Monday, August 5, 2013

Teach History With Literature

BenFranklinDuplessis.jpgStudents walk into an eleventh grade history classroom in an American high school.  Today they are learning about the Declaration of Independence, and how the US won independence from Britain. The teacher instructs for ninety minutes, using the history textbook and the Declaration of Independence as a document-based study.  Afterwards, some of the students walk down the hall to their English class.  In English they are studying the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. However, this instruction is completely separate from their related studies in their earlier class.  A few students make connections on their own, but most are just trying to get through the long passages and don’t even realize the significant relationship.  These students are missing the connections that a concurrent study of literature and history would allow for—learning in context. History should be learned through this concurrent study by using traditional readings and literature to gain greater understanding of the events of the past.

Traditionally, history is taught through textbooks and the writings of scholars.  These scholars and writers use newspapers, speeches, and other fact based primary sources to compile a clear picture of what actually happened.  This big picture allows for the reader to make judgments about the people involved and to ask questions as to their motivations. These texts are usually written in an objective manner, which allows the reader to not be influenced by the writer’s personal views.   By reading a third person narrative, the reader gains knowledge of the event.

Reading a piece of literature based on historical events also allows for learning. These pieces of literature can come in historical-based fiction and first person narratives.  Historical-based fiction often requires the author to research the historical events to create the setting for the characters that they will create. While the characters are not actual people, when based in a historically accurate scene, the characters create an idea of what it was like to be living in that time period.  First person narratives are usually written in the form of autobiographies, memoirs, etc. These narratives serve as a view to what it was really like to live there.  By reading these different types of literature, the student can learn more about the historical event, because the reader experiences the event—almost first hand.  As we read a story, we put our own view into the story, which creates a text-to-person relationship.  These text-to-person relationships allow for learning to be more permanent in a student’s mind.  First person narratives also allow for anecdotes, while third-person historical narratives do not.  These anecdotes allow for a student to remember the events with more clarity.  These stories give life to the history, because we can picture what happened a long time ago even though it may be foreign to us.  With these connections, a student can learn from a first person narrative or a historical fiction novel.

Thure de Thulstrup - L. Prang and Co. - Battle of Gettysburg - Restoration by Adam Cuerden.jpgHowever, just learning from a history textbook or just learning from a piece of literature leaves holes in the knowledge of the subject.  These two genres need to be used together to create a complete package. Learning from a history textbook gives historical context to the literature.  If one reads The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, (a historical fiction novel about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War) and has never heard of Gettysburg, he/she might be lost. However, if the student reads The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin Coddington, he/she now has a context to read a great piece of literature in.  Overall, the student now has a very clear picture of what happened at Gettysburg and a wealth of knowledge of the events that transpired there.

In addition, reading first person narratives along with scholarly based narratives, allows for the facts to have a backing. Scholarly based narratives, while often making attempts at unbiased writing, cannot help but to be influenced.  Sometimes, the government might even have a say in what records are erased or kept.  A first person narrative, though biased in its own right, serves as a witness.  No one can completely disagree with someone’s experiences.  By writing down memories, a permanent record is created that cannot be erased later on down the road when a dictator wants to “rewrite history” to fit what they need. As a result, first person and scholarly based narratives together create a great framework for the truth.

Overall, the students at American high schools should not be learning about the Declaration of Independence in one class and then turn around to learn about the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a different class without at least a mention of the other class.  Greater understanding and knowledge can be achieved by reading historical literature and scholarly-based writing.

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