Town Historians

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7

What You Need: A historical fiction text set within driving distance of the school; primary sources related to the time period

What to Do: While reading a novel set in a nearby town, Lori Austin’s fourth graders at the Gabriel Abbott Memorial School in Florida, Massachusetts, decided to research the history behind it. As students read, they listed various questions that arose about local history (e.g., “Why did immigrants often work in factories?”) and then organized them into categories: who, what, where, when, why, and how. The students were able to meet local experts and historians and connect history with the present day by sifting through primary sources, such as maps and photographs. (The school got funding from Emerging America, an organization that encourages the use of local stories in learning.)

After students had completed their field research, Austin, who now teaches grades 4–6 science and math at Gabriel Abbott, put them in pairs and had them choose at least one primary source to interpret. In small groups, they compiled the research and wrote a response to one of the initial questions. They then designed a website to share their findings.  

Double Time

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3

What You Need: Nonfiction passages on various time periods; historical fiction, such as I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, by Lauren Tarshis, or One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia; chart paper; markers

What to Do: Tracking fictional and historical events on double timelines—an instructional strategy inspired by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—helps students gain new perspectives on history.

In their fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at Swanson Elementary in Brookfield, Wisconsin, Angela Patterson and Kate Sommerville divide students into book clubs. After deciding on a time period, such as World War II or the civil rights era, students research major events and put those on a history timeline. Then, the groups begin to read their novels, tracking the major events from their books on a story timeline. When they finish reading, each book club works together to create a double timeline that aligns the historical events on one side of the chart with the book’s events on the other.

“It is important that students see where their book’s events fall in the big picture of history,” say Patterson and Sommerville, who blog at T.E.A.M. Togetherness. For an added challenge, have groups read several texts set in the same period and add each story to their timeline.

A New View

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2; CCRA.R.9

What You Need: Books that deal with social justice, including Behind the Bedroom Wall, by Laura E. Williams, and Elephant Run, by Roland Smith; chart paper; markers

What to Do: To Melanie Swider, a language arts consultant at Latimer Lane Elementary School in Simsbury, Connecticut, historical fiction is the perfect genre for studying social justice with students.

When she taught fifth grade at Latimer Lane, Swider began by explaining the word lens as a way to look closely at things. She posted words like acceptance, fairness, power, and voice. In pairs, students discussed the meaning of each word and gener-ated questions readers might ask—Who has power? Who doesn’t? Why?—when reading a book like Elephant Run, by Roland Smith.

“They quickly discovered that the lenses relate to one another and overlap,” says Swider, who blogs with a fellow educator at Two Reflective Teachers. “For example, if someone is not accepted by others, that character usually isn’t treated fairly either.”

After sharing and compiling a class list of questions, students used them to spark discussions about their books in pairs or in small groups.

“Students discovered that the time period and historical conflict greatly impacted a character’s ability to have power, be accepted, and be treated fairly,” says Swider.

A Storybook Life

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1

What You Need: Historical picture books, such as Rose Blanche, by Roberto Innocenti; chart paper; markers

What to Do: Another way to start a historical fiction unit is by reading picture books. To spark students’ curiosity, Stephanie Rye, who teaches fifth grade at Fiedler Elementary School in Flint, Michigan, uses picture books that require readers to make significant inferences. A favorite is Rose Blanche, which is written from the perspective of a young girl living in Germany in the 1930s who does not realize that the soldiers in her town are Nazis rounding up Jews.

After reading the book aloud once, Rye—who blogs at Forever in Fifth Grade—projects a few of its illustrations. Students examine them closely, discussing what each image shows and what it might mean. In her experience, many students do not have enough background knowledge to make these inferences on their own, but collectively, the class can usually piece together the larger story. After the discussion, she reads the text aloud again to solidify students’ new understanding of the historical context. Finally, the class creates a chart of what they know and what they want to know about the people, places, things, and ideas in that time period.



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Image: Lori Austin