Bringing facts into the classroom through fiction

Thanks to Martyn Bajkowski, Head of History at Pleckgate High School and member of HA Secondary Committee for this blogpost. He encourages us to remember the joy of history and to use historical fiction to encourage our students.

As someone with a surname that translates as ‘The son of a story teller’ it may not surprise you to learn that I love using stories in history.  Those personal tales of people’s lives colliding with events and the choices (and subsequent consequences) have always fascinated me and been a key component of my teaching practice.

Naturally then you may also not be surprised to learn that as a teenager I was an avid reader of historical fiction.  Then, I became a history teacher, head of department, husband, father to now three children aged 6 and under, and that time spent reading historical fiction vanished. Instead every reading opportunity became an academic book about history, or about teaching and learning.  Important as these are they are not always as joyful as a good historical novel.

That changed this summer when on holiday. I, having forgotten my ‘proper’ book, happened upon Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series in our holiday accommodation.  Gripped by it, I was pulled into 19th century patriarchal England. I could not help thinking that my students needed to ‘feel’ this sense of time period and it got me thinking of ways to introduce these novels into their learning.

I started small.  With one class I brought my 30 or so historical novels into school and asked if anyone wanted to borrow one.  The response from this bright, eager group was positive but not universal.  However, within a week most of the students had read their book and wanted a new one.  This also roped the others into the fray.

Supplementing this I then used the departmental coffers to buy 5 books recommended by the HA.  They have gone down a storm as you can see by the review below from one of our students.

Up until now I don’t think, despite my surname, that I really fully understood the importance of historical fiction within a history curriculum.  It seemed a bit childish when I should be getting them to discuss the mighty view of intellectual historians.  However, having dived down into this rabbit hole it is something I will continue to pursue to enrich our curriculum and student’s understanding of place and period.  More importantly I will do it because I became a history teacher to make students love history as much as I do. When you read the review below you can start to see that love of history coming through from students – magic!

The White Phoenix, Book by Catherine Randall, Review by a Year 9 Student

This was an absolutely amazing book, with twists, turns and an interesting plot. The book showed the patriarchal society during that time; and the effects the second Anglo-Dutch war had on how the English people viewed and treated people who had views which differed from theirs.

Having a female protagonist makes the book stand out compared to others which usually have a male protagonist. The book is quite feminist, with Lizzie having a really strong personality, rebelling against what the misogynistic society expected. This is shown when she persuades her mother not to marry Pedley, although marrying him would have secured the family business. Not only do we see women who are feminist but we see men such as Kit and Joseph who support the Hoppers when as they battle prejudice from the people of London such as Pedley.

There is such an atmosphere of fear in this book. From the death of her father and Lizzie’s fight to save her shop from “well-meaning” men who have an eye on the business, to the wave of anti-French sentiment wracking the city in the wake of war, there is a claustrophobic sense of people closing ranks against “the other”. The fears over plague hit really hard given the situation, but I found that really cathartic, to see others tackling it and not letting it stop them.

The book taught me a lot about the year 1666, the Great Fire of London, the second Anglo-Dutch war and the attitudes towards Roman Catholics and foreigners. I also learnt a bit about the Great Plague and the fear that it spread and; the book explored societal expectations during the time it was set in.

The ending of the book was perfect because all the conflict had ended, the author never left l us with any major unanswered questions, and it gave a powerful close the development of Sam’s character (my favourite character) and I felt as the story was complete when I ended it. Not only did the book make me laugh but at times it also made me cry especially when Lizzie’s mum lets her walls down, exposing her true feelings. I would recommended this book to anyone in high school, especially to those who love History. My overall rating is 8/10.

And OBHD has a historical fiction list that you can share with your students! You could join other students and teachers in reading new fiction by joining HA Young Quills. Meanwhile, the winners of this year’s HA fiction competition have been announced. You could encourage your students to enter the HA’s write your own historical fiction competition next year – look out for details of this competition posted here.

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