Stimulating Interest and Thought in U.S. History: Utilizing Historical Fiction in the Social Studies Classroom
For the past six years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with a number of elementary teachers who wanted to teach more history in their classrooms. Although social studies is mandated at all grade levels in our district, teachers have keenly felt the demands of high-stakes testing in other, presumably more important, subject areas. How can they teach more history when social studies is often relegated to the end of the school day for 20 to 30 minutes (and oftentimes skipped altogether)? Further, history is often a “hard sell” to students, with many of them thinking that history is something that occurred in the distant past and with little connection to their own lives.
We agreed that an effective way to stimulate students’ interest, while simultaneously satisfying district mandates in reading and writing, was to utilize historical fiction. After working with these teachers and their students, now more than ever, I am convinced that fiction should play a vital role in the U.S. history classroom.
First, historical fiction stimulates interest. While students often report that textbooks are dry and lifeless, the engaging storylines of novels and short stories naturally hook students’ attention and pique their curiosity. The fact that historical fiction is based on actual events and time periods provides even more motivation to read and learn. When students I worked with read Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift (1), it aroused a desire to learn more about the stock market crash of 1929, life in shantytowns, and the New Deal.
Second, historical fiction can foster deep reflection and facilitate the development of personal meanings. When the students read The Journal of C.J. Jackson: A Dust Bowl Migrant (2), they reflected on what life would have been like for them had they been an “Okie.” As they empathized with the protagonist, they felt the sting of discrimination as he and his family made their way from Oklahoma to California. Several students in class then felt empowered to share their own stories of discrimination and prejudice. As Bannister and Wells (3) point out, students are apt to “identify more closely with characters in the lifelike situations created in novels than they do with typical textbook material."
Third, historical fiction provides natural bridges between social studies and language arts. Scott O’Dell’s (1960) classic Island of the Blue Dolphins (4) offers many such opportunities, such as recognition of point of view, acquisition of new vocabulary, and analysis of character and plot. All history lessons are naturally rich in prospects for reading, writing, speaking, and listening—incorporating fiction in the U.S. history classroom makes it both easier to develop language arts skills and more enjoyable for students.
Fourth, historical fiction can help students make sense of sensitive issues. Segregation, discrimination, and racial violence are topics that can be difficult to grasp, especially for today’s students who have grown up in a mostly integrated society. A novel such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 (5), which focuses on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, can make a painful, incomprehensible topic such as this more human and accessible for students. As students empathize with the characters in the story, they develop an understanding of the ramifications of discrimination and violence which was a very real part of Southern society during this time.
Last, historical fiction can support multicultural and global understanding. Reading the novels and short stories of authors such as Chinua Achebe, Isabel Allende, Sandra Cisneros, and Lisa Yee—just to name a few—provides an alternate perspective to the traditional Western narrative that students are ordinarily exposed to. By reading these authors, students can better appreciate the diverse nature of human experience.
What role should fiction have in the U.S. history classroom? The answer is clear: a central, prominent, and vibrant one. Teachers and students alike can gain an enhanced understanding of historical events and turn abstract concepts and distant events on a page into something that is relevant and meaningful.
1 Kathryn Lasky, Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift (New York: Scholastic, 2001).
2 William Durbin, The Journal of C.J. Jackson: A Dust Bowl Migrant (New York: Scholastic, 2002).
3 Sharon Bannister and Twyla R. Wells, Teaching American History through the Novel (Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch Publisher, 1995), viii.
4 Scott, O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (New York: Yearling, 1987 ).
5 Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 (New York: Yearling, 1997).