Teachers and students: have you read historical fiction as part of history lessons?
August 14, 2006 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Using historical children's fiction to support the teaching of history?

I am working on a paper on children's historical fiction. I have found several resources which discuss using historical fiction to support teaching history at school, and this seems to be common in the US from what I've come across (I'm in the UK). For instance, several people have mentioned that Karen Cushman's children's novel Catherine, Called Birdy is often used in the twelfth grade to support teaching about the mediaeval period. The editors have asked me to explore this further, and particularly whether I'm right in suggesting that use of historical fiction in this way is more common in the US than in the UK.

So - have any teachers or students any recent experiences of using, or not using, historical fiction in teaching or learning history? I'm particularly interested in UK views, but anything is welcome. Thanks for your help.
posted by paduasoy to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as an Aussie (which is sort of an off-shoot to UK culture, I guess you could argue), I remember in primary school we used to be allowed to play the computer game Where In Time is Carmen Sandiegio? It was more about reading than fancy computer graphics and it made you use your brain to figure out where in history Carmen had gone. It certainly made my interest in reading more about history grow.
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:15 AM on August 14, 2006

I'm also in Australia, but I know at least a couple of schools that get kids to read historical fiction as part of English. They are more often than not also encouraged to choose an Australian-based historical novel, as Australian History forms the core of the years 9 and 10 mandatory history course.
posted by cholly at 3:20 AM on August 14, 2006

I remember getting right into the Eagle of the Ninth and other Rosemary Sutcliffe books when I was a kid. It wasn't part of the school curriculum, but it didn't half awaken an interest in English (and associated Roman, Viking etc.) history. To this day I remember sitting in the primary school library reading her kids version of Beowulf.
posted by handee at 3:28 AM on August 14, 2006

I had a mostly Montessori schooling with some smattering years of public school and I remember reading the following books either because my teacher reccomended them or they were part of the curriculum (to put in context, I am from the U.S. and am 22 now):

Johnny Tremain - (American) Revolutionary War
The Red Badge of Courage - American Civil War
Beyond the Burning Time - Salem Witch Trials/Hysteria
All Quiet on the Western Front - World War I / The Great War (we watched this movie version)
The Grapes of Wrath - Great Depression (again, movie version, but I know people my age who read it in class)
Au revoir, les enfants - World War II / The World War, set in France (actually watched this in French class, in French)

I'm sure there are others... clearly not many of these will have use to you in the U.K. but I thought the tactic was a good one. The fact I was exposed to this in both public and private education might support your idea that it is more common in the U.S. than U.K. I know it definitely worked for me. Historical fiction makes these events far more real to a young person than reading dry texts. As long as the fictional story is supported with classroom activities and the setting of the book is historically accurate, I really learned those periods well and remember the books.
posted by nelleish at 4:52 AM on August 14, 2006

American here. We read Johnny Tremain in middle school (either sixth or eighth grade) as part of a core group of kids that stayed together for English, Reading, Math and History, and IIRC the book was discussed as part of three of the core classes. No points for guessing which three.

In high school we were sometimes asked to discuss historical aspects of fictional works, but I don't remember other kids being particularly engaged in those talks. I also don't remember the teacher laying anything out for us, except maybe while going through Toni Morrison's Beloved .
posted by bilabial at 4:57 AM on August 14, 2006

The Machine Gunners
posted by A189Nut at 5:33 AM on August 14, 2006

Michael Morpurgo writes some good children's historical fiction too.
posted by handee at 5:42 AM on August 14, 2006

Also Australian, and it's 20~25 year old anecdotal evidence, but I remember we read/studied "historical" Australiana such as Ruth Park's "Playing Beatie Bow" and "The Harp In The South" during grades 8~10. There was always a tie-in between the English and History syllabus each semester - read the book in English, study the real thing in History.

Don't know about me (I went on to ace modern history during my senior years anyway), but I guess it got some others interested in the subject.
posted by Pinback at 6:16 AM on August 14, 2006

Georiga has a high emphasis on reading in every subject area, especially social studies. Checkout www.georgiastandards.org to see the details.
posted by stormygrey at 6:44 AM on August 14, 2006

Found a succinct paragraph:
"A standard for reading-across-the-curriculum is included in grades 6-12. This standard is
intended to meet the requirement that every student read 25 books or one million words
per year. Every curriculum area should be involved with this standard because the
English language arts teacher cannot meet this standard alone. This standard emphasizes
reading in all curriculum areas, discussing books, content vocabulary, and establishing
posted by stormygrey at 6:47 AM on August 14, 2006

US public (= state-run, not like UK public schools, IIRC) school educated ~30yo here. We read a lot of historical fiction in English classes (Johnny Tremain, Dragonwings, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Their Eyes Were Watching God jump to mind), but I don't remember them being integrated with our history classes in any special way. I don't ever remember reading a novel for History class.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:02 AM on August 14, 2006

I remember a few historical fiction novels but only from my intermediate school (grades 7 and 8) in the province of Ontario in Canada - dog-eared copies owned by the school passed out in class. This paragraph from this pdf ("CHILDREN’S LITERATURE ACROSS THE CURRICULUM: AN ONTARIO SURVEY") seems to back me up:

"Historical Fiction. Compared to the number of respondents who indicated frequent or extensive use of each genre in general, and each genre of Canadian literature in particular, historical fiction had the lowest percentages (see Table 1). Respondents marked Frequently and Extensively to describe their use of historical fiction in general: fewer than one-fifth of the teachers and teacher-librarians (18.0%). About one-quarter of the respondents (22.4%) described their use of Canadian historical fiction as frequent or extensive. Historical fiction was the only genre where the frequency percentages for Frequently and Extensively were higher when respondents described their use of Canadian literature compared to their use of general literature. Overall, intermediate-grade teachers indicated using historical fiction (general and Canadian) to a greater extent than did either primary- or junior-grade teachers."
posted by ChuckLeChuck at 7:04 AM on August 14, 2006

bilabial: ...except maybe while going through Toni Morrison's Beloved.

American. While reading Beloved, I kept thinking how interesting it was that this seemed to tell stories that history books shouldn't tell but were probably true enough to give a sense of history rather than just a report.
posted by bitpart at 8:04 AM on August 14, 2006

Another British Rosemary Sutcliff fan here; we studied the Romans in history class, and I don't remember much beyond my own independent reading of her novels. Maybe the class reinforced the reading, but I really doubt it. My entire impression of the Mediaeval period comes from more Sutcliff novels, Witch's Brat and Knight's Fee, and, uh Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael, both the books and the tv series. The Civil War is more Sutcliff and Captain Marryatt's Children of the New Forest.

When I was studying history at school (early 1990s, I dropped the subject as soon as possible), teachers talked a lot about 'empathising' with people throughout history - "Romans lived in houses that looked like this. They built roads that looked like this. Soldiers dressed like this. Now write something empathising with a Roman soldier." Never once did they use any kind of pre-existing empathy with a person from those times, fictional or otherwise, which to my mind would have been much more interesting, memorable and effective.
posted by Lebannen at 8:19 AM on August 14, 2006

American historian here. In theory, I am all for using good historical fiction in the elementary classroom but be very careful about what you choose. Here is the states there is a series called "Dear America" which are made up "diaries" from children in different time periods. There is almost no historical research behind most of them and they are wildly inaccurate. Yet they are heavily marketed and widely used. Brother Eagle Sister Sky is another terrible book that shows up a lot.

Older books are generally better, but can have problems of their own. I am currently reading Little House on the Prairie to my 6-year-old, we love the details of pioneer life and authenticity of it. But we just got to the part where the Indians show up and the racism in the descriptions is terrible. I found myself bowdlerizing it as I read, I don't want those stereotypes in his little head.

If you google around you will find some good teacher websites with recommended historical fiction, some are linked above.
posted by LarryC at 9:05 AM on August 14, 2006

I had a fantastic sixth-grade (in the US, that means you're between 11-13) teacher who used history to teach every subject, from art to math. Historical fiction was a HUGE, HUGE part of this. And not just literature: we even conducted "simulations" where for weeks on end, we formed groups in which we played particular Greek city-states competing for resources, or teams of people with different tasks set to construct part of the Great Wall of China, or trying to deduce how tall Samson actually was.

Hell, we dressed in chitons and adopted new names - I liked maps and geography, so I chose "Atlas" for our weeks-long portrayal of the Greeks; I was referred to in class by that name, I had a laminated name tag, and when my city-state of Megara, I remember, beat the stacked odds of the simulation in favor of Athens, and we five Megarans were so, so happy. Our teacher dressed up as the Oracle at Delphi to predict whether or not we'd be able to proceed with a certain game outcome or not...why couldn't college have been like that?

What made it great was that the main characters of the books we read were all young people, so it was easy to identify with them and their troubles: overprotective parents, meddling siblings, often frightening encounters with Adult Power and the often negative consequences of that. Also, these books were fantastic reads in and of themselves; the fact that we were studying their respective historical contexts at the time provided context for the books, at least for me, not the other way around.

I'll try to patch together a list of title/authors here:

Rome - Winterfeld, Detectives in Togas (which I loved so much I went out and hunted for other books in the series)
China - Alexander, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen
Egypt - McGraw, The Golden Goblet; Mara, Daughter of the Nile
Judea - Speare, The Bronze Bow
Prehistory/Ice Ages - Turnbull, Maroo of the Winter Caves

Here's a list that probably hits lots of the books I'm forgetting.

Here is the official State of California list of content standards for sixth grade history, so you can see how the books fit into the rest of the material. Most states have some similar arrangement where you can see their standards online.
posted by mdonley at 9:42 AM on August 14, 2006

Not a book and not specifically aimed at children, but we watched the last episode of Blackadder goes Forth, when we did WWI in Year Nine. That is the only example I can think off, and I did history all the way up to A' level and an archaeology degree after that.

More recently, I've run education programmes with the National Trust (Tudors and Victorians), mostly with Primary School age (KS1 + 2). I have a feeling that some of them built whatever period they were studying into other areas of the curriculum, like English. But the only tangible example I can give is that lots of groups read this book before they came. But as it is semi-autobiographical, I'm not sure it's really helpful to you.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:04 PM on August 14, 2006

Thanks to all, particularly stormygrey, ChuckLeChuck and mdonley. You have provided some material, anecdotal and other, which suggests that use of historical fiction in teaching may be more common in the US than the other countries mentioned. I suspect the picture is going to be more complex than I have room to discuss in the paper - possibly varying between states, and in some areas being a more recent initiative than I'd thought. Thanks.
posted by paduasoy at 9:30 AM on August 27, 2006

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