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Human Migration #4: Tillie the Terrible Swede, by Sue Stauffacher

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students learn the true immigrant story of Tillie Anderson, who became the world’s first female cycling superstar.  Kids gain an appreciation for immigration in the previous century.  They also gain a bit of cultural insight into how competitive sports have changed over time.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



To be able to retell the story of Tillie Anderson, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S. in the 1890s.

Suggested Time:

35-40 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each student will complete a short capture sheet on Tillie the Terrible Swede so that she will be able to remember and retell Tillie’s story.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Ask the students to tell you what they have been working on in their Unit of Inquiry.  Remind them that they have seen photos of real immigrants and heard one fiction story about an immigrant (When Jessie Came Across the Sea).  Today’s lesson will give them a real story of a real immigrant and her contribution to the world of sports after she arrived in her new country.

Because Tillie Anderson was from Sweden, it may be helpful to locate Sweden on a globe so that the children understand the journey she traveled.  Using a globe or map will also link this lesson to last week’s lesson on using an atlas.

2. Main:

Read and discuss Tillie the Terrible Swede by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Sarah McMenemy.   Here are a few tips and things to look for:

McMenemy, the illustrator, uses a limited palette on some of the pages with great effect.  On the first page, where we meet Tillie, most of the colors are in reds or pinks.  Tillie “pops” out at the reader because she is in yellow.  Point this out to the children.  The illustrator has done this on purpose so that we know where to focus our attention.

The students will almost certainly not understand the cultural taboos against women being involved in sports, having a muscular build, or competing so aggressively.  I often ask questions like:

How many of you like to ride bikes?  Boys, where do you like to ride?  Girls, where do you like to ride?  Do any of you like to ride around in slow circles or in a figure eight?

When you do sports, girls, would you like to wear a long dress?  Boys, would you like to wear a long robe when you do sports?   Why or why not?  How did Tillie solve the problem of not having any athletic clothing to wear?  (Answer:  She used her sewing skills and made her own sports garments.)

You may need to clarify words like “velodrome,” “pacing,” “heat,” or “mortified.”  The language in the story is wonderful, but some of the vocabulary will be a stretch for English Language Learners.

Work through the student capture sheet as you go.  This is not meant to be an independent activity, rather a group, class activity.

Once the writing is done, show students real pictures of Tillie from the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame web site.

3. Conclusion:

Remind the students that every immigrant has a story.  We are fortunate to have Tillie’s retold for us in such a lovely picture book.  Encourage the students to retell Tillie’s story to their families this evening and to explore other immigrant stories by checking out the biography section of the library.

  1. Tillie the Terrible Swede by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Sarah McMenemy.
  2. U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame: Tillie Anderson, here.
  3. Student Handout (attached).
Recommended books for this lesson:

Tillie the Terrible Swede by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Sarah McMenemy.



Key Terms:

Cycling, Female Athletes, Bicycle Racing, Bicycle History, Tillie Anderson, Swedish Immigrants, Immigration

Student Handout, Tillie the Terrible Swede