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Using historical fiction in the classroom

What initially began as an offer to donate copies of my novel to area high schools, has now become an opportunity to share my story with thousands and potentially millions of young people across the country.

A few months ago, I connected with an administrator at our local Charlotte school system. He read Radium Halos, and suggested I give a workshop at their annual curriculum fair this coming August. He said all the U.S. History teachers for eighth grade and 11th grade would be attending, and if I presented compelling reasons for them to use the books in their classrooms, I might be rewarded with some book orders. Thus began my journey.

I began by studying the North Carolina curriculum– The NC Course of Study. What specific goals and objectives are teachers of social studies expecting their students to master? Next, I matched up the specific time period in their objectives (the early 1920s), to my novel. Several objectives seemed to dovetail perfectly with Radium Halos, such as the labor movement, women’s rights/women in the workplace, and industrial reform. Although Radium Halos is historical fiction, it also lends itself well to encourage discussions on more timely topics, such as workplace dangers, radiation poisoning, and environmental toxins.

Next, I began researching how teachers use historical fiction to bring history alive for their students. I learned that this is a common practice, and teachers use novels in various ways. Some will use a well-known novel such as The Good Earth, or The Grapes of Wrath. Teachers will assign chapters to read, then discuss. Others have a library of various titles in their classroom, and allow students to select a novel to read for a report or presentation.

In my research, I discovered the importance of providing a “package” to teachers. Offering my book for students would not be enough. I would also need ancillary materials– a teacher’s guide, sample tests, essay questions, and discussion guides, for mainstream students as well as for those with special needs and AP (Advanced Placement) students.

One exciting option for teachers is the concept of an “integrated” or “interdisciplinary curriculum.” This would allow a teacher to collaborate with another teacher or department such as the science department to discuss radiation poisoning, or the drama department for a production of “These Shining Lives,” the critically acclaimed play by Melanie Marnich, depicting the true story of the dial painters.

Next up:

With my own clear goals in place, I have now begun to outline my project. Next on the agenda is to create a webpage for teachers to read a sample chapter, view a book trailer (still in development), and learn more about the Radium Dial painters and their place in history. I plan on conducting focus groups with students and history teachers, to learn best practices and how students have reacted to reading and discussing historical fiction in the classroom.

The Digital Age:

Many school systems are now providing laptops for each student, which means they will need affordable eBook versions of historical novels. This will create a whole new industry for authors of historical fiction. I can speak to local classrooms, and eventually with the use of Skype, I can speak in any city, in a “Meet the Author” visit.

The Future:

Once I’ve had some success locally, I can collect testimonials from teachers and administrators, to then “take it on the road” to other North Carolina school systems, branching out geographically to other areas of the country. I can reach out to private schools and home schools. Later, I can offer a similar program for community college and university instructors.

I am most excited about working with students and teachers on this project. As things progress, I will update my blog!

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2 Comments to “Using historical fiction in the classroom”

  1. Wow, Shelley, what a great opportunity. When I was young, I was often pained by reading boring history texts, yet I would plow through historical fiction joyfully. I often wondered why we couldn’t get our dose of history that way, because the facts and details “stick” so much better when they’re connected to characters and stories we care about. I really hope this works out for you. The students of the Char-Meck School system will be the big winners!

  2. Thank you, Maria. This has proven to be a big project, but very exciting! :-)

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