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Common Core and the Challenge of Historical Fiction in the Classroom

Reading historical fiction opens young readers' minds to a whole world of historical awareness. However, it is important to note that historical fiction can only go so far. Even if an author has spent years and years looking at primary sources in archives, traveling to historically relevant places, and read countless books about their topic, historical fiction is still fiction. As much as we love and encourage these books, it is just the starting point.

While this is an exciting opportunity for educators and librarians to use and promote children’s historical fiction, there are two main roadblocks getting in the way. The first, and more obvious one, is the strict limitations of the Common Core State Standards. The second, which will be addressed in the next article, comes from library and education professionals themselves: the existence of a parallel, yet unconnected objective in how children’s historical fiction is both used in the classroom and promoted in libraries.

But moving right along . . . in its most basic interpretation, the Common Core requires educators to teach history and social studies through non-fiction materials. While there have been some benefits to these policies, middle school social studies and language arts educators, in particular, feel the pressures of adjusting their curriculum to meet the standards.

It is an understatement to say that teachers, librarians, and caregivers encourage children to read historical fiction. Middle grade historical fiction titles are often top award winners and are recognized by both educators and librarians as quality literature. But here lies the problem: How to encourage the reading of historical fiction while at the same time adhering to your school district and state’s standards?

Middle school students are notorious for thinking of history and social studies classes as “so boring!” Students like to complain, “who cares about that stuff anyway?” Educators know this. Yet more than making learning fun, they desire that students have a “deeper appreciation for history beyond memorizing dates and battles, that they develop a critical sense, a spirit of inquiry, some historical understanding, and even enthusiasm” (1)

Author Hilary Crew believes that the Common Core has actually spurred the used of “texts other than standard history textbooks.” She argues that the Standard’s emphasis on evaluating and comparing different viewpoints is a perfect chance for educators to engage “well-researched and well-written historical novels... offering opportunities to ask and debate questions regarding authors’ interpretations and ideological standpoints” (2)


Long before the Common Core State Standards were enforced, Tarry Lindquist had a similar perspective. In an article published by Scholastic, she shares this and other benefits of teaching with historical fiction:

Seven Reasons to Teach With Historical Fiction (3)

1.  It piques kids' curiosity.
As mentioned above, students often claim that history is boring. Admitably, sometimes it is, but the real concern is that students discover that the past is not dry or lifeless, but full of engaging stories. Using historical fiction based on actual events helps teach this, and motivates students to both read and learn. (4)

2.  It levels the playing field.
In America’s classrooms, students come from so many different backgrounds. Some students arrive at their social studies class already equipped with background knowledge, while others may still be learning English language, culture and customs.  Rosemary Coffey and Elizabeth Howard agree, stating, “historical fiction helps students to see history as the story of real people with feelings, values, and needs to which they themselves can relate, based on their own experiences and interests” (5).

3.  It hammers home everyday details.
In her classroom, Lindquist used picture books to provide visual and contextual clues to how people lived, acted and dressed. This same method of observation can be used with chapter books, whether they include illustrations or not. Authors who write for middle grade readers often provide these types of details, interspersing them within the narrative and dialogue of a given story.

4.  It puts people back into history.
One reason students don’t like reading from history textbooks is the lack of individuals they can relate to. Historical fiction at the middle grade level often focuses on one or two main characters, presenting them as real-life human beings, not just names on a page.

5.  It presents the complexity of issues.
Lindquist says, “historical fiction restores the landscape of history, warts and all, so children can discover that dilemmas are age-old.” In today’s society, and with the Common Core hovering over our curriculum, this is a very important component of teaching with historical fiction. Many authors writing about children’s historical fiction have addressed this topic. Sylvia Vardell commends authors who have grappled with and tackled sensitive issues such as poverty and prejudice, and for “not being afraid of including them in their stories for children, particularly when not to include these issues makes a book less authentic” (6). Barbara Cruz adds that “subjects like segregation, discrimination, and racial violence are topics that can be difficult to grasp, especially for today’s students who have grown up in a mostly integrated society” (7). One example of this is Christopher Paul Curtis’, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. The book’s scene about a church bombing is a painful and incomprehensible topic, yet through the power of story and human empathy, students can begin to understand what racism looked like in the South at that time.

6. It promotes multiple perspectives.
This is a big component of the Common Core’s standards, teaching students how to identify, summarize, and analyze concepts from varied perspectives and sources. Teaching social studies units using multiple historical fiction books from the same time period introduces students to characters with different reactions to the same event(s). {Read more about this unit idea!} Adding novels from a non-Western perspective allows for even more dialogue about the diverse nature of the human experience (8). Using historical fiction to show multiple perspectives also increases students’ critical thinking skills. This not only opens up a world of academic and personal inquiry, it also helps with reading comprehension and test-taking skills.

7.  It connects social studies learning to the rest of our school day.
This is especially important at the middle school level. As with the previous benefit, integrating social studies and history across curriculum helps students address the big questions in more relatable ways. Reading an historical novel about an astronomer, farmer, or businessperson may be the spark a student needs to engage in their science or economics class.



TRY IT!

From these seven benefits of teaching with historical fiction, there are a myriad of curriculum ideas and motivations we can glean for our social studies and history classrooms.
Here’s one from Lindquist: Before beginning a book, make a class list of what students already know about the topic, and then I say: "When I finish reading, I'd like each of you to ask a question related to the story. The only rule is, no question can be asked twice." Afterward, I launch investigations, saying, "Now that we've looked at what happened to one pioneer family, let's find out if their experience was typical or unusual." (9)
Please add your own! Write a comment below and tell me what new (or old) idea you have for your students.

NOTES

1. Coffey, R. & Howard E.F. (1997). America as story: Historical fiction for middle and secondary schools. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association. P. xiii.
2. Crew, H. (2014). Experiencing America's story through fiction: Historical novels for grades 7-12. Chicago: ALA Editions. p. vii
3. Lindquist, T. (1995). Why and how I teach with historical fiction. Scholastic Teachers. Retrieved from  http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/why-and-how-i-teach-historical-fiction.
4. Cruz, B. Stimulating interest and thought in U.S. history utilizing historical fiction in the social studies classroom. http://teachinghistory.org/issues-and-research/roundtable-response/25289.
5. Coffey, R. & Howard E.F. (1997). America as story: Historical fiction for middle andsecondary schools. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association. p. xiii-xiv.
6. Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 195.
7. Cruz, Barbara. Stimulating Interest and Thought in U.S. History Utilizing Historical Fiction in the Social Studies Classroom. http://teachinghistory.org/issues-and-research/roundtable-response/25289.
8. Ibid.
9. Lindquist, T. (1995). Why and how I teach with historical fiction. Scholastic Teachers. Retrieved from  http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/why-and-how-i-teach-historical-fiction.

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