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Add Literature -- and Life -- to Content Instruction

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer bemoans his sterilized history text. Were it not for that text, however, he might not have been forced to "discover" the value of bringing quality literature into his history classroom. Included: Obstacles to including literature plus sources of quality literature.

Max W. Fischer

As a long-time history teacher, I often bemoan how textbooks sterilize history's most exciting and meaningful events. In the interest of "covering it all," they frequently leave out the rich detail of "a story well told." My current world history text's attempt to cover 10,000 years is about as rich as a loaf of soft white bread. Yes, its ingredients include the basic facts, causes, and effects, but the nutritious fiber of interest has been removed.

So you might think that's a bad thing, right?

Sterilized texts have often forced me to look elsewhere to provide students with a more real sense of events and time periods. In the process, I've learned how a good piece of literature can elevate my social studies instruction.

Yes, issues of time and money, and even legal issues, sometimes prohibit me from presenting entire books to my seventh graders. But by extracting segments -- the right chapter, a vivid episode, or even a few vibrantly descriptive paragraphs -- from a piece of quality historical fiction I am often able to invite students to see history in a different light. They gain a new appreciation and comprehension of historic times or events from literature. And reading or sharing such excerpts even motivates some students to want to read more.

As a teacher, I've found that introducing pieces of historical fiction affords me a natural opportunity to differentiate instruction. Advanced students can be simultaneously exposed to and challenged by previously unknown works. Students with lower levels of comprehension might be given a brief excerpt -- several paragraphs -- to read and dissect with the aid of an appropriate graphic organizer.


When my curriculum dictated that I teach about the mound builders, the information provided in my state history text was limited in detail and lifeless. I turned to the novel People of the Lakes by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear (Tor Books, 1994). The Gears' background as archaeologists supplemented our sparse text as it enriched students' understanding of the valuable local marketing network in flint, obsidian, pipes, greenstone, and conch shells. Moreover, the small episode I selected from People of the Lakes painted a pulsating depiction of life along the ribbons of waterways of the Mississippi basin in pre-Columbian times.

Tracking Down
Quality Literature

So how does one go about locating quality literature for students?

Asking colleagues and your school librarian is always a good place to start.

The Notable Trade Books for Young People lists published by the National Council for the Social Studies is another excellent source of quality literature.

I've found that an advanced search on Google or your favorite search engine -- searching terms such as juvenile fiction ancient Egypt -- is bound to provide a number of titles. Background information and reviews of those titles on a major bookseller's site -- Amazon or Barnes & Noble, for example -- helps me determine a book's suitability.

Literature can often inspire new teaching ideas too. The Gears' rich work prompted me to develop economic simulations to accompany our mound builder unit and logical reasoning problems based upon the native marketplace.

Literature has also proven to be fertile ground for students' end-of-unit projects -- projects they choose based on their personal learning interests, skills, and styles. Another form of natural differentiation! The avid readers among my students might choose to read and review an entire novel as their project. For example, one of the project choices I offered at the conclusion of a unit on ancient Egypt was to read Mara, Daughter of the Nile or The Golden Goblet, both by Eloise McGraw (Puffin Books, reissued 1990). I had read both books the previous summer. I knew the characters would keep young readers mesmerized while feeding them full with exceptional portrayals of Egyptian life in the second millennium B.C. Student reviews of those books confirmed my opinion.


Building lesson plans around literature is not the easy way out. I have run into a number of obstacles as I've strived to widen my curriculum in this way. The following are a few of those hurdles that I've managed to overcome:

Time. I'm not a fast reader, so it can be difficult to read a novel and develop lessons for it during the routine hubbub of a school year. For me, it is easier to devote time to reading literature related to my curriculum during the summer months when I'm free of the stresses and expectations that accompany my school-year regimen. But not all lessons require reading entire books. For example, I built my lesson around People of the Lakes during the school year. In that case, I didn't have to read the entire novel. I was able to skim and plan my lesson. I read the entire book later, at my own leisure.

Money. Like most of you, I'm a teacher and I'm not independently wealthy. I can't afford to buy a class set of books for my students. I am always looking for opportunities to acquire class sets. When my district allocated funds specifically for the purpose of improving reading scores, I was able to obtain 20 copies each of several historical fiction titles. In addition, some local and regional foundations in my area offer grants; I took advantage of one such opportunity to purchase another set of novels.

Copyright guidelines. For my mound builder lesson, I copied a specific selection from the book People of the Lakes. Copyright laws give educators some leeway when using material for instructional purposes. For example, one chapter could be copied and distributed to each member of the class. However, such use is allowed only as a single occurrence and only if the lesson is spontaneous enough to prohibit time to seek permission from the copyright holder. Subsequent uses of copied material from the same book would require written permission from the holder of the copyright. For more information on teachers' "fair use" of literature in the classroom, see EducationWorld's Educator's Guide to Copyright and Fair Use.

Integrating quality literature into history or any other content area is a worthy undertaking. It can offer students a different perspective on content as it creates a more well-rounded and interesting curriculum and develops in students a lifelong love of reading all kinds of literature for a wide variety of purposes.


A teacher for over three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.


Article by Max Fischer
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Updated 9/17/2012