Shana Corey’s The Secret Subway (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2016) tells the story of Alfred Ely Beach’s (1826-1896) dogged determination to bring New York City “into the future” in the late 1800s. Not only were New York’s cobblestone streets littered with garbage during that period, they were congested. Pushcarts, carriages, wagons, buggies, and people made their way through the streets of lower Manhattan while “herds of pigs, sheep, and other animals were [being] driven through [them] on way to slaughter.” Beach’s plan was a subterranean, pneumatically powered railway, but he had difficulty trying to convince William “Boss” Tweed, who was more inclined to support his friends’ ideas.
While Beach did eventually get a charter for his subway, the money soon “dried up” during a financial panic. The headstrong Beach was not deterred. He rented the basement of a clothing store, where, under the cover of night, workers secretly began excavating—and removing dirt, rock, and debris on horse-drawn carts. Finally, in 1870, the 294-foot tunnel and tube were finished, topped off with a “spectacular” waiting room for riders featuring gaslights, flowers, a fountain, and a grand piano. This amazing story, researched by Corey in primary source documents, is illustrated in mixed media by the incomparable Red Nose Studio. (Inside the book jacket is a look at how the illustrations were created.) The standards-aligned lesson below offers a number of suggestions on using the book in elementary classrooms, and can be adapted for a range of grades and abilities. Here’s a (video) peek inside the book.
Shana Corey’s The Secret Subway
Teaching note: As students answer each question below, encourage them to support their claims with textual evidence.
A subway is an underground tunnel that allows people to travel by train. Instructor’s Note. Show students a map of New York City’s subway system or one that is local. When you look at the map of the subway system, what do you notice? Why are subways important in New York and other cities? How do they make travel easier? (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.1, 3.1)
Look at the illustrations throughout the book, how do you think the illustrations were designed and created? Read the inside of the book jacket and confirm whether your prediction about the illustration process was correct. Describe the sequence of steps required to create each image. How will these illustrations enhance the reader’s understanding of the story? (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.7, 3.7)
Based on the illustrations, the title of the book, and what you know about New York City in the mid-1800s, what do you think the story is about? Provide evidence by citing specific pages. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.1, 3.1)
What do you know about time period in the book? How did people travel? What types of important historical events were taking place in the 1860s? As you read, record the series of events in the graphic organizer below. What important historical events lead to the creation of the railroad? Then, in your own words describe the beginning, middle, and end of the story. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.3)
- Extension: Find an example of cause and effect in the story. Why is it important to find both cause and effect as we read? Locate five sequence words in the story and explain how the words help the reader follow the events. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.3.3)
Many words in the book are in capital letters, for example “DISGUSTING,” “GARBAGE,” “TALKED,” “THINKER,” “ACTION” “ROADBLOCK,” and “SENSATION.” Examine the sentences and paragraphs with the capitalized words. Explain why these words are important by providing evidence from the story. Use the word web (see below) to record your responses. (Reading Informational: Craft and Structure: RI.2.4, 3.4)
Why do New York’s citizens need a new way to travel through the city (i.e., cause)? What is Alfred Ely Beach’s idea to reduce the travel issues in New York (effect)? How is his idea different from the ideas of others? Do you think his idea will work? Why or why not? Support your response with details from the text. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.2, 3.2)
The author explains that the cost to ride the subway train was 25 cents for citizens. Was 25 cents a large or small amount of money during the 1860s? What is the cost to ride the subway today? Do you think it is expensive or inexpensive? Provide examples from the story to support your response. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.1)
Why is Boss Tweed an important character in the story? What type of person is Boss Tweed (e.g., character traits)? What might he try to do for his “friends” if he takes control of the railroad? Use evidence to support your claims. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.1, 3.1)
Eventually the city builds a subway that is powered by electricity. Why might this be more accepted than Alfred Ely Beach’s idea? Is the electric powered train better than the fan operated train? Why or why not? Support your answers with details from the story. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.2.3, 3.3)
Based on the series of events in the story, what is the main idea of the story? What are the important details that highlight or support the main idea? Provide evidence to support your conclusion. (Reading Informational: Key Ideas and Details: RI.3.2)
Author’s Note Connection
Read the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book. What new information does the reader learn about Alfred Ely Beach and his subway here? Give details from the story and the note to support your responses. (Reading Informational: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: RI.2.9, 3.9)
Use the Internet to search important names or terms discussed in the author’s note. As you search, look for two or three new details about Alfred Ely Beach and/or his railroad. Share your findings with a partner. (Reading Informational: Craft and Structure: RI.3.5; Speaking and Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration: SL.2.1, 3.1)
The author describes the subway system as “magical.” Do you agree or disagree? Why? Use evidence from the text to support your answer. (Reading Informational: Craft and Structure: RI.3.6)
Select a subway system somewhere in the world. Research where the subway travels, how the subway was designed, and when the subway was established using online sources and/or books. Clearly introduce the topic, provide relevant facts, definitions, and a concise conclusion. (Writing: Text Types and Purposes: W.2.2, .3.2).
If you could design a subway system what would it look like? Where would it travel? Create a diorama, painting, or digital illustration of your new subway system. Prepare a presentation that highlights where the subway system travels, how it is powered, why it is helpful to the community, and any features that make it special. Be sure to speak clearly and provide relevant details aligned to the key points. (Speaking and Listening: Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: SL.2.4, 3.4)
About the co-author
Dawn Jacobs Martin has spent her career supporting students with disabilities through various roles as a practitioner, researcher, Special Education Director, and Assistant Professor. She continues to improve the academic outcomes for students through teacher development, instructional design, and research in the areas of response to intervention, social support, and parent involvement. Feel free to contact her with questions at email@example.com.
For a related article on Shana Corey, see Barbara Auerbach’s “Old-Time Gals with Gumption.”
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