A journey into Historical Fiction

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Fiction books

A place for fiction

‘There’s a story in History.’ And as the blue frame wraps itself around the word ‘story’ there are audible gasps from the class.

“I have never noticed that!” or “Oh sir, my mind is blown right now.” I am just about to start a lesson which I adapted from TH 147’s article by Alex Rodker, where students choose their own narrative of the causes of World War Two.

By Year 9 students should know that the ‘story’ is integral to History.

Now in the last few years the increased focus on retrieval practice has been transformative to my practice and many others.

I began this particular journey by reading Powerful Teaching by Bain and Agarwal, then I moved on to the work of Kate Jones and others.

Now students confidently know that the dividing line between the northern and southern states of Korea is the 38th Parallel because, in the words of a Year 11 student of mine “Well, you kept going on about it and now it’s stuck in my head.”

Yet this is a part of a wider puzzle.

Like many others, I have always loved a good story and was raised on reading stories or being told stories by my family, frequently by my Grandfather and his fictional mischievous character Josy Goss.

These stories always stuck with me and although I never really knew the year my Grandfather was born, I knew those stories inside and out.

I also considered, like many teachers, that moment in a classroom where a student has recalled, with such incredible accuracy, an anecdotal story that I have shared with them almost word for word.

With all this in mind I decided to embark on a journey to see how historical fiction can support and enrich the learning of the subject that we love.

The Telling Tales Project

After 14 years of teaching I found myself appointed to the role of Head of History at Claverham Community College in Battle, a brisk walk from the 1066 Battle site that changed England forever.

I soon found myself contacted by English Heritage seeking help with some projects.

The first was the educational promotion video for their site which I and a group of students eagerly took part in.

The following year they asked for my help on another project which was called Telling Tales.

The concept involved working alongside their resident author, the remarkable James Aitcheson, who has written a series of books about Tancred a Dinant, a Norman knight and the impact of the conquest on him.

The project would culminate in the students writing historical fiction centred around the world of the Norman conquest.

After writing lessons with James and visits to the site to ensure they had a solid understanding of the contextual knowledge, the students set to work.

What they produced was fantastic. I was particularly impressed by their ability to weave modern social concepts throughout the world of 1066, the Slave who was in love with Harold Godwinson or the daughter keen to fight and defend her land in the upcoming battle.

When all was finished the students were presented with a book including all their stories, making them published authors.

As an enrichment activity this was brilliant and I am grateful to English Heritage and James for the opportunity.

Practical ideas for Historical Fiction in the classroom: Writing a context based narrative

Following the success of the project I found my mind wandering.

How I could use this to support all my students’ understanding of their work in History.

During a session with James he introduced the students to his method of planning a story, including a central character, a location and an obstacle.

I took this idea and applied it to an area of GCSE History, where lessons like this can often be overlooked as the pressure for results bites.

I had found that students struggled to differentiate between the Black Death in 1348 and the Black Death of 1665 and so I decided, having based Black Death on sources, I would use historical fiction for the Great Plague.

I was conscious and wary of the issues that they may spend so much time on the story that the facts would get lost, so as a starter, they were tasked with pulling 10 facts from a textbook about the Great Plague.

I also directed them to think about broadening the facts into cause, event and consequence, rather than just having 10 facts about consequences.

Once this was done the students began to plan. Their character was to be a doctor, in London during the Plague, by narrowing the focus it meant they were freer to concentrate on wrapping their story around the facts.

Once planned they then began to write and the results were brilliant.

There were some fantastic narratives but, equally as important, students showed a greater understanding of the historical context and deployed facts appropriately, similarly to what is expected of them in the GCSE exam question.

Using Guided Reading with historical fiction extracts

Having felt positive about this I considered how I might use this more generally in my day to day teaching and begin to (dare I say it) embed historical fiction in my curriculum.

As a result of the Pandemic we have a renewed focus on closing the literacy gap and I have come across a wide range of strategies to improve this, one of my favourites being Simon Beale’s guided reading sheets.

Having used this with my own narratives and textbook adaptations I decided to give Historical Fiction a go and took a passage from one of James’ books and added it to a sheet.

The passage concerned the outbreak of the Harrying of the North and an attack in which the local Norman Duke, Robert De Commines is killed.

I devoted the left section to the identification of Historical key words (For instance ‘Ut’ and ‘Conroy’) and the other for literary devices which drove the narrative.

At the end of the section were comprehension questions, along the lines of What can you learn from this extract about the Norman conquest?

Separating fact from fiction is probably a key reason why I hadn’t used so much Historical fiction in the past, but what astonished me was that the students took these terms and used them in their future work.

Even ones I hadn’t considered, like the old Anglo Saxon spelling of Hastings Haestingas which appeared in a number of my students’ end of unit assessments three weeks later.

When it came to the comprehension question their answers were also impressive.

Many commented that they had a better understanding for how the English felt and that they really wanted to get the Norman invaders out of England and it wasn’t just about the Battle of Hastings now, it was a nationwide issue.

Recently I have also applied this idea to a section of Cane Warriors which reflects the reasons for and threats posed to Slaves who contemplated rebellion.

This book contains difficult language as the dialogue is written in the way that it was spoken by Enslaved Africans. But it is important to hear these stories as an example of the language of those involved as a way of further decolonising our curriculum.

Finding the right book

Of course much of this relies on finding the right book.

The controversy over the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in English and History classrooms is a good example of the potential pitfalls of historical fiction and I believe this may have put some departments off using it.

In an effort to avoid this, I began to look for places where I could find Historical fiction that better suited my classroom. I began with the Young Quills award run by the Historical Association.

Having used some departmental budget to purchase a few, I began to develop a range of Historical fiction books that I could link to our curriculum.

Of course I need to read them too, so to try and even out my professional reading, I have recently taken to rotating.

A non fiction book first, then pedagogical and finally Historical fiction, before starting again.

This and Twitter, led me to the work of Tom Palmer who also helped on a tutoring level, in addition to my History classroom.

Following Holocaust Memorial Day I began to read After The War’ one of Tom Palmer’s growing list of excellent historical fiction books.

I found it a well written book, but was infinitely impressed with the notes at the back, showing the effort that Tom had gone through to ensure levels of Historical accuracy.

I passed the book on to a couple of my reluctant readers in my tutor group, who both read it within a week and have now read four of Tom’s books.

As my tutees are also in year 9, it is also worth noting that they have chosen History as an option. This is partly because they find themselves engaging with the topic and the really interesting stuff in those books!

The brilliant UCL Centre for Holocaust Education published a series of five lessons based around After the War’ by Tom Palmer.

The fact that such a prestigious group to back the work of Tom and plan lessons around using Historical fiction in the classroom shows that there is room for Historical Fiction to find its place in a classroom.

Final Thoughts

After 20 years of teaching I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a Holy Grail – one single strategy that will solve all our problems.

But there are a number of strategies that can help students engage and learn in our subject.

After steering clear of Historical Fiction for a few years, I can safely say that it now has a secure place in my curriculum as a method of supporting students’ learning, but also just helping them to enjoy the world of History, wherever that may take them. 

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