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Fact or Fiction? Teaching History with Literature

  • 2006 8 Mar
Fact or Fiction? Teaching History with Literature

Pop quiz! Rifle off the dates for the Punic Wars, the Gallic Wars, and the Seljuk Turk uprising — then list the major players and their respective shoe sizes.

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Welcome to how students feel when facts, dates and lists are crammed down their throats in the name of teaching history.

As homeschoolers, we dare not trivialize nor create a boring dislike of this topic. The instruction of history is important not just because of the age-old adage, "If we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it," but also because every other subject hinges on history. We must make our students see people of the past and their circumstances as real, facing the same problems we face, if we want to bring relevancy to this subject.

One of the best ways to make history relevant is through literature. Doubtless many have read or heard Diana Waring or Carole Joy Seid praise this method in the homeschooling realm, but even secular institutions have come to recognize the value of teaching history through literature. . . and it’s not even a recent innovation. Nineteenth century common schools used fact-based fiction stories as a curricular core. And today an indication of this trend can be seen in the number of academic and popular articles published in the past ten years relating the benefits of teaching history via literature.

But what about textbooks? Three major studies (Levstik 1986, VanSledright 1995, VanSledright & Kelly 1996) all concluded that a students’ interest and their ability to learn and retain information measurably increased when literature was used. Textbooks are what their name implies, namely text that’s been condensed and stripped of life and color. Translated: boring. Without providing some rocket’s red glare, interest and retention fizzle.

So, what about computers? Flashy software certainly can hold a student’s interest. No doubt about it, the computer is a useful tool for education. However, relegating the instruction of history to a game show format will not connect personally or emotionally with that student. Once again, it is retention that will suffer once the glitz of the animation wears off.

Textbooks and computers can be part of an overall curricular plan for history instruction, but historical fiction is what will truly captivate a student and remain in their memory.

Granted, there are those who feel a tad nervous about using historical fiction. It is, after all, fiction. Right? True, but excellent historical fiction is based on solid research. If the author’s done his job, real facts and events will be enjoyably conveyed. Also, keep in mind that even textbooks or non-fiction resources are not entirely free from error. In fact, many contradict each other.

Besides the usual classics of historical fiction such as D’Aulaire, Dalgliesh, and Sutcliff, new works are published every year. A delightful new series by Jack Cavanaugh and Bill Bright are one such example. Fire and Storm both follow the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Witness for yourself the jockeying of rural residents while they use their pastor as a scapegoat, only to be baptized by the revival for which he continually prayed. Catch the political upheaval of an infant nation enamored with the French revolution’s thirst for blood. Caught up in the action, you’ll be surprised at how much historical fact you’ve devoured once you finish one of these books.

You don’t have to break into your piggy bank to fund this excursion into historical fiction. "Google" discount and used books. Garage sale season is nearly upon us as well as homeschool conference used book sales. And don’t rule out unusual sources such as museum or history center gift shops — especially great for local history.

There are endless ways to incorporate literature-based history as a subject other than the obvious shove a book into your student’s hands. Read out loud as part of a cozy bedtime ritual. Get books on tape/cd which will make errand-running time doubly productive, not to mention interesting. Older students can read aloud to younger students, especially if you combine story time with cookies and milk.

Be forewarned that if you apply good historical literature to your usual homeschool routine, the next time you or your student is asked, "Quick! Compare and contrast China’s Hsia Dynasty to the Shang," you might be surprised at the answers that come pouring out.

Michelle Griep has four children and wears her stay-at-home-mom badge with pride. She's homeschooled for the past thirteen years and in her spare time (as if) is a freelance author. She can be reached at