Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Teaching Historical Fiction

I teach reading and writing workshops using different genres each month. Right now we're reading biographies and historical fiction in reading workshop so my students are drafting autobiographies in writing workshop. I have a confession to make though... history and social studies just aren't my favorite subjects to learn about. However, I do my best to make them interesting for my students so they won't grow up thinking history is just boring, old, useless facts the same way I did. 

I usually have students select a historical fiction chapter book from our library to read independently during reading workshop. I like to use the My America series for this, as well as favorites like Sarah, Plain and Tall. I also read aloud When the Soldiers Were Gone by Propp each year. Before sending students off to work in their different books, we spend a few weeks getting ready as a class first.
Last week we read "Boom Town" by Levitin from our basal. It's about a family moving west during the gold rush and the hardships they face while their father struggles to find gold. The main character, Amanda, starts a very successful business of her own selling pies and they live happily ever after (sorry, couldn't resist!). In guided reading we read nonfiction books about children's lives during different periods of history. The nonfiction was easier than historical fiction because the text features and organization make the facts easier to follow.

I think the hardest part for my students each year is putting themselves in the past in order to understand just how different life was. It's hard for students to imagine life without all of our technology and inventions, and they often don't understand subtle facts woven into the story. They also point out pieces of the story that aren't necessarily historical fiction, like a character using a wooden spoon. This year, I tried a few different ideas in addition to old favorites.

First, I had students create a quick sketch of a scene from the beginning, middle, and end of the historical fiction story. We used a large piece of construction paper folded into third vertically. They labeled items in the picture that supported the historical fiction genre (wood stoves, wagons) and wrote historical details around their sketch (gold rush, town development). The visual helped them focus on the character details, setting clues, and plot events that were from the past.

After that, I made a t-chart. Students wrote important events from the book on the left and their inferences about the past on the right. We had to work really hard to use clues from the book and information we learned during guided reading to pick out the important details. You can grab a free copy of my chart here.
Finally, we used some of my favorite printables from The Mailbox to create a log cabin and wagon wheel about our stories.  It's a long process, but I think we just might be on the right track!

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  1. Hi Christi:

    I just recently found--and started following your blog.
    Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to teach--so I loved this post!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

    1. Oh, thank you! I wasn't too into history when I started, but we have more fun with it each year.

  2. Hi Christi! Thanks for sharing all of your great ideas! We use Sarah Plain and Tall and BoomTown also. We use these in conjunction with our Westward Expansion unit in social studies.

    Have a great rest of the week!


  3. My kids are always confused in Boom Town when they wash in a tub under the stars. They have such a hard time imagining what life was like 'back then' and how lucky we are with our modern conveniences. They think the frontier deals with outer space before our unit. ha!

  4. Love this! We are starting HF when we get back from Spring Break, so this is perfect timing- thanks so much!!

    3rd Grade Thoughts

  5. I was searching for historical fiction ideas and came upon your blog. So cute! I am now a follower! Great post!
    Andrea M. Bentley


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