Fact or fiction teaching with historical fiction
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Fact or Fiction: Teaching with Historical Fiction. American History Foundations August 18, 2011 Fran Macko, Ph.D. fmacko@aihe.info. What is historical truth? What strategies promote students’ understanding of historical truth?

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Fact or Fiction:Teaching with Historical Fiction

American History Foundations

August 18, 2011

Fran Macko, Ph.D.


What is historical truth?

What strategies promote students’ understanding of historical truth?

How does historical fiction contribute to an understanding of historical truth?

Framing the Session

What is historical truth?

  • For historians, truth is a complex concept.

  • The idea that history deals with true events and fiction with invented ones isn’t always helpful.

  • To support students in understanding what is “true” in history, they need to understand that historical fiction combines the three different kinds of truth: literal truth, artistic truth and historical trueness.

  • This process supports students in becoming critical readers/viewers of history and better historical thinkers.

What is literal truth?

  • Literal truth is an account that can be verified, such as an event that actually occurred at a certain time.

    • The Declaration of Independence was officially approved by the delegates on July 4, 1776.

What is artistic truth?

  • Artistic truth is an account that can’t be verified, but seems true based on what we know about human nature.

    • A young boy describes how happy he felt during a celebration of the Declaration of Independence, as he watched people ringing bells, marching in a parade and hoisting the flag.

What is historical trueness?

  • Historical trueness is an account that cannot be verified, but is likely to have happened based on what we know about the historical context. It is plausible.

    • A soldier overhears George Washington say that the Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest documents ever written.

Why teach with historical fiction?

  • Historical fiction:

    • Engages student interest.

    • Levels the playing field.

    • Provides details of daily life.

    • Focuses on individuals over events.

    • Presents the complexity of issues.

    • Provide multiple perspectives.

    • Bridges the gap between narrative and informational text.

What are the features ofquality historical fiction?

  • Quality historical fiction should:

    • Present a well-told story that doesn’t conflict with historical records.

    • Portray characters realistically.

    • Present authentic settings.

    • Artfully fold in historical facts.

    • Provide accurate information through illustrations.

    • Avoid stereotypes and myths.

What are the challenges of teaching historical fiction?

  • Historical fiction provides limited access to the broad range of historical interpretation.

    • Many examples of historical fiction present the dominant interpretation of history or that which is found in most textbooks.

    • This interpretation, or selective tradition, often excludes the voices of minorities, and as a result, limits student access to the truth.

  • Historical fiction is often “presentist”.

    • The authors give the characters present-day thoughts, beliefs and concerns, thereby presenting an inaccurate view of the past.

  • Historical fiction often contains historical inaccuracies.

  • Historical fiction reflects the historical context, the author’s purpose, and ideological predisposition.

    • The prevailing cultural attitudes of the time in which the novel is written may influence the author’s attitude toward the events.

  • To effectively use historical fiction to support students in understanding history, they need to:

    • understand the three types of truth.

    • understand what historical fiction is and what they can expect to learn from reading it.

    • know that historical fiction and non-fiction present history in different ways.

    • question what they read.

What are the guiding questions for reading historical fiction?

  • Guiding questions for reading historical fiction include:

    • Could the events described have happened? What evidence do I have?

    • Which characters really existed? What evidence do I have?

    • How does this book help me understand life in the past?

How can teachers use historical fiction to build understanding of history?

  • Pairing historical fiction with non-fiction on the same event allows students to experience the three kinds of historical truth: literal, artistic and contextual or historical trueness.

  • In this strategy, students read historical fiction to savor the story, and to identify examples of literal truth, artistic truth and historical trueness.

  • As they read, they sort the information into three categories: fact (literal truth), fiction (artistic truth), and not sure.

  • After compiling their lists, students work in pairs or small groups to discuss and verify, where possible, the information on their fact, fiction and not sure lists.

  • As a class, they share and discuss their lists for further verification of the information on the fact and fiction lists. Here they also differentiate between artistic truth and historical trueness.

  • Finally, they compile a class list of questions based on the items on the not sure list.

  • Using the class list, students read the paired non-fiction text and clarify the information on their not sure lists, marking the facts with a check.

  • Questions that are not answered as a result of reading the non-fiction text can be the basis of additional research.

Modeling the Strategy

The Revolutionary War

  • The Winter of Red Snow by Kristiana Gregory

  • The American Revolution by Bruce Bliven Jr.

Step One- Compiling the Lists

  • Form groups of 2-4.

  • Read the excerpt from The Winter of Red Snow

  • Make three lists based on your knowledge of the American Revolution:

    • What is factual

    • What is fiction

    • What you are unsure of

Step Two- Comparison and Discussion

  • Share and discuss the items on your lists with your group.

  • Come to consensus on what is fact, what is fiction and what remains uncertain.

  • Create research questions based on your list of unsure items.

Group Discussion

  • What did your group identify as:

    • Fact

    • Fiction

    • Unsure

  • What is your list of research questions?

  • Where might you find the answers to these questions?

  • How can historical fiction and non-fiction texts be paired in the classroom?

Classroom Application

  • Where and how could you use historical fiction in your classroom?

  • What adaptations could you make to the strategy of paired texts?

  • Turn and talk with a colleague.

Final Thoughts

  • High quality historical fiction:

    • Engages student interest

    • Levels the playing field

    • Provides details of daily life

    • Focuses on individuals over events

    • Presents the complexity of issues

    • Provide multiple perspectives

    • Bridges the gap between narrative and information text

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