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Home > RHI > Promoting Active Citizenship > Why Historical Fiction Belongs in Your Classroom

lesson plans

Why Historical Fiction Belongs in Your Classroom

By Michelle Moran

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 worksheets.

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 Pressfield’s Gates 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.

About the Writer

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.

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