History Is NOT Boring! - Using Literature

(The following project is currently available for Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Schaara and Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.)

One of the best ways to make history “come alive” can be through the use of good historical literature. As a middle school teacher, I would often yearn to challenge students with reading something written for adults. To do so, an instructor truly needs to monitor the student’s progress with questions which require synthesis, analysis, and evaluation. Time always proves to be the biggest stumbling block, followed closely with varying levels student ability and interest.

What I did will work for both, classroom and homeschooling settings. In the classroom, I read the first chapter aloud to the entire class, providing necessary background and “think-aloud” strategies while sharing. Following this, I led a discussion on the questions I’d developed. Most students were quite interested. The opportunity was offered to all to participate in the enrichment (or extra credit) reading of this book. A letter to parents was provided to interested students, informing them of the project, the expectations, the pacing, and the fact that they’d need to “pony up” the money for a paperback. A local bookstore had pre-ordered copies of my anticipated need (typically 20-25% of my class load) with the agreement that surplus copies would go back to the distributor - no charge to us.

To participate, the parent of the interested student made a commitment to lead the discussions and stick to the timeframe I had developed. The parent could choose to read the book as well, or simply act as the proctor, asking questions and listening for reasonableness of answers - digging for further explanation when warranted. Parents would initial appropriate spots on recording sheets which indicated portions discussed, and place a signature at the bottom of each record sheet, which were returned to me at intervals meeting deadlines I had developed.

This activity exploded into a demand wherein incoming students asked at the beginning of the year when they could expect to get involved. Why? Because of parent involvement. The response among parents was unexpected and gratifying. Comments included: “This was the best activity I’ve ever done with my child.” “I learned so much more about history doing this than what I learned in school.” “It was exciting to get to see how my son (or daughter) perceived things. I have a much better understanding of his (her) abilities.” Whereas I had always received praise for the “normal teaching,” this really excited the parents who felt their child needed additional challenges and wanted to see meaningful enrichment.

The informational letter makes it clear that the project will be time-consuming for the parent and child, and it takes a real commitment. Because of the admonition, I never received any complaints (in fairness, I made it easy to back out as it was enrichment or extra credit). This is tailored for you to add your name, as the teacher, explain the project, and get permission as well as commitment.

Charts are included which provide timelines, signature lines, and guiding questions. The vast majority of the questions incorporate synthesis, analysis, and evaluation; there are few basic recall questions. Each chart may be distributed one at a time for a controlled delivery, or a packet may be given in its entirety allowing students and parents to work at an advanced pace. I strongly encourage you to enforce deadlines to avoid student (and parent) procrastination. (Students missing deadlines can be counseled to discover what the problem is, and whether continuation with the project is possible.)

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