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Civil War Stories

Teaching Fact through Historical Fiction

"Ever since the Civil War was over, there's been an average of one book a day published about the Civil War, over 55,000 books and counting," says Larry Gibbs, a retired high school teacher in Country Club Hills, Illinois.

A Civil War historian for more than 30 years, Gibbs himself owns nearly 300 books on the subject, which could come in handy as in his post-retirement career as a history instructor at a community college and an area high school. Given today's issues of race, equality and tolerance, the Civil War is as relevant as ever in the classroom.

"The Civil War . . . has tremendous impact in the present day because slavery was abolished, and we've been trying to deal with the racial situation ever since, trying to help the black citizen achieve an equal status in our society," Gibbs said in an interview with the local newspaper, The Star. "We haven't done it yet, but we're approaching that."

He added that the growth of the federal government also stems from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, as does the foundation of today's economic system. Indeed, as one source puts it, "Not only was the War the occasion for the abolition of slavery, but by conflict's end the re-United States had emerged as a modern, industrialized power."

Although the reality of the war and its aftereffects are gripping in themselves, as evidenced by the immense popularity of Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War," many non-fiction accounts of the Civil War are too advanced or too dull to capture kids' attention.

The answer? Historical fiction.

"Here's the story on historical fiction in my classroom: It illuminates time periods, helps me integrate the curriculum, and enriches social studies," says Tarry Lindquist, a fifth-grade teacher on Mercer Island, Washington, who was recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year.

"Just take Amy's word for it," Lindquist says in the Instructor article "Why & How I Teach with Historical Fiction." "At the end of our westward-expansion unit, while modeling her journal entry after a fictional account we'd read, this fifth grader wrote: 'Dear Diary, July 30, 1852: This journey has been heart-wrenching, thirst-quenching, and most of all, an adventure I will never forget.' Blending stories into a study of history turns the past into a dynamic place."

As Leonard Irwin points out in his "Guide to Historical Fiction," a well-written historical novel can "provide its readers with a sense of historical understanding and realism that otherwise would be denied to all but the professional scholar." And we can't have that!

According to Lindquist, the historical fiction you choose to teach the Civil War, or any other subject, should:

  • present a well-told story that doesn't conflict with historical records
  • portray characters realistically
  • present authentic settings
  • artfully fold in historical facts
  • provide accurate information through illustrations
  • avoid stereotypes and myths

No matter how good, though, historical fiction can't stand alone, Lindquist emphasizes. It should complement the unique skills and processes kids need to for social studies. "I have students balance fiction with fact, validate historical hypotheses with research," Lindquist said. "Historical fiction is the spice."

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © 1997 Education World

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Originally published 06/15/1997
Links last updated 09/26/2003