Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present,” in The Atlantic. Anna Diamond discusses how teachers are turning to historical fiction to build historical context around some of the issues of race, gender, and discrimination raised by the recent election and the current presidential administration. Diamond talks about the ways in which historical fiction also allows teachers to “[h]umaniz[e] history” so that students can “connect the historical dots” and build empathy.
One key point in the article worth emphasizing is the fact that historical fiction is still fiction. Fiction may be more appealing than a history textbook and perhaps more entertaining and engaging, but using historical fiction to help students think about the past poses challenges as well.
So, how can we use historical fiction to promote critical thinking and “counter the often static and monolithic view of the past”? Diamond cites the work of Sara Schwebel, author of Child-Sized Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, as one answer. Schwebel stresses an interdisciplinary approach, in which students think about different accounts and points of view in order to interrogate historical fiction as an “historical argument” rather than simple facts or historical truth.
We think the interdisciplinary and multi-text approach is key to helping students think critically and see those different points of view in any kind of text. And we want to underscore how students today, more than ever, need to develop this intellectual skill of thinking critically about the information they are receiving or consuming. Whether we are teaching historical fiction, history, literature, or even science, students need to move beyond relatively simple questions of validity and reliability of sources; they need to assess the accuracy of information in terms of shades of grey, not just black and white.
Like Diamond and Schwebel, we think the key to getting students to interrogate challenging issues is to present them with what we call text clusters -- combinations of texts, including multimedia texts -- that represent different perspectives in relation to a complex issue. For example, we built a unit around the issue of African-American domestic labor in connection with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. We use visuals of Aunt Jemima, excerpts from an interview with white women raised by black nannies, and a powerful audio clip of an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American domestic labor organizer, in order to get students to think critically about how Scout’s perspective about Calpurnia is shaped and limited by her place in the world of Macomb.
Does Scout’s blinkered view of Calpurnia make her narrative in Mockingbird less accurate? Yes, and in literary studies we have a term for that lack of accuracy on the part of the narrator: Scout is an unreliable narrator. The fact that Mockingbird is constructed around the storytelling of an unreliable narrator, however, doesn’t make it less valuable as a text: it makes it more valuable. It underscores how important it is for readers to think critically about the story, about what Scout is and is not telling us, about the gaps and distortions in her views, particularly in relation to Calpurnia. Adding other perspectives through relevant literary and nonfiction texts, including those that offer different avenues into Calpurnia’s world, opens up the conversation for students.
To be clear: this practice of careful, suspicious reading, supported by multiple texts, makes us careful readers not just of historical fiction but of all text. It is, as Diamond notes, very much in keeping with the Common Core. And very valuable in a world in which thinking critically about disinformation and fake news need to be part of every teacher’s task.