Hissing steam pours over a train car as a war-weary soldier in a faded Union blue uniform bids his girl a tearful goodbye; the train slowly pulls away taking the young man to the coming massacre at Antietam. At the Versailles palace, jewels from a nervous young queen's elaborate gown scatter light around a room full of onlookers. Horse-drawn carriages clomp over cobblestone streets of 18th century London as icy sheets of rain crash around young children shivering outside a factory.
The American Civil War lasted from 1861-1865 and resulted in 620,000 deaths. Marie Antoinette was married on May 16, 1770 at Versailles. Child labor flourished in the United Kingdom during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Which of these sentences captured your attention? Which provides an image that will interest students? The first paragraph contains sentences from historical fiction. The second shows the types of sentences in a historical text.
Historical fiction is an entertaining and, more importantly, effective educational genre that can be used to great effect in social studies classrooms. When most students become adults, they'll glean their knowledge about history from historical fiction in both books and film. Social studies teachers who take advantage of this fact and teach students how to evaluate historical fiction will be helping students attain skills to use for a lifetime.
Incorporating historical fiction into the social studies classroom is easy. Books and films exist for nearly every historical topic imaginable. Whether the class is studying the Suffragists, World War II, or the Dalai Lama, teachers can captivate students with historical fiction. Use novels to bring specific events to life, or finish a unit with a historical fiction film. Worksheets for historical fiction leads students to analyze the work from the perspectives of both history and fiction. The can show how the genre uses the elements and devices of fiction, drama, and cinema.
Have students compare the realities of the era or the event being studied with the fictionalized version. What was accurate? What wasn't? This can be done by students working alone or in groups, in-class or as homework, as a writing or as a creative project culminating in a class presentation.
By teaching students that books and films are never the final word on any situation, teachers will be giving students one of the most important life skills around: a critical eye. By requiring students in middle school or high school to use a scholarly approach for analyzing historical fiction, teachers will give their students the skills needed to become an engaged and interested learner.