Revisiting Historical Fiction

Talkin' About BessieSince when did the Amer­i­can class­room become a democracy?

When I was in school, long after dinosaurs became extinct, I was made to sit through lessons on math, gen­er­al sci­ence, and social stud­ies, none of which suit­ed my fan­cy.  I was­n’t par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of Shake­speare either, at least not when his works were first intro­duced. With time, though, I learned to appre­ci­ate the val­ue of gen­er­al sci­ence, social stud­ies, and even—dare I say it?—math. As for Shake­speare, that ear­ly class­room intro­duc­tion to his works began a love-affair I’ve been hav­ing with his lit­er­ary genius ever since.

None of that would have hap­pened if my teach­ers had lim­it­ed the scope of their teach­ing to what I, a fick­le, unformed, and unin­formed young per­son said I liked or dis­liked. My teach­ers nev­er asked me my sub­ject pref­er­ences, nor should they have. Their years of edu­ca­tion, exper­tise, and real-world knowl­edge put them in a posi­tion to know, with­in the realm of edu­ca­tion, what was good for me. They ran their class­rooms accord­ing­ly, teach­ing those sub­jects they knew to be impor­tant, assign­ing those books they knew would expand my hori­zons, deep­en my under­stand­ing of pri­ma­ry top­ics, and pre­pare me to suc­ceed at the next lev­el of my aca­d­e­m­ic career, and beyond. While I was­n’t too thrilled at the time, snarky, angst-rid­den lit­tle twerp that I was, I felt quite dif­fer­ent­ly when I applied, and was accept­ed to, the col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties of my choice.  I was hap­py, then.

Things are dif­fer­ent now. Today, many edu­ca­tors seem to be tak­ing their cues from their stu­dents. How is that pos­si­ble? And when did that hap­pen? And how on earth can that approach ever serve the student?

Before you take a cane to me, let me explain. I’ve got a rea­son for my rant.

I had no use for his­to­ry when I was in school. Until, that is, I dis­cov­ered his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. That was the point at which the dry bones of his­to­ry came to life for me. Once I dis­cov­ered how indi­vid­ual his­tor­i­cal fig­ures were con­nect­ed, and the real-word impact his­to­ry had on my life, I got excit­ed about his­to­ry. I have been hooked ever since, and that has led me, pri­mar­i­ly a poet and nov­el­ist, to delve into cre­at­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion of my own. I am, in fact, work­ing on such a man­u­script this very moment, and the research for it has giv­en me no end of goose­bumps! So imag­ine how dis­heart­ened I am when I hear, as I often do, teach­ers who love his­tor­i­cal fic­tion say “I can’t assign his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. My kids will nev­er read it.”

Excuse me? Since when do stu­dents get a vote?

I’m sor­ry, but this kind of think­ing makes me crazy. I heard some­thing sim­i­lar about poet­ry, for years. Teach­ers hes­i­tat­ed to intro­duce poet­ry to their stu­dents because they were con­vinced their young charges would­n’t like it. Some of that think­ing was a car­ry­over from their own neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences of try­ing to mem­o­rize clas­sics as a child, or being forced to dis­sect poet­ry in some strict­ly clin­i­cal fash­ion. (What a way to destroy affec­tion for poet­ry before it is even engen­dered!) But when said teach­ers final­ly dipped their toe into the poet­ry pool, they dis­cov­ered that their stu­dents not only liked poet­ry, but loved it. And, yes, some of that had to do with choos­ing the right poet­ry, aimed at the right age group of course. But the point I’m get­ting at is this: poet­ry has been trans­form­ing class­rooms across the coun­try for years. Now I think it’s time for teach­ers to revis­it the idea of intro­duc­ing stu­dents to his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, as well.

“Why?” you ask. Why not? What’s the worst that can hap­pen? Maybe a stu­dent will learn some­thing he did­n’t know before. Per­haps a bit of his­to­ry slipped in between the fic­tion will give him a jolt of excite­ment. Is that some­thing to be feared? Really?

Whether you con­sid­er assign­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion to be risky or not, chil­dren should not be allowed to dic­tate cur­ricu­lum, and nei­ther should teens. Yes, I think it is impor­tant to include pop­u­lar fic­tion on your read­ing list to entice your stu­dents to climb between the pages of a book. With that in mind, if you want to include vam­pire lore and fan­ta­sy fic­tion in your class­room library because it’s all the rage, fine. But, please, don’t stop there. Expose your stu­dents to oth­er books, and to a vari­ety of gen­res, includ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. If you know that a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion will expand your stu­dents’ under­stand­ing of a par­tic­u­lar era, for instance, by all means assign it! “But my kids won’t like it!” you say. Yes, yes, but you said that about poet­ry too, remem­ber? And look what hap­pened? Poet­ry enriched your stu­dents’ over­all read­ing expe­ri­ence, and enhanced their writ­ing to boot!

Here’s the bot­tom line: the young peo­ple in your class­room are there to learn. Your job—and I know that you know how to do this—is to teach. Chal­leng­ing your stu­dents is part of the gig. You know what a trea­sure a beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of poet­ry or a sol­id work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion can be. Don’t talk your­self out of shar­ing it with your stu­dents just because they’re inclined to groan or suck their teeth. Find the best books and make them assigned read­ing. In the end, your stu­dents will love you for it. Trust me. I’ve got stacks of let­ters from kids who’ve read my books and fall­en in love with poet­ry for the first time, and oth­ers who’ve read Talkin’ About Bessie who sud­den­ly have a taste for his­to­ry and, believe me, my work is scarce­ly scrap­ing the sur­face of this genre. Today’s mar­ket is full of spec­tac­u­lar authors writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for young read­ers, some of which have won the New­bery (Moon Over Man­i­fest, any­one?). Just ask your local librar­i­an for a list of recommendations.

Okay. I’m done. I hope you’ll feel chal­lenged, encour­aged, and empow­ered to embrace your inner his­to­ry-geek. Go on. Go for it! You’ve got noth­ing to lose.

3 Responses

  1. Edu­ca­tion should be based on what we must learn to face soci­ety in our future lives. The prob­lem is that late­ly politi­cians argue over what this is and we get cur­ricu­lum changes so often that schools and teach­ers are all con­fused. We don’t get the time to eval­u­ate the results of the lat­est cur­ricu­lum changes before new ones are imple­ment­ed. Stu­dents and par­ents have real­ly caught on to school democ­ra­cy and make it dif­fi­cult for teach­ers to car­ry out the basic edu­ca­tion as it is now. It’s frus­trat­ing hav­ing to explain why it is nec­es­sary to be able to read and count before tak­ing on more chal­leng­ing tasks. I’m sad to so often meet stu­dents at junior high school lev­el not hav­ing the basic skills. It feels like hav­ing to start all over with some stu­dents in the class while what we real­ly should cov­er falls behind.
    On the oth­er hand I have had quite a few kids thank­ing me for forc­ing them to final­ly learn mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and divi­sion. It is reward­ing but at the same time it’s an eter­nal chase to meet stan­dards that are set way above that.
    So, yes let schools work with edu­ca­tion with­out to much time spent on hav­ing to explain why so often.
    For myself, math was always my favourite sub­ject along with physics and Ger­man. But as life devel­oped also Eng­lish, Biol­o­gy and Chem­istry have more inter­est­ing. But with­out the ‘bor­ing’ hours at school I would­n’t have that. What we need to do is make it clear that one must fight one’s way through the basic cours­es in order to go on. Like it or not, there is a mean­ing in it all.

  2. You make a good point, Nik­ki. But I won­der about the oth­er sides of this dis­cus­sion. Recent­ly, dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about com­put­ers and the inter­net, my sev­enth grade son asked me incred­u­lous­ly, “So, what DID you do when you want­ed to know some­thing?” From our van­tage point, it would be roman­tic (and, I would argue, not quite accu­rate) to say, well, we just went out and LOOKED for the information!–as if just pre­sent­ing us with a task would have appealed to our curios­i­ty. I’m pret­ty sure that my own curios­i­ty was focused on won­der­ing how lit­tle of the bor­ing work I could do and still grad­u­ate. And, think for a moment how dif­fi­cult infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing was com­pared to this Inter­net age. Just get­ting a phone num­ber when your phone book was out­dat­ed was a chore. I remem­ber try­ing to get my first job, try­ing to fig­ure out WHO to call or write, try­ing to learn what the mis­sion of a com­pa­ny was. And, like you, I keep a blog–who would have ever heard my opin­ion on any­thing before online blogs? 

    And then the inter­net came and every­thing changed. The point I’m get­ting at is not at odds with yours. There’s just a genie that is way out of the bottle.

    I think, that we relied much more on our teach­ers, and oth­er adults, to direct us toward infor­ma­tion and interests–or force us if we were snarky or angst rid­den. We were more depen­dent, less inde­pen­dent, as learn­ers. But, I believe that edu­ca­tion is alive, and is an organ­ism that ought to evolve along with the busi­ness and media we live in and use. From what I can see, today’s young peo­ple are SO SMART in so many ways. Indeed, many of them lack basic skills but why should we expect them to receive the deliv­ery of these skills in the mode of OUR past when every­thing else is com­ing at them with 21st cen­tu­ry speed?

    This morn­ing I read this fas­ci­nat­ing col­umn about a project that speaks to the way that kids CAN and DO learn in their time. I believe there are ways to get kids to try all kinds of sub­jects. I see it hap­pen­ing in the best class­rooms, with the best teach­ers, all the time. But, bor­ing will not do. Who wants to be bored? I don’t. And, who wants to be bor­ing? Not me. And any­one who talks them­selves out of teach­ing some­thing they love, what­ev­er it is, to their stu­dents prob­a­bly does­n’t KNOW their stu­dents in the way they ought to.

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