What teaches you the perspective of others… the struggles a society may have suffered, the demands of distant cultures, or about an era so far removed from our own, that you are forced to wrap your brain around a different logic?
HISTORICAL FICTION is such a beast. It transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.
When I was in college, we were introduced to Jim Trelease, an educator who stressed that reading aloud builds students’ imaginations and improves listening skills. It also gives them a love of books.
I have read many books aloud to my classes ranging from 4th to 8th grade since my first year of teaching. (In case you aren’t aware, read-alouds are in addition to students’ regular reading and work that is associated with it, not a replacement for it.)
Last school year as a teacher, I used historical fiction to bring life to the social studies curriculum. I correlated our read-alouds to what was going on in their social studies lessons.
I read the section first with my best dramatic voice, and asked comprehension questions along the way. We stopped, occasionally, for someone to look up a more challenging vocabulary word in the dictionary. They identified locations on maps; they researched details to know more about a related topic; they ate foods that we read about.
A good portion of the class asked if they could take notes. Before long, everyone was recording in their journals, which supported their required writing and reflection afterwards. As a teacher, I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.
The best part were the discussions sparked by the stories themselves. They were meaningful and thought provoking. Mini-lessons to further understanding were also part of the process.
I collected their journals every week to do a quick check for comprehension and to assign an effort grade. If a student was absent, they picked-up the book and read the pages they had missed. At the end of the book, they took an assessment test. Many reported that our read-alouds with social studies was their favorite subject.
In Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone, we traced the journey from England to the coast of America on our map. We focused on how the colonists grappled with the hardships of the Jamestown colony as it struggled to survive, discussed their governing laws, and debated how business sponsored the settlement.
We also learned about the introduction of slave labor. When we got to the 13 colonies in social studies, there wasn’t a student in the class who didn’t understand what was involved in starting a new world.
In Under Siege! by (me) Robyn Gioia, we continued our discussion of how European nations were expanding into the New World for resources and the conflict between early colonial groups maneuvering for control.
In the story, my class learned about one of U.S. history’s best kept secrets: the 1702 English attack on the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida (a city later recognized as America’s oldest). Students deal with the angst and hardship of being under siege inside a fort surrounded by a superior enemy. At the heart of the story is survival and loss, war, friendship and adventure.
In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, we see the colonies through the eyes of a slave girl. There were many discussions on the ownership of peoples and the burdens they bore, the dependence of society on slave labor, the laws governing the colonies, the discourse between factions, and the devastating hardships of war.We continued our read into the next book in the series, Forge, which deals with being a slave and a soldier coupled with the realities of war.
Johnny Tremain, by Ester Forbes, was not used as a read-aloud for the entire class. It was read by one of my literature circles. Those students were quick to jump in with further details about the Revolutionary War during open discussions. Insight into the Sons of Liberty was a favorite topic.
There are many wonderful historical fiction books out there. The problem is narrowing it down to just a few. Interacting with history through read-alouds is an excellent way to build conceptual knowledge and for students to internalize the intricacies of that era long ago.