Historical Fiction in Middle School: Making Connections and Deepening Understanding
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Historical fiction...I've found this section of my library to be less frequented than most other sections. Truth be told, I don't ever read historical fiction for pleasure. However, now, more than ever, historical fiction is a great way to put history in context. It allows ELA teachers to sneak in history "lessons" into their daily routine.
Many users of reading workshop tend to do this unit in 5th grade, which is great! I like to revisit it again in 7th, when they can really start handling such mature topics.
Read about what I do with my 7th graders!
As per usual, I do refer to the Units of Study by Lucy Calkins for guidance, but I always add my own flair. The mentor texts in her book really didn't interest me at all and I knew I had to be interested in the topic if I was going to teach it. Either way, this gave me a stepping off point.
For all of my book club units, I provide my students with book lists. I let them choose their book club members (or I choose them depending on group dynamics) first, then they look at my book list. All books are under categories that represent groups of people not typically featured in books. The characters are usually marginalized or treated harshly in some manner. All books also focus on American history.
While this all sounds a bit depressing, well, history is not roses and rainbows, especially American history. I want students to see how we got here, what we overcome, and what we still need to do as a very young country.
The Mentor Texts
I've always been fascinated by Japanese internment. It is hardly every talked about in history books. To be honest, the most I ever heard about it was when I heard George Takei on the Howard Stern show! I love, love, love George Takei and I never knew he was in an internment camp.
So, I started digging around for some texts in this setting. First, I tried Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban. This is a good choice for a less mature group or if you're doing this with 5th or 6th graders. I just felt it just needed more...feeling. Then, I found We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. Wow. What a book! Each chapter is told from the perspective of a teen in Japanese internment camps, so there is not one main character. However, the way Traci Chee weaves all their stories together is beautiful.
It is a very long text, so I definitely did not read aloud the whole book. I chose excerpts. It was very challenging to find the best ones, but I managed to pair them well with mini-lessons.
I start with building background knowledge. The students really need to know the history they are reading about. I don't go too crazy with this, because I feel a lot comes along with the story. I do get a bunch of books from the library on the time periods of focus. They spend a day or two reading about the time periods.
I also have them keep a slide in their digital notebooks where they can jot what they are learning as they read as well as historical terms that pop up. I felt like my students didn't really do this during their reading last year. I think just getting to the slide, loading it up...it was a hassle. This year, I think I will have them keep a sticky note or two in their texts instead.
Within this unit, I do a lot of standard fiction skills.I like to kick it off with some basic conflict skill (character vs. character, character vs. self, character vs. world). I also have them do character traits. From this, I go deeper, having them focus on how characters respond to trouble. Considering most historical fiction is steeped in conflict, I really like to have them elaborate on this. I also like giving them sentences for them to fill in. This gets them to focus on specific components.
A big part of this unit is getting students to put their stories in context of the times and "expectations" of certain groups of people in the setting. We do a lesson in which a character's internal traits clash with what is expected of them externally. For example, in We are Not Free, Bette, who is Japanese, tries to blend in with American white women, changing her hair, way of speech, etc. Since this is "expected" of her, she assimilates. However, all of this does not help her in the long run. It keeps her blind to what's going on around her. These are the types of thinking I want students to do with their texts, using evidence, of course, to prove their thinking.
Minor characters are a big deal in historical fiction as they have a direct influence on what characters do. Students look for scenes with three minor characters and discuss how THOSE character's perspectives affect the story. Why did the author include these moments? What impact does it have on the events of the story? Even though many of these perspectives are most definitely flawed, it is important to notice their significance.
In regards to setting, I came up with a quick one-pager for this. I have them compare the setting back then to now. They focus on four components: language/communication, physical environment, mood, and social/political/cultural. They do doodle notes comparing the two settings. This allows them to see how America has changed...for better or for worse.
Next up is making connections to history. This is so important. I start with getting the students to think about what is confusing them about their story so far. I know this is a big reason for why I steer away from historical fiction myself. If I am not into the time period, I am bored. I give them time to determine what they are learning about the history and how they could relate it to the text. I try to get them into primary sources, as well.
Making connections from the history to the fiction really allows them to comprehend the story at a higher level.
I do continue with perspective taking. We do a lesson on how perspectives during that timeframe clash. First, they analyze which perspective is dominant, which, most times, is the oppressor. They find text detail that shows each perspective and elaborate on how the powerful group is most usually not being fair.
Since many of these books follow tweens or teens during tumultuous historical periods, it's important to analyze how they come of age. In this case, they look for text detail in which a character had to make a choice. They discuss how their decision made them change. A big part of historical fiction analysis is to determine growth and change of characters, especially if the story features perspectives of oppressors.
Along with this, I have students create pressure maps of their main characters. I give them a template for this. They have to come up with four major pressures their characters face. Oftentimes these pressures are external, societal pressures. They also have internal pressures. They put these into the template. They then write text detail to support their thinking.
It gets them off the screen a bit and it's an artistic way to represent internal/external struggles of the characters.
I also have the students connect their histories to today's events. This is tough for them because not many are up on the times! So, I bring in a a bunch of newspapers. Students peruse the papers and see if they could make any connections. If anything, it's good for discussions.
Our last major lesson of the unit is theme. I have students find three major scenes from their entire book. They then have to highlight lines that connect and explain how they connect. Lastly, they build basic themes based on typical themes one would see in texts.
I was super hesitant to do historical fiction, mostly because it's one of my least favorite genres. I think the key to making a unit like this work is catering towards what students are interested in. If they like a certain time period, having them read books during that time period is key.
It truly is an enriching unit that encompasses more than just comprehension. It's super rigorous but rewarding.
You can get this entire unit here!