Why Historical Fiction Belongs in Your Classroom
Historical novels teach psychology,
geography, history, and English literacy, all in one addictively
entertaining package. But getting today’s students into
the habit of reading can be tricky—especially when the pages
of a novel have to compete with technological advances such as
iPhones, MP3 players, PlayStation, and DVDs. After six years of
teaching tenth graders, I discovered that the most powerful tool
in creating a culture of reading was my classroom library, which
began as a collection of books that I had personally read and
enjoyed. Each month I would put aside money for books that students
requested, and over time my library grew from a collection
of a hundred books to nearly seven hundred. Occasionally, a book
or two would go missing, but the important thing was that books
were being taken home, read, dog-eared, devoured—and English
was becoming an exciting subject rather than a purgatory of grammar
For many of my tenth graders, it was historical novels that had
them coming to me even after the school day had ended. They wanted
to ask if Henry VIII had really sent Anne Boleyn to the
chopping block after failing to give him a son; if three hundred
Greeks had really slayed eighteen thousand Persian warriors
before being killed themselves, as depicted in Steven
of Fire. I wondered: if their reading at home sparked
such enthusiasm, why not extend it to the curriculum as well?
Here, then, are a few ideas that have worked in my classroom,
or in those I saw firsthand.
Geography: Historical fiction authors all use
geography to place their novels on the world stage. James
Michener’s historical fiction does a superb job of evoking
a sense of place in time. As a semester project, ask students
to do extended research on a particular region or country. They
will then have three responsibilities: First, read the James Michener
novel that addresses their region (such as The
Source for Israel, The Covenant for South Africa,
and Utah for the forty-fifth state). Second, give a short
presentation to the class, describing the ten most interesting
facts, ideas, or events they came across (a large-scale, detailed
map or diorama of the novel would greatly enhance this talk, and
you may want to make this a requirement). Third, and most difficult,
write a ten-page “missing chapter,” where the characters
in the novel interact during an event that Michener did not cover—the
beauty of this project is that the students must first learn their
country’s history before they can spot what is missing.
World History: From Lisa
See’s look at the lives of nineteenth-century Chinese
women in her novel Snow
Flower and the Secret Fan, to my own novel Nefertiti,
about the Egyptian queen who was nearly erased from history, historical
fiction authors have crossed the globe in their books. I have
seen historical fiction used in the classroom to spark debates
about politics, religion, and power. There are as many lesson
plans for teaching historical fiction in the world history classroom
as there are history books. If a teacher decides to assign a novel
about ancient Egypt, for example, students can explore the Egyptians’
beliefs about the afterlife and the cosmos. As an enrichment exercise,
the teacher may want to team up with a biology class to look more
closely at DNA testing, organ storage, and mummification. And
what about having a physics or mathematics teacher talk about
tomb and pyramid construction? This type of team-teaching can
work wonders in helping students see how history is cross-curricular.
European History: For a European history unit,
what about taking on the Napoleonic Wars by using Bernard Cornwell’s
Richard Sharpe series? If your class has twenty-four
students or fewer, then the prolific Cornwell can keep them supplied
with a different novel apiece. Each student can briefly tell the
story of his or her particular novel in the series, proceeding
in chronological order from Sharpe’s Tiger
(Seringapatam, India, 1799) to Sharpe’s Ransom
(Peninsular Campaign, 1813). As a geographical addition, how about
a large-scale mural or map where students come together and retrace
the flow of assaults, voyages, and battles from the entire series?
English Literature: From the time I adapted historical
fiction into my curriculum, I saw a significant change in the
way my students began approaching their history classes. Teachers
started asking me what I had done to create such avid history
learners when history wasn’t the subject I was teaching.
And that is the brilliance of well-written fiction. Teachers who
assign historical novels are allowing students to engage not just
with literature, but with history, geography, and often science
as well. There are dozens of creative units for historical fiction.
After reading a novel, why not ask your students to draw a comparison
of what is historically accurate with what represents artistic
license? Students can then adapt this information into an author’s
“afterword” for the book. In another writing exercise,
a teacher might ask the students to rewrite a scene from the point
of view of a minor character. And if the novel is set overseas,
why not have the students create a glossary of the foreign words
that the author has used?
If students present their work, expect and encourage vigorous
debate. After all, that’s what we’re here for.
Oh, and to get paid to read and talk about the books we love.
Not a bad deal at all.
MICHELLE MORAN taught English
literature for six years at Rialto High School, part of a low-income
school district in California where the majority of the population
consists of English language learners. Her debut work, Nefertiti:
A Novel, was released in July 2007 by Crown. Visit her Web
site at www.michellemoran.com.