Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Launching a Powerful Historical Fiction Unit

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one.”           
~John Boyne The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
Unit Overview
This week in Readers’ Workshop, my students and I began our study of Historical Fiction. This year, our focus will be on WWII and the Holocaust. Students will be participating in book clubs where they read the same title with a small group of classmates and discuss their thinking about the book and the historical time period they are learning about. We will also have whole-group discussions through read alouds and mini-lessons where we will chart what we are learning and questions we have.

A major goal of this unit is for students to sharpen their understanding of historical fiction and learn that in order to truly understand the time period we are reading about, we must walk in the characters’ world as we read and process the setting (time, place, societal and historical context, mood, etc) in which the characters live. To do so, we have to keep the time period in mind and consider the issues that affect the characters’ actions. For example, stories written about the Holocaust will show Jewish people being ostracized and persecuted. Students will see incidences of unequal treatment and unequal opportunities based on race, religion, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. Students will see that in this time period, Nazis had power while the Jews and others who were persecuted did not, but they will also see examples of people who persevered above their circumstances and of those who courageously put their own lives in danger to reach out to provide help to others.


Making connections between books and analyzing the overall themes embedded in historical fiction will be another focus that will force students into higher levels of thinking. Students will see that themes of injustice, equality, perseverance, courage, struggle, empathy, and making a difference unite the different stories that make up this unit of study. We will also focus on the connections between the timeline of events in history compared to what is going on in the character’s life and how the historical events are affecting the character’s choices and decisions. In addition, reading multiple books will allow us to explore multiple perspectives, so that students can see how this horrific time in history can be viewed from many different lenses. This will increase the level of their understanding, not only of the time period, but of the complexity of the historical fiction texts that will be tackled.

Finally, as we study this important historical era, we want our students to recognize how all aspects of the social world have changed over time. We want students to realize that we can learn many things from studying our past in an effort to keep dark moments, like the Holocaust, from ever happening again. While elementary students are usually able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context. One of our goals, through this unit, will be to help students to not only empathize, but to attempt to understand the complexities of history and human nature. We will continue our discussions about bullies, victims, and innocent bystanders by connecting those roles to this time period.

Some of the books children will be exposed to during this study include:

The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, The Big Lie: A True Story by  Isabella Leitner, and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter.

Launching This Unit
Lesson 1
I kick off this unit by reading Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche. This story is told through the eyes of a young German girl, Rose Blanche, who is a witness to the immense changes occurring in Nazi Germany. Her curiosity leads her outside her town where she discovers a concentration camp. Rose Blanche secretly brings food to  the children behind the barbed-wire fence. The author implies that Rose Blanche is killed by crossfire as the Russian soldiers advance into Germany. The ending of this book is symbolic as spring arrives in this deserted camp.

Click to download a free copy of this as well as a few photographs to analyze.
I provide no background prior to reading this story. It provides me with a sense of what students think they know and misconceptions they may have. It will not be until the next lesson that we will do a little research. 

While reading, I model my thinking, focusing primarily on the setting and its influence on the main character. I also tell students to play very close attention to the illustrations, which happen to be done by the author himself. There is great symbolism in the colors and images he uses. I also give students a copy of the text with room on the right-hand side to jot their thoughts. 

Students are asked to consider the following while I read:


  • First, we need to notice the setting and ask, “What kind of place is this?  What does it feel like?” 
  • Then, we need to look for signs that trouble is brewing and ask, “How is the setting changing?” 
  • Third, we need to notice what problems the characters are facing, what their character traits are, and what pressures are on them.


Lesson 2
On day two, students and I begin by brainstorming everything we think we know about the the WW2 time period. I try very hard not to use the word holocaust yet. 

Once we activate a little bit of background knowledge, we discuss the importance of building background knowledge about the time period we are reading about using both primary and secondary sources.

 I show them this famous photo and together we analyze it.


First, I ask them to begin by jotting down everything they notice and observe, every detail that stands out to them. After we share a few ideas, I ask them to write down what they think is happening in the photograph. Immediately, students will be reflecting back to yesterday's read-aloud. Finally, I ask them to write their own caption for the picture. 



Next, we read a bit about WW2 and the Holocaust from a nonfiction secondary source (For this unit, Lucy Calkins offers a great resource in her book, Tackling Complex Texts), but you can find similar sources of background information from textbooks or other resources. My goal is to provide them with enough background to begin to make sense of what's going on at this time in our world's history. I use this opportunity to teach some kind of non-fiction reading skill (I used this to talk about cause and effect). Students used two different color markers or highlighter and identified examples of cause(s) and corresponding effect(s). 

Afterwards, we returned to the photograph and to the story of Rose Blanche and reanalyzed each piece now that we had more background knowledge. 






Keep checking back for my next lesson, where I launch out read aloud novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

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