Investigating Historical Fiction with Primary Sources

Grade level: 6th, but you could easily modify this to work with younger or older students

Background: Students were working on a historical fiction genre study. They’d just finished Breaking Stalin’s Nose as a class read-aloud, and had just broken into book groups. For this project, they worked within those groups and focused on the book they were reading.

Resources: Primary source sets for each book:
Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson
Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson
Forge, Laurie Halse Anderson
The Green Glass Sea, Ellen Klages
A Break with Charity, Ann Rinaldi

Instructional plan (for one 80-minute block)

Intro questions:
What is a primary source? What’s a secondary source?
What is the value of primary sources? What can they show us that we can’t get from a secondary source?
What are some types of primary sources?
Complex cases: What about a painting? What about a book?

First, we will work as a whole class on a modeling activity using a photo from 1950s Soviet Russia (for the tie-in to Breaking Stalin’s Nose). Students will receive a copy of this photograph at their tables and we’ll project it on the board, then as a whole class, we will discuss the photograph and complete a graphic organizer.

Students look at the photo for 60 seconds, noting everything they can.
What can we observe? What can we infer from these observations? What can we infer from our prior knowledge? What questions do we still have?

Ask students to confer about the questions they wrote down. Which of those might be productive for further research?

After completing the graphic organizer, ask students: OK, what do we know about this time period that we didn’t know ten minutes ago? What ideas do we have for further research – what sparked our interest and made us want to learn more?

Group activity:
Students will break out into their book groups and work with these groups to interpret primary sources from their novel’s time period.

Students view or listen to the provided primary sources (using laptops and/or photocopies) at a table with their group. Students will have bibliographic information for their items.

Students work together to complete an analysis sheet (observations/inferences/questions) for their primary sources. Teachers/assistants spend at least a few minutes with each group, mostly observing student discussion, but prompting as necessary.

Independently, students answer questions in a Google Form:
What do I know that I didn’t know before I looked at these sources?
What new questions do I have? What seems most interesting? What would I like to research more?

Circle of Viewpoints (can do this on a second day if needed):
Show students the “Circle of Viewpoints” handout and refer back to the 1950s Russia document we viewed as a class. Think about who is visible in the photo, and who else might have a stake in what’s portrayed in this photo. (Visible: “students, that guy whose picture is on the wall.” Other stakeholders might include: teachers, parents, government officials, dissenters…) Brainstorm a list as a class.

Model one viewpoint on the handout (use student suggestions if you have them). For each viewpoint, include a thought/concern and a wonder/question from the person’s perspective.  i.e. “I am a parent. I do not support the current government, and I am worried that my student might be taught things that are against my beliefs. Is my student happy at school?”

Students return to their groups to complete a “Circle of Viewpoints” activity for one of their documents. They will choose three different “viewpoints” and write a question and an observation from the perspective of each stakeholder.

Ask: Do you think someone could write an interesting book from any of these perspectives? Which one is most appealing to you?

Fiction Writing Extension: (Optional, but fun!) Using the ideas they generated in the “Circle of Viewpoints” exercise, students write a short story set during their time period from the perspective of one of the stakeholders they identified. They can also write a brief reflection on this experience: how did changing perspectives alter their own understanding of the time period?

This is also a great opportunity to talk about how authors make choices. Why did the author of your book choose their narrator? How would the story change if it were told by a different character?

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