Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche. Today, Margaret asks us to reflect on the word “function“.
The other day, on her must-follow blog, Caroline Starr Rose shared her thoughtful interview with the writer Julie Berry. I read this with particular interest because we are smack in the middle of our historical fiction genre study at the moment, and (even though we’ve “done” this genre every year for the past four years) I am also smack in the middle of tweaking this unit and trying to infuse it with a greater sense of relevance and urgency. Perhaps this need for relevance springs directly from the quote with which we opened our genre study…
“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
Robert Penn Warren
…or perhaps it is the result of the current presidential election, when most of the candidates seem to be sorely lacking in any grasp of history. This part of the interview really resonated with me, since it connected so deeply with my central hope in teaching this unit:
Why is historical fiction important?
I’m not sure how many people would ever decide to study the past, preserve it for future generations, and distill what it has to teach us, if they didn’t learn to care about it, somewhere along the line. I think historical fiction, especially the highest quality historical fiction for young readers, helps link young minds to the past through the caring they come to feel for real and fictitious characters, now dead. The hallmark of good fiction is how it tells the truth and enables empathy. By pointing that understanding and caring toward the past, we help young people – not just the future historians, but future thinkers of every kind – see themselves as heirs of a tremendous legacy and the forebears of a hopeful future. In other words, as a part of, but not the center of, humanity.
I guess it is fair to say that what I am grappling with in this unit are these questions: what is its primary function in my broader plan for our sixth grade year of study? how will it function to help my kids see how historical fiction “tells the truth and enables empathy”? how can our thinking work function in a way that encourages discussion and leads us to a better understanding of the past and how it connects to issues in our present?
In the past iterations of this unit, we took copious notes and wrote many responses. This time, I wanted to experiment with writing less and focusing on discussions and finding pathways of connection more. We used the lens of “what I know/what I wonder” from Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s seminal book, What Readers Really Do to chart our thinking:
The know/wonder chart was the perfect means by which to get my kids to think deeply about the historical events in our readaloud (The War That Saved My Life,by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley), how they impacted the more personal worlds of the main characters, and the ways in which we, the readers, could connect to the past. The know/wonder anchor allowed us to do the important work of gathering meaning across the span of the text, to note our “first draft” ideas and then to revise our thinking as we continued to read. The aim was to arrive at this kind of thinking through reading:
…where a reader begins to read beyond the literal story and into some of the deeper layers an author might be exploring throughout a text…readers do this thinking: Their minds journey back and forth across pages, connecting and accumulating details that begin to come together to reveal patterns. These patterns “show” what are often called issues, ideas, or themes that might be woven throughout the text.” (What Readers Really Do; pg. 108).
So, we read, we drafted our thinking across the book:
and tried to dig deep into connections between the world at large and the world of the characters:
And, finally, to talk about whether this particular story about history had led us to: “a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity“.
I think that by using our reading journals to write less but think more (i.e. our know/wonder charts) we found some answers to the questions I had had about the function of reading journals in our historical fiction unit of study. Now…onto historical fiction book clubs, and the thinking work there!