History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.
Of all the genres we study in sixth grade, historical fiction remains the one my kids love best. They love digging into history and discovering people and events they didn’t know about, and they love the kinds of wonderings that historical fiction invites: How would I have reacted if I had lived back then? What actions could I have taken? Where would I have turned or to whom would I have turned if this had happened to me? Historical fiction invites these important questions even as it teaches us about the past; it’s a genre very worth teaching, and also one that takes some preparation.
Launching the Genre Study
We begin with an overview—my students work in their table groups to share and chart what they know from years past, including some of their favorite titles and how these books reflected the characteristics of the genre.
This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about what your students know and where their reading biases lie. Some may hate the Revolutionary War era, others may have read only books based during World War II. Knowing this allows you some time to get your hands on eras they want to read about, or eras they should read about.
Then we come together as a class and create a chart to anchor and refine our thinking.
Preparing for the Read-Aloud
For the past few years, we have read John Boyne’s haunting book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I chose the book because its main characters are about the same age as my sixth graders, and because all my students have some familiarity with both the Holocaust and World War II.
We have so much thinking-about-reading work to do that these two considerations allow my kids fewer opportunities to get confused about the historical time frame and its events.
I begin with a short book talk designed to get my kids interested in the book, and then we brainstorm what we already know about that time period. This will be an ongoing process of stopping to chart our learning, and it becomes the basis for both discussion and writing ideas as we move along in the text.
Setting up the reading journal for notes:
At this point, my students set up their individual reading journals for “think about this” note taking. They can jot down any ideas and questions they have as we read, of course, but these three give them a common framework to work with:
The setting and the emotional atmosphere of the book and how it changes
The characters and how they respond to events in the larger world
Growing theories about how events challenge, shape, and change people
Minilesson ideas to prepare for:
We pause for minilessons before each read-aloud session, which helps guide our thinking along the way. Here are some ideas around which to organize these minilessons:
How important it is to get a fix on what one (as a reader) knows about the time period our book is based on, and how to keep track of what we will learn as the story progresses. Some of my kids pick books on time periods they already know a lot about, but many others choose books that take place in eras and countries they know little about—which creates many opportunities for comprehension breakdown.
The mix of what and who is real with what has been invented for the story line—this is another point of confusion in historical fiction, and one that students should be prepared for.
The way everyday life is drawn: What can we learn about people and how the world was?
The nature of the problem or conflict is most often tied to an actual event. What can we learn from the story about how people faced these challenges, how they coped, and what they endured?
How we can use the narrative to learn about history: What lessons for us lie buried within the story lines? Why is it important for us to read historical fiction through this lens?
A history and geography “check-in”:
A chapter or two into our book, we pause for a history and geography “check-in.” My students usually have several questions about both, and a quick visual presentation along with background information allows for confusions and curiosities to be addressed.
Daily discussions leading to our final conversations:
Each day’s reading leads to time for “turn and talk” and charting. Our charting is messy, but we save everything, for our charts give us real reference points as we begin our reading anew each day:
Our final discussions focus on these two questions, and my students will have a choice about which one they would like to “write long” to as a final read-aloud response:
How did the main character react to external events? What is the author trying to say?
What is the larger meaning of this book? What message is the author sending us through this particular story, told in this particular way?
By the time we wrap up our read-aloud, my students feel prepared to read their own historical fiction selections in book groups of four and five. Together, we share the experience of reading and thinking about history told through a historical lens, we see how literature can bear witness to past events and the people who lived through them, and we understand what we can learn from Cicero’s “tidings of antiquities.”