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The March of Dimes Foundation (children); Courtesy of Boston Children’s Hospital Archive (girl); American Photo Archive/Alamy Stock Photo (masks); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh (Dr. Salk); Science Lab/Alamy Stock Photo (background)
From Fear to Hope

Nearly 100 years ago, a deadly virus called polio spread sickness and fear across America. My grandmother told me about this frightening time. Her stories provide lessons—and hope—for what we’re facing today.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March/April 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will discover the author’s message of hope in comparing polio outbreaks of the past with the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
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Author's Purpose

As you read, think about why Lauren Tarshis wrote this story. What message does she want to share with you?

I wish you had known my grandmother, Jennie Ross. She was warm and funny, and I know you would have loved her. (She definitely would have loved you.) Born in 1920, she lived a long life. It was mostly happy but sometimes very difficult.

Often she’d tell me stories of her childhood as we paged through her photo albums. I especially loved her wedding album, filled with glossy photographs from 1938. My grandmother was beautiful in her pearl-white dress. I was especially fascinated by the flower girl, my grandmother’s 10-year-old cousin, Dolly Yasnitz. She reminded me of the star of the movie The Wizard of Oz.

I wish you had known my grandmother, Jennie Ross. She was warm and funny. I know you would have loved her. (She definitely would have loved you.) She was born in 1920 and lived a long life. It was mostly happy but sometimes very difficult.

Often she’d tell me stories of her childhood as we looked through her photo albums. I especially loved her wedding album, from 1938. My grandmother was beautiful in her white dress. I mostly loved looking at the flower girl. She was my grandmother’s 10-year-old cousin, Dolly Yasnitz. She reminded me of a young movie star.

But as my grandmother told me one day, there was something more striking about Dolly than her adorable smile. Under that blue dress, Dolly’s little legs were covered with metal braces. The braces, bound tightly to her legs with leather straps, kept her stable so she could stand. At my grandmother’s wedding, she made her way down the aisle with slow, halting steps, with the help of two wooden crutches.

Dolly’s legs had been damaged by a disease called polio. Until the 1950s, polio was one of the most dreaded diseases in the world. It killed thousands. Many who survived were like Dolly, left with lifelong damage to their limbs.

But my grandmother told me something surprising about Dolly one day. Under her blue dress, Dolly’s little legs were covered with metal braces. The braces were held tightly to her legs with leather straps. They kept her steady so she could stand. At my grandmother’s wedding, she made her way down the aisle with slow, halting steps. She used two wooden crutches.

Dolly’s legs had been damaged by a disease called polio. Until the 1950s, polio was one of the most dreaded diseases in the world. It killed thousands. Many who survived were left with lifelong damage to their limbs.

San Antonio Express

 

Schools Closed

To stop the spread of polio, officials closed schools for weeks at a time.

From Fear to Pride

Dolly and my grandmother grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. Their parents and their parents’ siblings had all escaped from Russia, where, as Jewish people, they had faced hateful prejudice. They came to the United States in the early 1900s and all settled in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Life wasn’t easy. They worked hard jobs in factories and shipyards. They struggled to learn English. But over time the family made strides. My grandmother’s father, Ben—my great-grandfather—became the first Jewish police captain in Chester, a source of great pride for the family. My grandmother’s cousin Isador was a gifted piano player who gave lessons to the family, including Dolly. Isador grew up to become a famous composer for movies.

But amid the happy times, the threat of illness was ever present. My grandmother and Dolly grew up before many modern vaccines and medicines. In 1918, two years before my grandmother was born, a pandemic of influenza—the flu—killed more than 50 million people around the world. Outbreaks of measles and mumps were common. Without antibiotics, an ear infection or a simple cut could turn deadly.

Dolly and my grandmother grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. Their parents and their aunts and uncles had all escaped from Russia. Because they were Jewish, they had faced hateful treatment there. They came to the United States in the early 1900s and all settled in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Life wasn’t easy. They worked hard jobs in factories and shipyards. They struggled to learn English. But over time, the family did better. My grandmother’s father, Ben—my great-grandfather—became the first Jewish police captain in Chester. The whole family was very proud.

But along with the happy times was always the threat of illness. My grandmother and Dolly grew up before many modern vaccines and medicines. In 1918, a pandemic of influenza—the flu—killed more than 50 million people around the world. Outbreaks of measles and mumps were common. Without antibiotics, an ear infection or a simple cut could turn deadly.

The Globe and Mail 

 

How were the polio outbreaks of the past like Covid-19 outbreaks today?

Deadly polio outbreaks in the first half of the 1900s changed the lives of millions of people across America. And what’s happening today with Covid-19 isn’t all that different. As you look at the pictures on this page, think about what the past was like. How does it look similar to the world today?

People Quarantined

During outbreaks, many were told to quarantine at home. Public health officers would put signs like the one above on the doors of kids who were infected. 

Polio Mysteries

Polio was especially feared. The disease had been stalking humans for thousands of years. But it was mostly unknown in the United States until the late 1800s.

Outbreaks struck every few years, exploding out of nowhere like horror-movie monsters. My grandmother had vivid memories of when polio struck Chester. Her school would shut down for weeks or longer. Stores and movie theaters and libraries would close. When a person became ill, their entire family was forced to quarantine. Some towns even placed armed guards at their train stations to prevent outsiders from spreading the illness. Hospitals became overwhelmed.

Nobody knew what caused polio or how it spread. And there was no treatment. Fortunately, most people suffered mild symptoms—a fever, sore throat, body aches. But in severe cases, polio attacked the nerves that controlled muscles, including muscles needed for breathing. This is how people died. Others were left paralyzed, unable to use their legs or arms.

Anyone could catch polio. But terrifyingly, the disease most often struck children.

Polio was especially feared. The disease had been around for thousands of years. But it was mostly unknown in the United States until the late 1800s. 

Outbreaks struck every few years. They exploded out of nowhere like horror-movie monsters. My grandmother had clear memories of when polio struck Chester. Her school would shut down for weeks or longer. Stores and movie theaters and libraries would close. When a person became ill, their entire family was forced to quarantine. Hospitals became overwhelmed.

Nobody knew what caused polio or how it spread. And there was no treatment. Fortunately, most people got only a fever, sore throat, or body aches. But in severe cases, polio badly affected the muscles. It could even attack the muscles needed for breathing. This is how people died. Others were left paralyzed, unable to use their legs or arms.

Anyone could catch polio. But sadly, the disease most often struck children. 

Bettman/Getty Images 

 

Kids Learned Remotely

In 1937, when Chicago schools closed because of polio, computers hadn’t been invented yet. So teachers taught 325,000 kids over the radio. Daily class schedules were printed in local newspapers.

Terrified and Lucky

As my grandmother remembered it, Dolly got sick when she was 6. The family rushed her to the hospital, fearing the worst. Many children with polio died of it. Others spent months in the hospital, away from their families. There were few medicines to ease pain, no streaming shows or video games to help pass the time.

Dolly had a severe case. But after a few weeks in the hospital, she was able to return home. My grandmother and Dolly’s other cousins took turns visiting—singing to her, performing puppet shows, and reading her favorite nursery rhymes.

Over the next year, Dolly learned to walk using crutches, with braces that locked her legs into place. She was able to return to school and continue learning piano. She was thrilled when my grandmother asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding.

Dolly got sick when she was 6. The family rushed her to the hospital, fearing the worst. Many children with polio died of it. Others spent months in the hospital, away from their families. There were few medicines to ease pain. There were no streaming shows or video games to help pass the time.

Dolly had a serious case. But after a few weeks in the hospital, she returned home. My grandmother and Dolly’s other cousins took turns visiting. They sang to her, performed puppet shows, and read her favorite nursery rhymes.

Over the next year, Dolly learned to walk using crutches. Braces locked her legs into place. She was able to return to school and continue learning piano. She was thrilled when my grandmother asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding.

Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

 

Scientists Raced to Find a Vaccine

Scientists worked for years to develop a vaccine to protect people from polio. When it was announced that Jonas Salk’s (above) vaccine was safe and effective, church bells rang across the country.

“Polio Pioneers”

By the time of that wedding, scientists had begun to solve some of the mysteries of polio. They would soon learn that it spread through the feces—poop—of a person who was infected. If that person didn’t wash their hands thoroughly, they could leave microscopic bits of the virus behind on surfaces for another person to touch. The virus could then enter that second person’s body through the mouth.

During the 1940s and early ’50s, Americans mobilized in an all-out crusade against polio. People across the country volunteered to help raise money for research. Children sold lemonade. Disney characters like Mickey Mouse paraded across movie screens, urging audience members to contribute. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” they sang. “We will cure polio!”

Millions of dollars poured into laboratories where researchers were racing to develop a vaccine. And in 1953, there was jubilation when a 38-year-old scientist named Jonas Salk announced that he had successfully developed a polio vaccine.

The following year, 1.8 million children known as “polio pioneers” lined up in their schools to receive the vaccine. Within a few years, polio cases in America plummeted. By the time I was born, in the 1960s, polio was almost unheard of in the United States.

By the time of that wedding, scientists had begun to solve some of the mysteries of polio. They learned that it spread through the poop of an infected person. What if that person didn’t wash their hands carefully enough? They could leave tiny amounts of the virus on surfaces. Another person might touch the surface. The virus could then enter that second person’s body through the mouth.

During the 1940s and early ’50s, Americans mobilized in an all-out crusade against polio. People across the country volunteered to help raise money for research. Children sold lemonade. Disney characters like Mickey Mouse paraded across movie screens. They urged audience members to donate. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” they sang. “We will cure polio!”

Millions of dollars poured into laboratories where researchers were racing to develop a vaccine. And in 1953, there was jubilation: A 38-year-old scientist named Jonas Salk announced that he had successfully developed a polio vaccine.

The following year, 1.8 million children lined up in their schools to receive the vaccine. They were known as “polio pioneers.” Within a few years, polio cases in America plummeted. By the time I was born, in the 1960s, polio was almost unheard of in the United States. 

The March of Dimes Foundation

 

Celebrities Helped Raise Awareness

Famous Americans, like the actress Marilyn Monroe (below), encouraged people to stay safe and helped spread the word about the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Lessons of Hope

The vaccine couldn’t help people like Dolly; her bout with polio left her with complications for the rest of her life. Like my grandmother, she married and started a family. But as she got older, the pain in her legs worsened. It was hard for her to work, to travel, to walk. She died at the relatively young age of 71, in 1999.

My grandmother lived much longer. She died just nine years ago, at the age of 92. I miss her deeply—and think of her constantly. And the polio stories she shared are echoing loudly through my mind these days, as we all cope with a different disease: Covid-19.

There are so many similarities. Like polio, Covid-19 was a mystery to scientists when it first appeared in December 2019. The outbreaks have shut down our schools, closed our restaurants and libraries, and canceled our vacations and sports seasons. Covid-19 makes us feel scared and uncertain.

But my grandmother’s stories of polio give me hope. We conquered polio. And this gives me confidence that we will conquer Covid-19. While I was working on this story, the first vaccines against Covid-19 were being approved.

I will always have memories of this remarkable time we are living through. And of course, so will you. Perhaps one day, you will pass your stories on to your grandchildren, with lessons that will fill their hearts with hope.

The vaccine couldn’t help people like Dolly. Her bout with polio left her with troubles for the rest of her life. Like my grandmother, she married and started a family. But as she got older, the pain in her legs worsened. It was hard for her to work, travel, or walk. She died at the age of 71,
in 1999.

My grandmother lived much longer. She died just nine years ago, at the age of 92. I miss her deeply. And I think of her constantly. The polio stories she shared are echoing loudly through my mind these days. Because now, we all cope with a different disease: Covid-19.

They are similar in so many ways. Like polio, Covid-19 was a mystery to scientists when it first appeared in December 2019. The outbreaks have shut down our schools and closed our restaurants and libraries. They have canceled our vacations and sports seasons. Covid-19 makes us feel scared and uncertain.

But my grandmother’s stories of polio give me hope. We conquered polio. And this gives me confidence that we will conquer Covid-19. While I was working on this story, the first vaccines against Covid-19 were being approved.

I will always have memories of this remarkable time we are living through. And of course, so will you. Perhaps one day, you will pass your stories on to your grandchildren, with lessons that will fill their hearts with hope.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore the Storyworks Archive

Several features in Storyworks this year have touched on polio. The play Go! in our September 2020 issue shows how Wilma Rudolph overcame polio to become a champion runner. The paired text article “A Sweet Treat in a Tough Time” reports how the game Candy Land was invented by a woman recovering from polio. Have students read these as a text set along with this article and think about the question “How can a serious illness spur hope and innovation?”

Watch a Video

Share this video from Scholastic SuperScience, in which kids from around the country discuss their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ask students to compare and contrast their own experiences with what they hear in the video. How would they answer the questions posed?

Write Your Story

The article ends with the sentence “Perhaps one day, you will pass your stories on to your grandchildren, with lessons that will fill their hearts with hope.” Invite students to write their own stories of the past year. With a parent or guardian’s permission, they can send them to Scholastic’s My History Project.

Listen to Elvis on the Radio

Elvis Presley recorded a number of radio spots, encouraging people to donate to the March of Dimes to help combat polio. To help your students understand the impact of this, ask them to name their favorite singer, actor, or athlete, and imagine being asked by that person to participate in something important.

Learn More About Jonas Salk

Biography.com has a short video on the life of Jonas Salk—where he was born, what he studied, and how he convinced people to take his vaccine for polio by injecting himself, his wife, and his three children.

About the Article

Skills

author’s purpose, vocabulary, supporting details, key idea, compare and contrast, inference, key details, text features, explanatorywriting

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

This personal narrative tells the story of how polio affected the author’s family. It includes informational passages about polio, how people coped with outbreaks, and how it was eventually defeated with the development of a vaccine. The article ends with a note of hope that, like polio, we will also conquer Covid-19.

Structure

The structure is nonlinear, opening with the author recalling her childhood then recounting her grandmother’s youth. It ends in the present. The article includes a sidebar that conveys information through photos and captions.

Language

The article is written in the first person. It contains one simile and some challenging domain-specific words, such as antibiotics, limbs, and bout.

Knowledge Demands 

The article mentions prejudice against Jewish people, the 1918 flu pandemic, and The Wizard of Oz.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Engage Students, Watch a Video, Preview Vocabulary

  • Invite students to think about the title of the article. What do they think caused fear? What might have brought hope? Why might the author want to write about moving from fear to hope?

  • Your students will likely remember two other stories we’ve created this year touch on the polio epidemics of the early 1900s. You might want to remind them of these stories and ask them to recall some facts about polio that they learned. (In September 2020, the play Go! explains how runner Wilma Rudolph overcame childhood polio; in October/November 2020, the article “A Sweet Treat in a Tough Time” explains that the game Candy Land was invented during a polio outbreak.

  • Show or assign the video “Behind the Scenes: From Fear to Hope” (available in your Resources tab) to engage students in the topic and learn how author Lauren Tarshis wrote the article. Students can complete the Video Discussion Questions on their own, in groups in your classroom, or in virtual breakout rooms.

  • Show or assign the Vocabulary Slideshow (available in your Resources tab) to preview challenging words. Follow up with the Vocabulary Skill Builder before or after reading. Highlighted words: limbs, antibiotics, paralyzed, mobilized, crusade, jubilation, plummeted, bout

2. Reading and Discussing

  • Have students read the article. They can also listen to the Author Read-Aloud, which includes some additional questions and prompts from the author. 
  • Put students in groups, either in your classroom or in virtual breakout rooms. Ask them to read the article a second time and discuss or write their answers to the close-reading questions and critical-thinking questions  (available in your Resources tab).

Close-Reading Questions

  1. In the first section, what mood does author Lauren Tarshis create as she describes spending time with her grandmother? What do you learn about her grandmother’s cousin Dolly? Why do you think Lauren describes Dolly at her grandmother’s wedding? (author’s purpose) Lauren creates a warm and loving mood as she describes her time with her grandmother. You learn that Dolly had been ill with polio and had to wear leg braces to stand. Lauren’s description of Dolly walking down the aisle with leg braces and crutches helps you understand how polio affected people’s beloved family members.
  2. Reread “From Fear to Pride.” What details in this section help you understand why Lauren’s family felt pride? What made them fearful? (supporting details) Lauren’s great-grandparents had come from Russia and worked very hard to succeed. The family felt proud that her great-grandfather was the first Jewish police captain in Chester, Pennsylvania, and that a cousin became a famous movie composer. They were fearful first in Russia, where they faced hateful prejudice against Jewish people. Later, they were fearful of the outbreaks of diseases, like mumps, measles, and the flu, that killed many people because there weren’t vaccines or antibiotics to help protect people against these illnesses. 
  3. Reread “Polio Mysteries.” Based on this and the previous sections, why was polio “especially feared”? (key idea) Polio was especially feared because it could leave people paralyzed or having difficulty walking, like Dolly. In the worst cases, people died because the disease affected the muscles that control breathing. Furthermore, it often struck children. 
  4. What details in the section “Polio Mysteries” seem similar to what we have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic? (compare and contrast) Schools, stores, movie theaters, and libraries closed. Families had to quarantine. Hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.
  5. In the section “Terrified and Lucky,” what can you infer about Dolly’s family? In what ways was Dolly lucky? (inference) You can infer that Dolly’s family cared about her very much. They did what they could to comfort and entertain her in the hospital. Lauren’s grandmother delighted her by asking her to be the flower girl in her wedding. She was lucky because she learned to walk again and could return to school and piano lessons—and because she had a loving family.
  6. Based on the section “ ‘Polio Pioneers,’ ” what did Americans’ crusade against polio include? What was the result? (key details) The crusade included raising money to do research on polio. People across the country got involved, including children. As a result, millions of dollars went into laboratories, and in 1953, scientist Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. Within a few years, there were very few cases of polio in the United States.
  7. In the last section, why does Lauren say her grandmother’s stories give her hope? (author’s purpose) Her grandmother’s stories give her hope because she sees that people have lived through times of terrible disease outbreaks in the past and have gotten through them. Like polio, Covid-19 has changed our lives for now, but there is hope, especially as vaccines are being distributed, that our lives will return to normal. 

Critical-Thinking Questions

  1. Why do you think Lauren wanted to tell you a personal family story about polio instead of writing an informational article about it? (author’s purpose) By telling a family story, Lauren can share more up-close human details about how polio affected Dolly and the whole family. She can describe the fear and uncertainty that people lived with. The story helps readers feel as if they know Dolly, Lauren’s grandmother, and other family members, which makes us care about them. 
  2. Look at the photos and read the captions that go across the bottom of pages 6, 7, and 8. How do they add to the author’s message of hope? (text features) The photos and captions show situations that are very similar to what we are facing today: People quarantined, schools closed, kids learned remotely, and eventually a vaccine was developed. Seeing that we have experienced such a similar time in the past makes the present seem less scary. 
  3. Look at the photo and caption “Kids Learned Remotely,” on page 7. In the scene, what is similar to and different from today’s remote learning? Which kind of remote learning do you think you would prefer? (compare and contrast) The scene is similar because kids are learning from home. It is different because they are listening to instruction over the radio, and their class schedules were printed in newspapers. Today, remote learning takes place with computers, and students can see and interact with their teachers and other kids in the class. Answers will vary for the second part of the question.

3. SEL Focus

Resilience

We hope that by looking at another time similar to ours, students will feel less daunted and more resilient, knowing that hope lies ahead. Explain that resilience means the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. Then ask students: How did Dolly show resilience after having polio? How have you shown resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic? Dolly showed resilience by walking again, even though she had to use leg braces and crutches. She returned to school and started taking piano lessons again. Eventually, she got married and had a family. Answers will vary for the second part of the question. Encourage students to recognize that keeping up with school—in person or remotely—shows resilience. We recognize that some students have been more acutely affected than others by the pandemic, with the illness or death of a loved one or financial hardship affecting their family. If this is the case in your classroom, take special care to notice students’ feelings and allow them space to express them as they wish (you might have students respond by drawing or using other forms of expression) or to remain quiet.

4. Skill Building and Writing

  • Distribute or assign the Author’s Purpose Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab), which will prepare students to respond to the writing prompt at the end of the article. 
  • Distribute or assign the Compare and Contrast Slide Deck (available in your Resources tab), where students can compare the experiences of living through the era of polio with that of Covid-19.

Great Ideas for Remote Learning

  • Have students use our Text Features Slideshow (available in your Resources tab) to re-create the sidebar “How were the polio outbreaks of the past like Covid-19 outbreaks today?” The final slide provides a template for students to insert pictures from today to replace the ones in the article and to rewrite the captions as necessary. They can share their slides with the class or in small groups, using the “share screen” feature. 
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

After reading the article together, have students return to pages 4 and 5 and look at the photos again. Ask them to write a caption for each one, based on what they learned in the article. Prompt them to think about what each person is doing and why, or what might have happened to them. Remote-learning tip: You can make this an asynchronous assignment, then come together in your virtual classroom to have students share and discuss the captions they wrote. 

For Advanced Readers

Have students review the section “Polio Pioneers,” which describes the development of the polio vaccine. Invite some students to research to find out more about Jonas Salk and how he created the vaccine. Ask others to read recent articles about the development of Covid-19 vaccines. Then have students come together to share what they learned and compare and contrast the creation of the vaccines. 

For ELL Students

Gather students in a small group in your physical or virtual classroom. Have them read the lower-Lexile version independently, section by section, pausing to write down words or sentences they find difficult. (You can also have them do this before meeting as a group.) Pause at the end of each section and discuss what students found difficult. Make sure they understand the main idea of each section before going on to the next.