Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Historical Fiction Meets Common Core

LOH_PAPER SON_lowI know all kinds of facts about Anne Boleyn. How do I know these facts? Not from reading history textbooks or historical documents…at least, not initially. I know these facts because I got hooked on Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (Gregory, 2002). In fact, most of what I know about history comes from historical fiction. Of course, reading these historical fiction novels inspires me to read informational texts to learn even more about the historical subject. As such, historical fiction is a “gateway genre.” It straddles the information and literary worlds. Based on historical settings and events, these texts are informed by primary and secondary sources. (Find an explanation of primary and secondary sources in Annenberg Learner’s America’s History in the Making.)

Authors of historical fiction texts tend to be researchers of history, if not historians. For example, as one of the authors for Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America (James and Loh, 2013), I spent a great deal of time researching the Chinese-American immigration experience at Angel Island. Historical fiction writers take great care to accurately and authentically represent the historical time period; however, the “truth” of history is often fictionalized in order to move the plot along. Even though historical fiction writers can take certain liberties, especially with characters and dialogue, they still need to present the story in such a way that it is historically probable.

Given this, historical fiction is a goldmine for educators implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As part of my job at the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, I designed a robust unit of study aligned to 4th grade CCSS entitled, Analysis of Historical Fiction: Paper Son. In this unit, students analyze the historical fiction text by critically examining the firsthand and secondhand accounts that informed it; they are essentially deconstructing the research process and learning about the history. They have opportunities to become “truth detectives.” (Of course, this can lead to discussions about how true is history given its interpretative nature.)

In addition to deepening their knowledge about literary and informational texts, students are also gaining historical knowledge; as such, historical fiction is valuable in both English Language Arts classrooms and History/Social Science classrooms. After reading Paper Son and engaging in the unit mentioned above, a 4th grader shared: “It taught me about Chinese-American history. I had not learned much about Chinese immigration from 1849-1920 before reading this book…I did not know that people sold information about themselves and their family to help someone come to the United States of America. I had heard of Ellis Island and the many people who came through there when coming to the U.S., but I did not know that Angel Island was where immigrants visited when coming to the U.S. in the West. I also learned what a coaching book was and how it helped people study for their immigration interrogations.” We can be impressed with this young student’s increased knowledge base about a complex historical topic. The next step would be to lead this student from information to inquiry, to think like a historian.

In order to effectively teach historical fiction, educators must provide students with the historical context. To this end, Annenberg Learner’s Artifacts & Fiction and American Passages: A Literary Survey focus on teaching American literature in its historical and cultural contexts. This will facilitate teaching with lenses. Students will greatly benefit from seeing history from various and multiple perspectives (Appleman, 2010). In addition, this list of resources cover American and world history topics related to literature that students are reading.

Another benefit of teaching historical fiction is the potential for it to connect to readers in such a way that social justice and multicultural understanding can be enacted. From reading historical fiction texts, readers can perhaps become both empathetic and sympathetic to how certain groups are treated unjustly by being able to feel the protagonist’s plight (Brooks and Hampton, 2005).

A graduate student of mine who is also a high school teacher added, “Even though [historical fiction writers may have] manipulated and amalgamated fiction and fact, [they do] this to help people understand the plight of a race in [a particular historical time period]. This manipulation helped readers in a beneficial way. History when taught by fiction writers may be trusted to an extent, but it should never be trusted fully. Students need to be aware of the text as a piece of fiction.” Historical fiction encourages readers to be critical consumers of information. Students can verify the history by working within and across texts and learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.

In closing, historical fiction offers teachers wonderful opportunities to teach both literary and informational texts, to teach research and critical thinking skills, to teach historical lenses, to increase content knowledge, and to learn to love reading because of its power to teach.

References

Appleman, D. (2010). Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary theory to adolescents. (2nd Edition). NY: Teachers College Press.

Brooks, W. & Hampton, G. (2005). Safe discussions rather than first hand encounters: Adolescents examine racism through one historical fiction text. Children’s Literature in Education, 36, pp. 83-98.

Gregory, P. (2002). The other Boleyn girl. New York: Pocket Star Books.

James, H.F. & Loh, V.S. (2013). Paper son: Lee’s journey to America. MI: Sleeping Bear Press.

New (Online) Literacies for Your Elementary Researchers

TeachRead_5Are your 3rd-5th grade students learning the skills they need to conduct online research? Last year the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey of over 2,000 advanced placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers to determine their perspectives on students’ research habits and the impact of technology on their studies.

The survey report How Teens Do Research in the Digital World concludes that virtually all (99%) survey participants agree “the internet enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available.” At the same time, a significant majority of these teachers strongly agreed that students expect to be able to find information quickly and easily using the internet. 83% felt that the amount of information available online is overwhelming to most students. 71% agreed that today’s technologies discourage students from using a wide range of resources for their research. 60% agreed that these technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

There’s a lot that 3rd to 5th grade teachers can do give students the foundational skills they need to tackle rigorous research projects throughout their academic careers AND address the Common Core State Standards that concern informational text:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.7 Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.9 Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Check out session 5, “New Literacies of the Internet,” in the video workshop Teaching Reading 3-5. In the video, Donald Leu of the University of Connecticut clarifies some of the differences between reading narrative text and reading informational text, and then defines five skill areas that students need to draw on to learn from online information.

  1. Identifying important questions: In the video you’ll see educators helping students generate questions on topics such as global warming and colonial American history. Good questions lead to good searches.
  2. Searching for information: Young researchers can too easily get in the habit of clicking on anything that turns up on a search results page. The teachers in the session 5 video walk students through taking a close look at search result summaries to make inferences about which sites will be the most useful.
  3. Analyzing and evaluating information: You can learn a lot from an “About Us” page. When was the information created? Who created it and why?
  4. Synthesizing information: Dr. Leu points out that synthesis is different on the internet. In print, the text is contained. Online, the text is constructed as students navigate from link to link. Skimming and scanning with purpose are important here. Students need to practice monitoring themselves to keep from getting distracted from their purpose for reading. Graphic organizers to the rescue!
  5. Communicating information: Students can practice safe and authentic online communications by sharing their research efforts with other students. How about 3rd graders creating a shared list of the “best” sites for learning about Egyptian civilization?

You can use the session’s Literacy Practice Portfolio to reflect on your current practice and to plan for implementing new techniques. And when today’s third grader astonishes his future AP teacher with his online research acumen, you will hear distant applause.

 

‘Common Sense’ for the Common Core

Primary Sources_wkshp2If you are a high school English/language arts or American history teacher, chances are that you are actively involved in developing curriculum guides and teaching strategies for addressing the Common Core State Standards for reading and understanding primary source documents. While the standards don’t specify instructional approaches, the end goal is clear:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is considered a key exhibit in our nation’s collection of founding documents and the CCSS authors list it as an exemplar text for 11th and 12th grades. Historians credit the document with launching the movement to seek independence from the British monarchy sooner rather than later. It is a tightly structured and forceful argument that provides educators with a platform for guiding students through the process of critical analysis.

Workshop 2, “Common Sense and the American Revolution: The Power of the Printed Word” of the series Primary Sources: Workshops in American History places the 48-page document in a powerful context that amplifies its significance in events leading to independence.

Did you know that Thomas Paine had been in the colonies only a few weeks before he took pen to parchment? Prior to the publication of Common Sense, the colonists were seeking reconciliation with England, not independence. The first published argument for independence, Common Sense became the 18th century equivalent of an international best seller. Consider how the events leading to independence might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had not persuaded a 39-year-old former tax collector to seek work in the colonies.

Take a look at how teacher Andrew Sullivan adapted what he learned from the workshop to create an activity that engages students with key concepts within Common Sense.  You will also find links to additional primary source documents such as the James County, Virginia, Statement of Independence. These documents encourage thoughtful comparison of Paine’s argument to, and open a window onto colonist’s involvement in, decisions made by the Second Continental Congress.

What instructional strategies are you employing to help your students use and understand primary source documents such as Common Sense?