On Friday, we wrapped up our read aloud of John Boyne’s remarkable book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which we read as an introduction to our historical fiction genre study. We’ve been immersed in the world of Bruno and Shmuel for the past four weeks, reading their story, discussing it, and trying to find ways of determining how its central message still plays out in our world today. I’ve been so proud of the way in which my students dug deep to connect to this book; our work wasn’t easy, but we found ways to explore ideas and ask important questions about the world and our place in it – which is, really, the work of historical fiction. We anchored our thinking in Notice and Note sign posts, double entry notes (what happened in the text/my thoughts about this), and a mind map for Bruno – the main character – and his shifts in thinking as the story unfolds:
Together, we made the complicated journey through Boyne’s use of metaphor and symbolism: what does the fence stand for, who decides who gets to be on which side of the fence, what are the fences that we see in the world? in our school? and what can we do to bring those fences down. We talked about fear and hatred, the connections between the two, and how symbols can take on powerful and perverted meaning. Pretty heavy stuff for sixth grade – but, as is often the case, they surprise us with how capable and sophisticated their thinking can be, given half a chance.
Now, we are ready for historical fiction book clubs, which begin with choosing our books and then learning something about the historical context of the stories. For each title, I’ve created Emaze presentations to introduce a bit about the story and its historical context, here’s one for Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963:
My hope is to help each group analyze their book cub books with the following ideas and questions in mind, just as we did with The Boy in The Striped Pajamas:
- 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.
- The mix of what and who is real with what has been invented for the story line.
- The way every day 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 can we use the narrative to learn about history – what lessons for us lie buried within the story lines?
- What theories can we grow about how events change and shape people?
It might be interesting, too, to have students do some extra research on their own to present to their groups, or to the class as an end of unit project. Exciting things to look forward to!