Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Taken Into Context: History and Fiction in the Classroom

With the rising emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests in reading, writing and math in the classrooms of the U.S. today, it's easy for the "other" subjects — Science, Foreign Language, Social Studies, the Arts and so on — to feel neglected. As an English teacher, I feel the disparity too, especially in teaching the upper grades. My curriculum can be overtaken by test prep and college planning very easily, and I miss the more creative lessons I used to employ when I taught Pre-K and middle school. But don't despair! In this month's column, we'll take a look at a way that we can combine cross-curricular work and creative expression into curricula that will get students engaged and writing.

I've written here before about the importance of historical context in teaching literature, so I am sure it comes as no great surprise if I admit that I'm a bit of a history teacher at heart. I find the stories of our past and the choices made by people who were here before us so interesting. I think the vast majority of people (i.e., students) will be engaged by history of some kind — not dates and timelines, per se, but the people who lived here before we did, and the choices they made. Of course, not every era is for every person. My dad has a fondness for historical forts, while I enjoy all history that did not take place in a historical fort — but most students will find some era captivating, often without quite knowing why.

The Historical Context of This Article

The realization that people are interested in history may not seem very profound, but in my struggles to engage my students in our learning together, this idea had not occurred to me until this summer. In July, I had the very good fortune to attend a seminar at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. The topic of my seminar was incorporating historical fact into fiction writing, and it was lead by Maile Chapman, a writer and teachet whose first novel was set in Finland's recent past. We were given a list of books to read before the seminar began, and we discussed them in the mornings (nothing on the list was especially appropriate for high schoolers, so I'll skip reciting the readings). Every participant then chose a time period from New York's history, and spent the afternoons researching that time period, then incorporating what we found into our own writing.

You may have caught on to my fierce devotion to books and reading by this time in my columns for the VT, so you'll understand how amazingly awesome and cool it was for me to be working at the Cullman Center. All those books! All that marble! Tourists asking me where the bathrooms were! Because it was the summer, and because I wasn't sure where my career would take me next, I forgot teaching for a bit and  immersed myself in researching and writing. So much fun! There simply is no joy comparable to requesting a book of menus from 1889, and having it arrive on your desk within the hour.

Turns out Professional Development Can Help You Develop Professionally. Huh.

As it turned out, I ended up happily returning to Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School this fall, and, as soon as I knew that's what I was doing, I began to think about incorporating the work from the Cullman Center seminar into my classroom. I've decided to structure a unit in which my students can choose from several historical time periods, and write a piece of fiction that is set during that time. I'm going to give further guidelines — I'll specify a number of specific, verifiable facts that I need to read in the piece, and give them a limit of 500 words or so. Depending on when I decided to place this in the curriculum, I'll make other specifications too. For example, I might encourage a paragraph of description, or the use of dialogue — whatever we're particularly emphasizing at that time. My hope is that this project will be exciting for students to try — it's quite a bit different than what we usually do, but I think, as I lay out below, a strong case can be made for this work. To help my students be successful, I'll make sure we read and discuss some historical fiction, and provide them with a clear rubric.

The Case for Historical Fiction

At the Cullman Center, I was particularly struck by how different writing historical fiction is from other types of writing I've tried. It requires strong skills in both history/research and creative writing. Writers of historical fiction need to be strong journalists, excellent researchers, and thoughtful, creative writers, all at once. We've all read wonderful historical fiction, where the story flows by so smoothly that we barely notice the facts that we're taking in. We've also all read historical fiction in which the plot and characterization screeches to a dead halt so that we can all learn about muskets, or lights in lighthouses, or how elevators are tested. In other words, it takes both craft and skills to write historical fiction. (It takes the same to write historical narrative non-fiction, too, but that's a discussion for another column!)

Also, it helps to solve a problem I've struggled with as a teacher for my entire career — motivating students to learn how to research. I've found that the same problem I have with motivating reading also works against researching: both are only enjoyable if you've got a topic that is intriguing to you. It really doesn't matter what that topic is — as I know from the expressions I've gotten when I mention how much I'm enjoying reading The Pennsylvania Railroad: A Pictorial History — what matters is that the topic is interesting to the student. The variety of interests in students makes it very hard to find topics that are sure to be intriguing; even more frustrating is that many students (like many people) aren't even sure what will be intriguing to them until, low and behold, they are intrigued by it.

But historical research provides both scope and focus. Most people, I think, are aware of at least one historical time period that is at least marginally of interest to them. Popular culture has helpfully provided us many touchstones in that regard, and the vast majority of my students can quickly articulate that they're interested in the Civil Rights Era, the 1950s (Grease) or Puritan times (The Crucible) and so on. That time period becomes an umbrella — anything that can falls under it is now of greater interest too and research becomes a way of exploring, following one fact to another, instead of a forced march through facts clinically laid out in an encyclopedia article. It does take some extra time to set up research opportunities, at least at my school, but the vision I have of cheerful, quiet students with their heads bent over books motivates me to figure out how to get them the resources they need.

Helping our students become proficient researchers is a wonderful tool for their future use. Encouraging an interest in history helps too, especially for students who, like mine, have to pass a standardized test in both Global and American history before graduating. (I think knowing at least a bit about how people used to live makes you a far more interesting person, as well!). It's also clear that people who feel confident in their understanding of history are far more motivated to be involved in shaping our present — as citizens and voters, and perhaps even as elected officials.

Rooting writing in history is a way to give meaningful structure to students' words. I've found that when left to their own devices, students often explore the same ideas and themes in writing. With a historical context, those themes can still be employed, but instead of just writing about a girl having a crush on a boy who doesn't return her affections, you have the setting of a Freedom Ride, or Antietam, or Salem. Oh, wait, that's the plot of The Crucible. Well, you see my point.

Also, writing in this style begets questioning and exploring at a higher level. Students will have to make informed choices about the plots, characters and conflicts they write about, because all the options of 21st-century life are not available to them. Depending on the era they choose, they may have to be thoughtful about eliminating anything from a cell phone to a refrigerator to penicillin from their characters' lives. I always think limitations and structure help, not hurt, a writer's creativity, so I love that about this kind of work.

A Few Specifically English Notes

A few years ago, one of the members of my writing group brought us a new exercise to try: he had printed out copies of online slang dictionaries (a search engine will find you several options), and we each chose one, then used it to help us writing a play set in that time period. I ended up with a Jazz Age slang dictionary, and, because the only other thing I knew about that time period was F. Scott Fitzgerald's work, wrote a play that took place at one of Jay Gatsby's parties. It's been produced a couple of times, and people always remark on the pop of the slang I used. I think I'll offer slang dictionaries (edited!) to my students too. They're full of old expressions that are a lot of fun to incorporate into fiction — or life! (I still have a fondness for calling people "Doll" because of that dictionary.)

You may also want to address the concepts of indirect and direct factual writing with your students. (These terms are my own, by the way, and there may be a better way of expressing this.) In direct factual writing, the author presents facts clearly in his or her own narrative voice. In indirect factual writing, the author presents facts indirectly, whether through a character's dialogue, inner thoughts, observations and so on. Here's an example, from my own writing:

They were on a bridge, now, and Kate realized that she wasn't scared by the height, not a bit. When they'd first taken the train from New Jersey to Johnstown, she'd been terrified of the furious sound and belching smoke that pressed in on all sides. She'd spent most of the trip with her head buried in her father's shoulder, hearing him murmur that she ought to look out the window — what a view it was! How similar to Connemara! But she hadn't. Now, here she was 10 years later, and she'd traveled by train all over — well, all over Pennsylvania, anyway. And she wasn't afraid, Da, not a bit. She was proud of herself, but also sad — that little girl was gone.

Here, there's direct information: they're going over a bridge, the area is similar to Connemara (Ireland), the train runs from New Jersey to Johnstown and so on. There's also indirect information: that Kate calls her dad "Da," for example, indicates that they're Irish, and we get the feeling that they immigrated 10 years ago. These facts are inferred, not stated, and thus open to misinterpretation (it's possible that she calls him Da for other reasons, or that they aren't immigrants), but they seem reasonable assumptions. 

Presenting your students with a paragraph such as this one to analyze may help them to understand that incorporating historical information need not be text-book-ish. You can make the rubric for this assignment, and your explanation of it, reflect what your priorities are, of course. Humanities or history teachers may be more concerned about the facts included that I am. I'm looking more for a flavor of the time captured in words, with facts presented skillfully.

Veni, Vidi, Vici?

I'll be sure to report back to you on how this unit goes this school year, but, in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm sure some of you were already at the historical fiction writing party before I even got an invitation, so let us know what you've found that works (or doesn't). Other ideas and resources are welcome too!

As always, thanks for reading! See you next month, dolls!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 20th 2011, 5:19 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
I very much enjoyed your piece. Using language in context seems to me often an art. English not being my first language I frequently am stunned how important historical or generational context is. When I visit my 86 year old friend in Norfolk (UK) and I have an early train to catch his wife offers to knock me up in the morning.
Thursday October 20th 2011, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I wonder if there is a way to have the 'period slang' words for a specific date range made available, or have an 'app' to run text through, that would flag any anachronistic terms. Such a program would seem to be especially helpful for writers of any non-current subjects. As our language changes so quickly, many people will not be able to know what slang came when, and among whom. And the ones who would remember, will be gone.
Thursday October 20th 2011, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Yes, a very nice piece. I've never tried my hand at historical writing, but I'm fascinated by social history and can't bear anachronisms in the books I read.
The internet is a great place to search for things, such as food in a specific era. I found this just by putting in "cookery book" and the year 1896:

For clothes, "clothing" and "1700s" turned up this:

Searching for "Images" throws up great pictures, such as with the search words "Cars 1970". But then you have to go to the various sites and make sure that the car model you've chosen was actually made in the country or area you are writing about. And then find out what the cars cost and think about whether your characters would be able to afford that make.

"farming in the 1800s" shows all sorts of interesting views.

The visual aspect is always interesting, and writing to me means creating pictures in people's minds. I think students might like the idea of considering the setting as if it were a stage and they were in charge of the props.

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