Our historical fiction unit of study has always been one of the most looked forward to events in my sixth grade classroom. However, I always felt that there was something missing at the end, some element that needed to be present in order to make it feel like an unqualified success. So it was with great anticipation that I attended Maggie Beattie Roberts’ session “Blending Research and Literature:Teaching Across Historical Fiction Book Clubs, Reading Like a Writer in Clubs, and Writing Digital Historical Documents” at yesterday’s TCRWP Saturday Reunion. I always learn something smart and inventive whenever I visit Maggie’s blog (co-authored by Kate Roberts) Indent, so I was sure I’d have the same experience at her session. I was right…and here are three “big ideas” that I walked away with:
Using digital texts to preview historical fiction work:
As Maggie put it: “Reading historical fiction is entering a land you will never exist in” , so examining digital texts is an effective way to prepare for that kind of reading. We watched the first few minutes of Downton Abbey, and were tasked to work with a partner to take note of the point of view of the story and the artifacts we noticed.
I was amazed at how much historical evidence we were able to pick up through this exercise, especially as Maggie cued us with focused questions as we watched: what kinds of technology was present? what was the point of view of the camera? how do we “meet” people in the movie? how are characters introduced? This would be such an interesting and engaging way to begin our unit, especially because it would allow my kids to see that, as they read, they need to be aware of all the signposts that point to the historical time frame and context of their story.
Next, we talked about the other elements of historical fiction that readers need to be aware of and alert to at the beginning of the story. This kind of breakdown is essential for our kids, and having the following charted and in their reading journals for reference would be helpful:
- what kind of place is this?
- who is telling the story? what is the point of view and perspective?
- who is represented?
- are there signs of trouble and change?
- what is the main characters’ response to trouble?
- who has power?
- are there signs of resistance?
Forming “text circles” and shared texts to model thinking/discussing:
A shared text reading of Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say allowed us to practice “text circles” – small discussion groups of four with each member tasked with a specific noticing:
- study the character traits – what are they like?
- how characters have/fight more than one problem or pressure
- how does the problem of the historical world match the characters’ problems
- reading ahead – what problems will the character face?
Maggie suggested some alternate ways to play with text circles:
- each group could get envelopes with each task written on strips of paper – their “mission” for the next meeting. I love this idea of changing things up for each of the four times we meet for historical fiction book clubs.
- doing a digital version of this on class book blogs, so kids could share their thoughts as they were reading, before their class meetings. I think this would lead to richer conversations all around, since my kids will have had a chance to pre-think, and allow ideas to percolate.
Creating historical documentaries as an culminating project:
This was so exciting to learn about! So often, my kids want to know more about a topic that cropped up in their historical fiction books (yellow fever, after reading Fever 1793, for example). Researching, writing the script for, and then “channeling their inner Ken Burns” to produce a short video about the topic would be the perfect culminating project. Viewing the student example through a writing workshop lens, we could easily see all the elements of informational writing beautifully executed:
- engaging introduction
- cause and effect
- interesting characters/people to anchor the narration
- varying types of evidence presented
- usage of domain specific words
- quotes from experts
- a layered story to catch and hold the reader’s attention
Our historical fiction unit is weeks away…too bad, I feel ready to get going with it now, thanks to Maggie’s workshop!