Fiction Writing in the History Classroom?

Researching Catherine the Great

Researching Catherine the Great

Using historical fiction as an instructional tool in the history classroom is not a new concept. Fiction can offer students a closer, more intimate experience of historical events, which can be a useful contrast to the analytical portrayal of history usually found in textbooks. Many argue historical fiction humanises the study of history by shifting the focus from a series of events in history to the lives of individuals involved in the events as they unfold in history (Nawrot, 1996).

But what if we took this one step further? What if we encouraged our students to construct their own historical fiction narratives to demonstrate their learning?

This question arose while planning a Year 10 Elective History Guided Inquiry unit on Catherine the Great with history staff.

Reading historical fiction to support the history curriculum is one thing, but writing it traditionally occurs in the English classroom. Such is the nature of high school education; it often draws arbitrary dividing lines in the curriculum sandbox, grouping skills and content into either this subject or that. However, evidence exists that the process of historical fiction writing, if  grounded in thorough historical research, can ‘both deepen and communicate knowledge and understanding of the past’ (Brooks & Martin, 2002).

The Catherine the Great Guided Inquiry unit was a perfect opportunity to draw connections between the subject areas of History and English by incorporating fiction writing into the History program as a vehicle for communicating student learning. History staff  and I also felt that providing a creative writing option as a final product might engage those students who struggle with essay or report writing, giving them an opportunity to succeed.

So how did we go about it?

We brought in an expert!

Felicity working with students

Felicity working with students

We enlisted the help of young adult historical fiction author, Felicity Pulman. In a half day research and writing workshop, Felicity explained how she incorporated historical research into her fiction writing and gave students guidance on how to create historically accurate characters and settings.

As well as learning about basic fiction writing elements such as ‘show, don’t tell’, students also discovered that the realm of fiction lends itself well to exploring history from differing viewpoints; an important aspect of historiography.

Students were urged to think about the following:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How does their account differ from someone of a different class / gender / age?
  • What factors might be responsible for the differences?
  • Which point of view / points of view might be useful to communicate your research findings on your chosen topic?

All important questions when grappling with accounts of history.

Creating historical characters

Creating historical characters

The Catherine the Great Guided Inquiry unit is still underway and our students are currently knee-deep in the information search process. But already some of them are plotting and planning, quietly thinking about how best to bring across their interpretations of history in a fictional way.

Have any of you embarked on a fiction writing journey in the history classroom? What worked? What didn’t? I’d love to hear from you.

Felicity Pulman’s latest young adult historical novel ‘A Ring Through Time’, published by HarperCollins, is set on Australia’s Norfolk Island and delves into an intriguing penal colony past.

References:

Brooks, B. & Martin, D. 2002. Getting personal: making effective use of historical fiction in the history classroom. The Historical Association, [Online]. Available at:http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_49_8.html [Accessed 27 July 2013].

Nawrot, K, 1996. Making connections with historical fiction. The Clearing House, [Online]. Vol. 69, Nr. 6, pp. 343-345. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/30189210?uid=3737536&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102183985783 [Accessed 27 July 2013].

Overcoming Perfection Paralysis – Time To Start Sharing

Press Start! Image by Wesley Lelieveld via Flickr http://flic.kr/p/dQ3D7H used under CC license

Press Start! Image by Wesley Lelieveld via Flickr http://flic.kr/p/dQ3D7H used under CC license

I’ve heard it said that the retention rate of information after attending a conference is roughly 5-10%. So if 20 key points are presented, you walk away remembering only one or two that really resonate with you. After a recent teacher librarian conference, the following key point resonated the loudest with me:

Perfection Paralysis

It was Lyn Hay, lecturer at the School of Information Studies at Charles Sturt University, who asked an auditorium full of teacher librarians if perfectionism was keeping them from documenting and sharing what they were doing in their classrooms. For me the answer was an unfortunate ‘yes’. I’d thought many times about documenting my TL journey, but perfection paralysis had set in. This time, however, I left the conference with renewed determination:

I will start that blog!

And here it is. I’m hoping it will serve many functions, but in particular the following:

  1. To document the many and varied teaching and learning initiatives my role as teacher librarian calls me to
  2. To share teaching and learning experiences, both successful and not-so-successful
  3. To reflect on my professional practice
  4. To seek comment and input from teachers and other educational experts

So perfection be damned! Learning is seldom a smooth and shiny process. Let the journey begin – warts and all. As Lyn Hay so bluntly put it: ‘Just do it.’

I’d love to hear from other new bloggers, TLs or otherwise. What happened after you hit the ‘publish’ button that you might want to share?