Academic journal article English Journal

Historical Fiction in English and Social Studies Classrooms: Is It a Natural Marriage?

Academic journal article English Journal

Historical Fiction in English and Social Studies Classrooms: Is It a Natural Marriage?

Article excerpt

A few years ago, in preparation to teach a content-area literacy course, Kaa- Vonia, an English teacher educator, read "Foregrounding the Disciplines in Secondary Literacy Teaching and Learning: A Call for Change" (Moje), an article that defines the goals of disciplinary literacy. Interested, KaaVonia began following the discussion around disciplinary literacy. Reading widely about the subject, includ- ing the recently published NCTE's Policy Research Brief, "Literacies of Disciplines," the following questions occurred to her: What does collabora- tion mean in the developing national conversa- tion around disciplinary literacy? Is there a place for collaboration in a field that seems to suggest that reading and writing in one domain has little or no bearing in another? Would English language arts (ELA) teachers be expected to collaborate with other content areas? And if so, how would they do this since disciplinary literacy argues for a focus on "specialized knowledge" and "habits of mind" unique to a specific discipline (Moje)?

Last year, with the questions mentioned above in mind, KaaVonia invited three colleagues, Lourdes, a middle school ELA teacher; Maria, a high school social studies teacher; and Yonghee, a social studies teacher educator, to join her in a study group. The group members collected data on their developing understandings of disciplinary literacy and ways this new knowledge might affect each member's practice. This article reports outcomes of a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort through this study group (Birchak et ah).

The study group met via Adobe Connect. Each meeting was video/audio recorded and tran- scribed by one of the researchers. To establish a common language and understanding of disciplin- ary literacy, the study group began by reading and discussing Moje's "Foregrounding the Disciplines" and "Where We Read from Matters: Disciplinary Literacy in a Ninth-Grade Social Studies Classroom" (Damico et ah). We then read two award-winning young adult texts, The Book Thief (Zusak) and Hit- ler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow (Bartoletti), and discussed how we might use a disciplinary lens to discuss the texts with each other and, eventually, with our students. In The Book Thief Liesel Mem- inger holds on to the power of words in the books she creates and the ones she steals, all while being shaped by her experiences in Hitler Youth and her relationship with foster parents who challenge the Nazis by harboring a Jewish man. Hitler Youth is an informational text that presents profiles of twelve young people affiliated with Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). What follows are insights gleaned from the literature on disciplinary literacy and our collabora- tion in the study group.

Lessons Learned

In analyzing the data, several themes surfaced. We came to realize that the ELA and social studies teachers in our study group believe there are three habits of mind around teaching historical fiction that both disciplines share: (1) It is imperative that both ELA and social studies teachers build students' historical background knowledge before asking them to engage with historical fiction. (2) One of the goals of teaching historical fiction in both dis- ciplines involves nurturing historical empathy. (3) Pairing historical fiction with nonfiction has value related to promoting historical understanding and thinking in both ELA and social studies classrooms.


Early during our study group meetings it became clear that both ELA and social studies teachers believe teachers of historical fiction must provide students with details about the historical context of a particular work. However, given the study group members' conversations, disciplines ap- pear to use slightly different terms to describe this similar approach to teaching historical fiction. En- glish teachers might call this practice building con- text as Kimberly C. Price does when she describes how collaborating with her colleagues in Alaska is a "crucial aspect of building context in literature" (43). …

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