poems as leads for each new
librarian to garner a collection of titles. Ask your students section of the text. Conduct a close reading of several
to read these biographies in small groups or individually. sections of the book, asking students to provide a rationale
Students should make notes about key moments in the for why Burleigh chose a particular quote to represent a
poets’ lives, their inspirations, and the relationship to the particular segment of text. Consider breaking your class
historical and social contexts of their times. Ask students up into small groups and assigning different text segments
to share their learning orally or in a written presentation. for each group. What do the quotes lend to the meaning
Engage the class a whole with the question: What does it making experience? If your students are writing biogra-
mean to live the life of a poet? What roles do poets play in phies, invite them to experiment with this technique,
communities? selecting quote to use as headings in their writing. Be
sure that students include the sources for their quotes
in a bibliography.

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Language Arts continued

Exploring Leaves of Grass Washington on page twenty-two). Display the passages

The quotes that introduce each section are drawn from selected by the students and examine Burleigh’s word
Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. choices. How does he use sensory information? How are
This collection of poetry is unusual in that it was not a verbs and adjectives employed? How does Burleigh use
static publication for Whitman; rather it was a living description to create an in-the-moment feeling for readers?
document. Whitman published the collection several
times, adding, deleting, and rewriting poems. After History and Civics
reading O Captain, My Captain, provide students with
the opportunity to read several of the poems in Leaves of Inference in the Study of History
Grass. You could use the poems from which Burleigh has The back matter of O Captain, My Captain includes pages
drawn quotes or allow students to self-select. Gather your of endnotes documenting the source of quotes throughout
students in small groups to discuss the experience of the book. Additionally, a biography lists the sources
reading the poems. Invite students to ponder how a book consulted by Burleigh as he conducted his research. In his
of poetry could reflect a lifetime of experiences. If your author’s note, however, Burleigh clearly notes that some
students were to document their life experiences in “vignettes in the book were imagined to present a ‘you are
poetry, what topics might be important to them? Ask there feeling.’” This presents an opportunity to talk about
students to draft a poem that reflects important aspects inference in the study of history. Burleigh states that his
of their life and context. “imagined vignettes . . . derive from the historical facts.”
Invite a local historian to your classroom (or for a video-
The Roles of Rhetoric conference-based visit) to discuss the role of inference in
On pages sixteen and seventeen, Burleigh explains historical research. Consider the role of storytelling in
Whitman’s attraction to Lincoln, describing their historical writing. When might authors need to make
common love for country, their opposition to slavery, inferences? How much should be inferred or imagined in
and their skill with words. Invite students to consider historical storytelling? If your school uses a history text-
the power of rhetoric and the roles that eloquent and book, invite students to try the following exercise: select
aesthetic writing can play in motivating social change. a passage from the textbook that uses an expository style
Curate a collection of Whitman’s poems and Lincoln’s (relating the facts of an event). Ask students to rewrite the
speeches for your students to read closely. What makes passage as a narrative. What must they infer to tell a good
their writing so powerful? What rhetorical techniques story? Is there further research that they could do to make
do they employ? Invite your students to consider forms their narrative more historically accurate?
of rhetoric that have influence in contemporary times.
What is their own relationship with rhetoric? How Presidential Characteristics
might they use words to influence, to effect change?
On pages eight and nine, Burleigh describes Whitman’s
worry over the state of his country’s government and his
The Art of Description: Burleigh’s hope for a new president who would lead America out of
Writing Style crisis. He had a particular image in mind for both physical
Burleigh’s writing is vivid, engaging, and moving. Invite characteristics and personality traits. Remind students
your students to reread O Captain, My Captain to identify who was eligible to run for president at that time in
moments where the text comes alive for them, moments American history. Invite your students to consider the
when the description causes them to feel immersed in the qualities that might make someone an exceptional
story (see, for example, the passage describing the streets of president. Brainstorm a two-column listing, recording the

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History and Civics continued

quality and the rationale for why this quality is important Burleigh includes graphic descriptions of the injuries and
in the role. Use digital and print resources to learn more deaths suffered by the soldiers, clearly illustrating the
about Lincoln and discuss whether and how he fits your horrors of war. The consequences of war are far reaching
students’ criteria for excellence. To further elaborate their and long lasting. You or your students are likely to know
thinking, ask students to work individually or in small someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
groups to create a job posting for the presidency in as a consequence of participating in military actions.
contemporary times. Guide students who are interested to learn more about
the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. How have our
The Civil War: A Text Set Exploration understandings about PTSD and war changed over
In his illustrator’s note in O Captain, My Captain, Sterling time? Consider, too, how the act of writing poetry helped
Hundley states: “I aim to teach facts, but also hope to Whitman to work through the effects of the horrors that
inspire curiosity, which can only be found where the he witnessed. How can self-expression through writing
answers are not. I trust Burleigh and I have left enough and other art forms support healing and mental health?
mystery in this story to invite wandering minds to find
their own answers and to seek their own paths.” A Life of Service
To support student inquiry, O Captain, My Captain On page twenty-four, Burleigh describes Walt Whitman’s
contains a timeline in the back matter noting key entry into the hospitals of Washington, where men
moments in the civil war. Invite your students to develop wounded on the battlefield were brought to recover or to
a more robust understanding of this conflict in American die. He includes a quote from Whitman: “People used to
history by working with your local school and public say to me: Walt, you are doing miracles for those fellows in
library to offer a text set of books and digital resources the hospitals. I wasn’t. I was . . . doing miracles for myself.”
that will allow your students to pursue questions that they Display this quote and invite your students to discuss its
have about events and people. Some key resources include meaning. Invite your students to create a list of people they
the Library of Congress Civil War Resources for Teachers; know who engage in service roles in society. Ask them to
the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s 150th consider ways (small and large) that they might engage in
Commemoration Site; Russell Freedman’s Abraham public service. What is the role of service in a democratic
Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an society? If your school does not already incorporate service
American Friendship; Jennifer Armstrong’s Photo by Brady: learning projects, consider stating this effort.
A Picture of the Civil War; and additional picture book
biographies, such as Lessa Cline-Ransome’s Words Set Memorializing the Fallen
Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, Barbara Burleigh describes on page thirty-four how Whitman
Kerley’s Walt Whitman: Words for America, Maira recorded names and addresses so that he could write
Kalman’s Looking at Lincoln, Doreen Rappaport’s Abe’s letters to families of the soldiers who died in the hospitals.
Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Marissa These letters must have provided great comfort to the ones
Moss’s Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, who loved these young men. Invite students to reflect on
a Civil War Hero. the ways that we honor the lives of those who have served
in military conflicts. Read about the history of Memorial
The Price of Conflict: America’s Wars Day on the Library of Congress website, and if possible,
and PTSD visit nearby monuments to war veterans. Arrange to speak
Walt Whitman was deeply impacted by his experiences with local veterans who are willing to share how they
visiting the battlefields and hospitals of the Civil War. remember and memorialize those with whom they served.

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Interdisciplinary Activities Reading the Illustrations

Sterling Hundley’s deeply affecting illustrations are well
Poets, Presidents, and Our America matched to Robert Burleigh’s poetic text. After reading
Three American presidents, Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, the Illustrator’s Note in the back matter aloud, ask each
have invited poets to read at their inauguration. Read these student to pick an image that stays with them—one that
inaugural poems with your students, considering how each engages them emotionally and intellectually. Ask
poem interprets what it means to be an American and to students to spend some time writing about the image,
live in America. Read Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear considering: What is the emotional impact of that image?
America Singing” and compare and contrast it to the How does Hundley’s use of color, line, shape, and scale
inaugural poems written at different times in the history of work together to create that impact? What ideas and
the United States of America. Ask your students to work questions does the image inspire for them? Divide the
individually or together to compose a free verse poem that class up into small groups and provide time for students
captures their America, their daily experiences as young to share the image they have selected and their responses.
citizens of our country. Extend this activity by engaging students with art
making. Collaborate with your school art teacher (or a
Mentors community artist). Use Hundley’s images as inspiration
to play with scale, color, and composition. Provide
Walt Whitman greatly admired Abraham Lincoln and,
students with photographs drawn from significant current
despite the fact that they had little interaction, considered
events and invite students to depict the scenes using
Lincoln a mentor through his words and his actions. Invite
illustration that emulates Hundley’s work.
your students to consider the idea of a mentor, adopting a
broad definition of mentorship. Ask students to consider
the people living and deceased who inspire them and who Multitudes
offer life lessons. How do mentors help us to be our best Burleigh uses Whitman’s concept of multitudes to
selves? Ask your students to write about the mentors they introduce his character. Engage your students with
value and to share their writing with the class. If time this idea through a discussion of identity. Hundley’s
allow, students could interview or research the lives of image on page six sets Walt Whitman against a backdrop
their mentors in order to compose a brief biography. of the people with whom he identifies and empathizes.
Invite students to consider the many roles they play in
Love different social realms. Ask them to consider, too, the
people, perspectives and identities that they can readily
It’s impossible to read O Captain, My Captain without
identify with and those whose experiences and viewpoints
understanding that what Walt Whitman felt for
feel less relatable. Using Hundley’s image as inspiration,
Abraham Lincoln was love. Invite your students to
invite students to draw self-portraits that reflect their
consider the many different kinds of love that we can feel,
friendship love, romantic love, family love, affinity love,
community love, etc. Ask students: In what ways does love
sustain us? What can love accomplish? How can love
counter negative emotions such as hate, anger, fear, and

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Books for Children and Young Adults
Armstrong, J. (2005) Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Hopkins, L.B. (editor) (2008). America at War: Poems. Ill.
Civil War. New York: Atheneum. by S. Alcorn. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Kalman, M. (2012). Looking at Lincoln. New York: Nancy

Blanco, R. (2015). One Today: The Inaugural Poem Paulsen Books.
for President Barack Obama. Ill. by D. Pilkey.
New York: Little, Brown. Kerley, B. (2004). Walt Whitman: Words for America. Ill.
by B. Selznick. New York: Scholastic.
Cline-Ransome, L. (2012). Words Set Me Free: The Moss, M. (2011). Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah
Story of Young Frederick Douglass. Ill. by J. Ransome. Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. Ill. by J. Hendrix.
New York: Simon & Schuster. New York. Abrams.

Rappaport, D. (2008). Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of

Freedman, R. (2012). Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Abraham Lincoln. Ill. by K. Nelson. New York: Hyperion.
Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship.
Boston: Clarion.

DIGITAL RESOURCES Inaugural Poems in History

National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Walt Whitman, a kosmos

The Walt Whitman Archive

Project Gutenberg: Leaves of Grass

National Park Service: Lincoln Home: Lincoln’s Speeches

Library of Congress’s Civil War Resources for Teachers

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s 150th Commemoration Site for the Civil War

National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Edutopia: Service Learning

Library of Congress: Memorial Day

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By Robert Burleigh • Illustrated by Sterling Hundley


★ “Engaging and picturesque . . . a substantive

contribution to the recognition of Walt
Whitman and his place in American
literary history for young readers.”
—School Library Connection

“Bold and aspirational.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“An emotionally and historically resonant

homage to two kindred spirits.”
—Publishers Weekly 
ISBN: 978-1-4197-3358-1 Ages 10 and up


Robert Burleigh has written a number of bestselling children’s books that have received multiple starred reviews
and awards, including the Orbis Pictus and the Texas Bluebonnet Master List. He lives outside Chicago.

Sterling Hundley is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work has been regarded among the
mostly highly acclaimed in the illustration world. He was named Illustrator of the Year by the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

This teaching guide was written by Erika Thulin Dawes, an Associate

Professor of Language & Literacy, Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.

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