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Antonio Sebastian

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Reading Historical Fiction in the Social Studies Classroom

Teaching history with novel excerpts helps make the past come to life. In this way, students are hooked into the time period, eager to learn more. They won’t ask “help me write an essay” anymore.

The use of historical fiction in the social studies classroom has been written about in educational literature. Social studies teachers may choose to collaborate or team-teach a novel with an English teacher. If there is time for in-depth study, social studies teachers may also teach a historical fiction novel on their own.

However, given time allotments and standardized testing schedules, it is difficult to incorporate an entire book solely into the history curriculum. It is possible to use short novel excerpts to focus on particular historical content that will illustrate life during that era. The purpose of using literature is to expand on an area of history that textbooks often leave behind.

Teaching Strategies for Historical Fiction

Various strategies can be used to teach history using fiction. According to McGowan, writing for the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, fiction helps children make connections to citizenship, help writing an essay, and problem-solving skills. Fiction, if taught effectively, can help students think reflectively and process new information in order to develop positive decision-making skills.

Before making paper copies, check copyright rules. In addition, be sure that a particular book or chosen excerpt is approved by the school district or department. Finally, use a book that is written for the age group of the class.

Lesson Plan for using a Historical Novel in the Social Studies Classroom

This lesson plan, designed for high school history classes, uses a short excerpt from a novel titled The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. The selection describes the layout and design of a castle as seen through the eyes of William, a potential attacker. The goal is for students to design their own castle based on the description from the novel. This is a challenging lesson, requiring students to envision text.

Prepare background notes on medieval Europe. Students should have knowledge about the Feudal System, manor life and the role of the castle in medieval warfare. Give each student plain drawing paper or graph paper, as well as their own copy of the excerpt.

Read the excerpt a few sentences at a time. At appropriate points, pause and give students time to sketch. For example, on page 165, Follett describes the moat as a number eight. Instruct students to draw the moat, leaving space inside the circles for the rest of their castle. The rest of the scene describes the castle bridges, gatehouse, towers, and keep. Read through and pause as students illustrate the description and label each section. Give students time to complete their design.

Using Authentic Assessment

Students’ final versions of their castle project can be graded authentically, taking the entire drawing process into account. Qualitative assessment can also be used, by checking for completion on each component of the castle.

By using historical fiction in the social studies classroom, teachers can design lesson plans that help hook students into the content. Longer excerpts may be used for in-depth study or shorter versions to illustrate one particular idea or event. Using fiction that is appropriate for age level and historical content can help ensure student success.

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