Using Historical Fiction as a Teaching Tool

Philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin famously said, “History is written by the victors.” As historical fiction increases in popularity, though, writers of every medium are challenging that maxim and are rewriting history. At the October 1st Teacher Preview Workshop and Performance, we discussed the role historical fiction plays in Jessica Dickey’s play The Guard, as well as how teachers employ historical fiction texts in their classroom. Is historical fiction dangerous? Or, does historical fiction bring students closer to history? What is to be gained by dramatizing the past?

In The Guard, audiences are transported back in time to see Rembrandt bemoaning a commission he has taken from a wealthy Italian patron. His son and wife enter, and we are treated to an intimate family scene about Rembrandt’s physical and financial health.

Making ends meet is a time-old challenge for all artists. Rembrandt’s conversation with his son seemed so familiar to us it might as well have happened in our own living rooms. And yet, did that conversation really happen? What responsibilities does a playwright have to historical accuracy? Can anyone write anything she or he wants?

The short answer, according to our visiting teachers, is yes. A playwright or author can write whatever he or she wants, but it should be historically possible.

As pertains to The Guard, many in our teacher workshop felt that Dickey’s use of modern vernacular (rather than an older English—or Dutch!) in the Rembrandt scene made the past feel more accessible. It felt to one teacher like, “a treat, getting a glimpse at a past [we] didn’t know about.” Very few of us knew much about Rembrandt’s personal life, and each of us felt we came away from the performance that night knowing more about the artist and inspirations for his work.

Another example of how the language of The Guard made sense to modern ears is through word choice and nuance. In the scene with Rembrandt, the young Titus complains about his father’s purchase of another expensive item: an Asian vase. The teachers who attended our workshop embraced the playwright’s use of the word “Asian” here instead of a possibly more historically accurate word “Oriental.” The teachers felt this word choice helped keep audiences in the moment of the play, and not turn anyone off. Considering that the vase (and Asia, for that matter) is not the focal point of the scene, using the term “Oriental” might unnecessarily offend some theatergoers.

Historical Fiction for Young Audiences

In the Ford’s Education department, we know live theatre can play a part in young audiences’ understanding of history. We celebrate the use of theatre as a creative way to bring history alive. Especially in the case of young audiences, it’s important for writers to accurately build on facts when interpreting the past.

Did you know that Scholastic publishes a series of plays centering on American history, and Lazy Bee Scripts publishes historical dramas for teen actors? Everything from the Battle of Hastings to the life of Marie Curie (in the play Marvelous Marie) can be dramatized.

Our teachers report that their students adore historical fiction, and assigning novels set in a particular era of study is a useful accompaniment to their curriculum.

Given the breadth of work in the historical fiction Young Adult genre, it isn’t hard to find a novel to suit your study unit. Looking at the historical timeline created by Epic Reads, one can see the scope of what is available.

Maybe you’re teaching the Civil War, and want to give your students an idea of the experience from another perspective. Ann Rinaldi’s YA book, Numbering All The Bones, tells the story of a teen slave girl experiencing the realities of the Civil War as her brother joins the Union Army.

The I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis is geared towards middle grade elementary school readers and portrays a fictional young character who lives through a disaster. Some of the best-selling books in this series include I Survived The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863, and I Survived The Destruction of Pompeii, AD 79. On Tarshis’ blog she asks readers to join her History Club and share her passion for learning about the past.

The proliferation of historical fiction in students’ lives means they are not only engaging with the past, but are also furthering literacy skills. In fact, a lot of the Amazon customer reviews for the I Survived series suggest that the books hold the attention of and provide incentive for “reluctant readers.”

Want to join us for our next teacher workshops? Click here to learn about upcoming teacher opportunities for The Glass Menagerie and 110 in the Shade.

What are some of your favorite historical fiction resources for your classrooms? We want to hear from you in the below comments.

Jennie Berman Eng is Lead Teaching Artist at Ford’s Theatre. Jennie will lead a webcast next month on the history of Christmas in America to complement Ford’s Theatre’s upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.