HELPING STUDENTS “VISIT” THE PAST
By: Lea Wait
As the author of five historical novels for ages eight and up set in the nineteenth century United States, I’m often asked to talk to groups of students about how to write historical novels. Often my talks are in connection with stories students have been asked to write themselves.
Often the students are intimidated by the amount of research necessary to write something set in the past or even to imagine the lives of people who lived in previous eras. Even for advanced students in middle grades or high school, writing their own “historical” work can be challenging. But if that assignment comes after other introductions to the past, it becomes more valuable … and not as intimidating.
How can teachers, parents, or home schoolers interest attract students to the past?
Here are a few methods I’ve seen work.
1) Have students interview someone older than they are. Parents will do, but it’s usually better for them to find a grandparent or uncle or neighbor who was a child forty or fifty years ago – or more. Ahead of time, as a group, students can think of questions to ask. Where did their interviewee live? In a town? A suburb? A city? A rural area? What did their home look like? How many people were in their family? What were their chores? What games did they play with their friends? What were their favorite foods? How did they celebrate holidays? Birthdays? Hint: a call to a senior citizens or assisted living facility could result in finding older people who’d enjoy talking with students about their childhoods.
2) If you live in a town with an archives (often a room or local history section at the library or town hall, or housed at the local historical association) have students choose someone who lived in their town a hundred – or more – years ago, and see what they can find out about their person. (A fun alternative is to visit an old graveyard and have each student choose a name on a tombstone to research. Talking ahead of time about how graveyards have changed in the past several hundred years could add art and architecture information to the exercise.)
Note that this research rarely would include a computer. Few local archives have been computerized, so research would be primary sources (diaries, letters, church records, etc.) with some additional local secondary sources, like newspapers and town or regional histories.
3) Arrange field trips to local historical sites students have researched ahead of time. Ideal sites would include re-enactors who play the parts of historical characters, and who students could interview. Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments are not uncommon in the eastern United States. History coming alive! Many re-enactors are serious. They research the lives of the characters they represent, and many make their own clothes and use historical artifacts. I once spoke with a re-enactor who had killed a moose and tanned its skin before he made his jacket and boots.
4) The classic classroom “family tree” exercise makes many students uncomfortable, including those who are adopted, foster children, children who are first or second generation immigrants, children in nontraditional families, and those living far from relatives. Even celebrating the backgrounds of students (Mexican; Chinese; Native American) can be complicated. One of my daughters, who was born in Korea, chose to identify with my Scottish heritage for a classroom exercise because of her mixed feelings about her biological parents. But classes can talk about different ethnic groups’ contributions to the American experience. (E.G. Slaves brought to the United States from Gambia brought with them knowledge of the cultivation of rice, and recipes for cooking it, which are now a part of South Carolina traditions.)
5) The Library of Congress has excellent historical resources online. Major newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly (from the 19th century) and The New York Times are available online. Books on antiques, from furniture to kitchen wares to tools to automobiles, are excellent references and usually include pictures and descriptions of when and how items were used. Books of names are fun. Which were popular at different times in the past? Students writing historical stories can look up which names their characters might have had then. (Bonus: Students also enjoy looking up the origins and meanings of their own names and perhaps those of family members.) Books on clothing of the past. Recipe books from the period being considered. Dictionaries of slang and regional English. Music of various periods.
6) First-hand experience with past professions. Bring to the classroom, or visit, someone today who practices skills often thought forgotten: spinning, knitting, embroidering, blacksmithing, woodworking, growing and preserving vegetables, farming, fishing, lumbering, and carpentry. Local craft and farmer’s organizations can often find someone students could visit or who could come to a classroom, from a lobsterman or fisherman to a dairy farmer or maker of pottery. Bonus: Have students learn a craft themselves, from origami to knitting. One school I know has a regular program which combined art, history and literature by having their fourth graders each make a quilt square (based on town history or on an historical novel they are reading) and then combining the squares to make a quilt that is displayed in the school or somewhere else in town.
Check local libraries and craft organizations/galleries and museums to see what resources they have available or artisans they could put you in touch with.
7) Have available many of the wonderful books, both fiction and nonfiction, from picture books to detailed historical novels, that bring the past to life. Because books about the past can be challenging for some younger students to understand, they are often best introduced as read-alouds in classrooms or at home, until the students are comfortable with the worlds described.
Ultimately, the goal is to give students windows into the lives of those who came before them and to understand they share many emotions and goals with people who lived in the past.
And, of course – to interest students in finding out more about the past and to have fun doing it.
Lea Wait has written five historical novels for ages eight and up, all of which have won various awards and been honored by being named to student choice award lists throughout the country. For more information about her books, including teachers’ guides, see her website, www.leawait.com. Lea also writes contemporary mysteries for adults, and invites you to friend her on Facebook and Goodreads.
Publisher: Islandport Press