Why and How I Teach With Historical Fiction
Why one teacher uses historical fiction in the classroom, tips for choosing good historical fiction, and strategies for helping students differentiate between fact and fiction
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Here's the story on historical fiction in my classroom: It illuminates time periods, helps me integrate the curriculum, and enriches social studies.
Just take Amy's word for it. At the end of our westward-expansion unit, while modeling her journal entry after a fictional account we'd read, this fifth grader wrote: "Dear Diary, July 30, 1852: This journey has been heart-wrenching, thirst-quenching, and most of all, an adventure I will never forget." Blending stories into a study of history turns the past into a dynamic place.
Of course, historical fiction doesn't stand alone in my instructional program; even the best literature cannot address skills and processes unique to social studies that kids must learn. I have students balance fiction with fact, validate historical hypotheses with research. Historical fiction is the spice.
To help you build good fiction into your social studies program, below you'll find:
- Seven Reasons I Teach With Historical Fiction
- Tips for Choosing Good Historical Fiction
- Fifteen Fabulous Historical Fiction Books
- Is Pocahontas Real? Discovering Where History Stops and the Story Starts
- It piques kids' curiosity. Although I sometimes begin units with chapter books, more often I start with picture books because they're engaging and full of information. Before I read aloud, we make a class list of what students already know about the topic, and then I say: "When I finish reading, I'd like each of you to ask a question related to the story. The only rule is, no question can be asked twice." Afterward, I launch investigations, saying, "Now that we've looked at what happened to one pioneer family, let's find out if their experience was typical or unusual."
- It levels the playing field. Some kids come to class with a deep background knowledge to draw upon, while others have just shallow reservoirs. Reading historical fiction promotes academic equity because comparing books from one unit to the next provides kids with equal opportunities to develop historical analogies. I ask, "How is the story we read for this unit similar to and different from the one we read last month?"
- It hammers home everyday details. Picture books today provide visual and contextual clues to how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, and so on. When accurately portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and supplement - each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.
- It puts people back into history. Social studies texts are often devoted to coverage rather than depth. Too often, individuals - no matter how famous or important - are reduced to a few sentences. Children have difficulty converting these cryptic descriptions and snapshots into complex individuals who often had difficult choices to make, so myths and stereotypes flourish. Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are, neither all good nor all bad.
- It presents the complexity of issues. If you were to draw a topographical map of an issue, there would be hills and valleys, because most issues are multifaceted. Yet traditionally, historical issues have been presented to children as flat, one-dimensional, or single-sided. Historical fiction restores the landscape of history, warts and all, so children can discover that dilemmas are age-old. My kids often make lists of the costs and benefits of historical decisions. For example, they draw two posters - one encouraging American colonists to join the Patriots, the other urging them to stay loyal to King George. They also write 35- to 45-second infomercials for each side.
- It promotes multiple perspectives. It's important for students to share their perspectives, while respecting the opinions of others. Historical fiction introduces children to characters who have different points of view and offers examples of how people deal differently with problems. It also informs students about the interpretive nature of history, showing how authors and illustrators deal with an issue in different ways.
- It connects social studies learning to the rest of our school day. Historical fiction, while enhancing understanding of the past, can help you integrate social studies across the curriculum.
There's an abundance of historical fiction in libraries, catalogs, and bookstores. To help select the best, use the following criteria and check out the resources listed below.
The historical fiction you choose should:
- present a well-told story that doesn't conflict with historical records,
- portray characters realistically,
- present authentic settings,
- artfully fold in historical facts,
- provide accurate information through illustrations, and
- avoid stereotypes and myths.
- Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, compiled annually since 1972 by the Children's Book Council in cooperation with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). This is the most reliable list I've found. Careful attention is paid to authenticity and historical accuracy. Single copies cost $2. Send a check and a self-addressed, stamped (3 oz.) 6-by-9-inch envelope to the Children's Book Council, 568 Broadway, Suite 404, New York, NY 10012.
- Social Studies and the Young Learner, a quarterly magazine published by NCSS, features a regular column on books appropriate for elementary social studies and suggestions for use. To subscribe ($15/year), contact the National Council for the Social Studies, 3501 Newark St. NW, Washington, DC 20016; (202) 966-7840.
- An Annotated Bibliography of Historical Fiction for the Social Studies, Grades 5-12, by Fran Silverblank, published by Kendall/Hunt for the National Council for the Social Studies, $14.95; (800) 228-0810.
It's a challenge to select titles that are authentic, have a fresh slant, represent diverse groups, are easily readable, are of high literary quality, and are enriched with illustrations. The following reviews of 1994 titles are excerpted from Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, compiled by practicing teachers and published by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in cooperation with the Children's Book Council (CBC). I have added my own teaching strategies to each.
Casey Over There by Staton Rabin, illustrated by Greg Shed (Harcourt); 32 pages; $15
This is a touching story of two brothers whose lives were affected by World War I. Casey fought and his younger brother, Aubrey, waited and worried. Aubrey's letter to Uncle Sam initiates a sensitive response from the president. The illustrations add intensity to the story.
Teaching Strategy: I make a template of a T-shirt out of a file folder for students to create T-shirts for characters in books. Make one for each of the brothers in the story with a slogan and a symbol, then hang T-shirts with clothespins on a clothesline suspended in your classroom.
In America by Marissa Moss (Dutton); 32 pages; $14.99
Walter's grandfather tells the story of immigrating to America. Walter learns about his grandfather's village in Lithuania and about courage through his grandfather's experience.
Teaching Strategy: Storyboards tell lots about what kids understand. For this story, fold a piece of drawing paper into eight panels: a title panel, six depicting what Walter learns about Lithuania, and the final panel for what he learns about courage.
Seminole Diary: Remembrances of a Slave by Dolores Johnson (Macmillan); 32 pages; $14.95
Libbie, a slave, tells of the peaceful coexistence of African-American slaves and the Seminole Indians. In the Seminole villages, runaway slaves found a haven of mutual respect.
Teaching Strategy: I recommend pairing off students and having them write poetry for two voices: one voice for the African-American and one voice for the Seminole Indian. Have the kids share their poems with the class.
The Sad Night: The Story of an Aztec Victory and a Spanish Loss by Sally Schofer Mathews (Clarion); 40 pages; $16.95
In text surrounded by Aztec codices, the story of this ancient civilization is recounted. Told from the Aztec perspective, this book connects the past with a modern-day discovery.
Teaching Strategy: I have my class practice writing newspaper headlines from different perspectives. This book lends itself to four perspectives - Aztec, Spanish, past, and present.
Hilde and Eli: Children of the Holocaust by David A. Adler, illustrated by Karen Ritz (Holiday House); 32 pages; $15.95
Children of the Holocaust are like any others: Hilde Rosenzweig loved to ride her tricycle and play with dolls; Eli Lax studied hard and loved animals.
Teaching Strategy: Discuss how the lives of the characters in this story compare or contrast with the lives of the children today or with the fictional account in the book Doesn't Fall Off His Horse(below).
Doesn't Fall Off His Horse by Virginia A. Stroud (Dial); 32 pages; $14.99
Narrative prose and exceptional artwork trace this dangerous adventure back to the Oklahoma Territory of the 1890s. Readers experience the life of a Kiowa boy, as told by a very old man to his great-granddaughter.
Teaching Strategy: As a class, we often create a hands-head-heart chart. List what the Kiowa boy does in one column (hands), what he knows in the second column (head), and how he feels in the third (heart). Then ask: What are some generalizations we can make about life for a Kiowa boy?
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (Philomel); 48 pages; $15.95
Two young Union boys from very different backgrounds are caught up in the travesties of war in Confederate territory. This is a poignant Civil War story passed down through generations, including the generation of the author.
Teaching Strategy: My students and I brainstorm a list of questions characters might be asked in a magazine interview. Then I have each student choose a character and seven questions to answer about him in writing. Or I have students work in pairs, posing as an interviewer and interviewee.
Steal Away Home by Lois Ruby (Macmillan); 176 pages; $14.95
History, drama, and mystery are interwoven in two overlapping stories: one of the Underground Railroad of the 1850s and the other of a young girl in Lawrence, Kansas, in the 1990s.
Teaching Strategy: After introducing kids to different kinds of graphic organizers, I ask them to draw a Venn diagram showing the events and characteristics of 1850s, those of the 1990s, and those the two eras share.
Clouds of Terror by Catherine A. Welch, illustrated by Laurie K. Johnson (Carolrhoda); 48 pages; $11.95
This fictional account of an 1870s invasion by Rocky Mountain locusts of a Swedish-American family's farm in Minnesota is gripping and realistic. Central themes are life on a l9th-century prairie, economic hardship, family coping responses, and children's roles.
Teaching Strategy: One of our language arts goals is to write friendly letters. Ask students to write letters to make-believe relatives in Sweden about the experiences of each family member in the story.
Stranded at Plimoth Plantation 1626 by Gary Bowen (HarperCollins); 88 pages; $19.95
Via his journal entries and woodcuts, young Christopher Sears recounts the daily life of the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation in 1626 and 1627.
Teaching Strategy: I ask kids to imagine a Pilgrim as a busy executive with a tight schedule and then have them create a planner for him or her for a day. Kids verify the accuracy of the schedule using other resources we find in the library. I extend the activity by asking kids to schedule other days, such as the Sabbath, three days around the first Thanksgiving, and so on. Then I ask: What's similar to our lives today?
The Shadow Children by Steven Schnur, illustrated by Herbert Tauss (Morrow); 96 pages; $14
The ghosts of Jewish children haunt a rural village in post-World War II France in this powerful and moving tale of a boy and his grandfather.
Teaching Strategy: Use a T-chart to separate fact from fiction.
With Every Drop of Blood: A Novel of the Civil War by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Delacorte/BDD); 228 pages; $15.95
In this first-rate novel, two young men are caught up in the Civil War: Johnny is on a bold mission to supply Rebel troops, while Cush, a Yankee, is a runaway slave. They form an unlikely alliance during the final days of the war.
Teaching Strategy: I feel that getting kids to look at things from more than one point of view is important. One way to do this for this novel is to have kids write journal entries from each boy's point of view. Kids fashion journals out of half sheets of paper. This seems to stimulate creativity, because staring at a whole sheet of blank paper can be intimidating!
Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury (Delacorte/BDD); 192 pages; $15.95
As Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii, Tomi and his family face prejudice and hatred after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Father is taken to an internment camp and Grandfather disappears. Tomi discovers how people respond to crisis.
Teaching Strategy: My students spend a math period constructing a survey to see what members of the community know about Japanese-American internment. They pool their information; do simple statistics with mean, mode, and median; and create charts.
The Captive by Joyce Hansen (Scholastic); 128 pages; $13.95
This novel chronicles the life of a young Ashanti boy from his captivity in West Africa to his life as a slave in Salem, Massachusetts, and then to freedom with African-American ship captain Paul Cuffe.
Teaching Strategy: I have students create symbols for the major events in the main character's life. I give them enough exposure to the time period so that their symbols are culturally accurate as well as intellectually on target. Then I have students organize the symbols into a pictorial time line.
The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic); 288 pages; $14.95
This novel is about the experiences of five generations of an African-American family on Curry Island, South Carolina. The book encompasses the Lewis family's joys and challenges, beginning with the first slave boat that landed on the island.
Teaching Strategy: It's fun for students to compose a five-generation newspaper. I divide the class into five groups, assign each group a generation, and cut a piece of notebook paper lengthwise for each student. Each student writes an article on his or her strip representing experiences and points of view of the generation. Kids use black felt-tip pens to write their final drafts, I tape the articles together, and we photocopy the newspaper.
Discovering Where History Stops and the Story Starts
It's easy to discern fact from fantasy in a Disney movie - just wait until the animals break into song. Less than obvious is what's historically accurate and what isn't. Our students are faced with the same dilemma when we teach with historical fiction. How can we help them differentiate between make-believe and history, and recognize the interpretive nature of historical reporting? Here's what I do.
- Raise students' awareness. I alert kids that historical fiction and written accounts of history are different genres. I tell them: As you are reading throughout the year, see if you can find differences between these two kinds of books.
- Bring in resource people . Invite experts into your classroom so kids have an opportunity to discuss their observations and explore questions. Remember, an expert can be a grandmother who was interned, an uncle who has traveled extensively, or a local lawyer who can tell your kids how trials really work.
- Integrate skills across the disciplines. I fold reading practice - such as distinguishing between fact and opinion, and fiction and nonfiction - into social studies.
- Investigate sources. When I read a book aloud to my class, I model how to examine the sources of information used by the author and illustrator. Author's notes are particularly valuable. When kids read independently, we frequently conference about the sources used. It's also critical to read more than one kind of resource so students have the opportunity to discover multiple perspectives.
- Facilitate access to resources. To aid in student inquiry, I enlist the help of our public librarians who make an "all call" on books throughout the county. Given a couple of weeks notice, they frequently gather 30 to 40 books that I can keep for up to three weeks. In three years of using this resource, we haven't lost a book yet!
- Observe illustrations. When possible, find photographs to compare with illustrations. Look for incongruities as well as confirmations, what's been included and/or left out, and so on.
- Consult primary documents. I photocopy primary documents and we analyze them for reliability. We develop questions regarding the strengths and weaknesses of various sources, and identify possible biases and inaccuracies. We also talk about what distinguishes primary documents (written by the actual person) from secondary accounts (written by a historian interpreting events) from historical fiction (written by an author dramatizing the historian's interpretation).
- Develop criteria. Help students create their own criteria for evaluating informational books and historical fiction. Also have students identify and compare specific characteristics. For example, the order of events can't change in biographies or history books, but made-up events can be inserted in historical fiction.
- Test generalizations. Be alert for inaccurate assumptions your students make, such as "Kids in the past had it easier than we do today." Give these generalizations a litmus test: "Is Jeri's statement absolutely always true, absolutely always false, or somewhere in between? What evidence do you have?"
- Encourage questions. Develop a classroom environment where no one knows all the answers and let's find out are the three words you say most frequently. Get kids comfortable with ambiguity so they know it's okay to have questions. For too many years we packaged social studies with a fancy wrapper, which has led to oversimplification.
- Use graphic organizers. Help students analyze assumptions, scrutinize facts, and discern patterns through graphic organizers. Lists, diagrams, wheels, and charts help students assimilate information from diverse resources and encourage critical thinking.
About the Author
Tarry Lindquist (Social Studies), who was recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year, is a fifth-grade teacher on Mercer Island, Washington.
This article was originally published in the October 1995 issue of Instructor magazine.