Rethinking Historical Fiction

The power of storytelling…it dramatizes, delights, and immerses us in an experience so that we can step back into the world, ready to face challenges with a little more confidence and understanding.  

At AOS, seventh and eighth grade students participate in the “History as Story” writing workshop with visiting authors who are experts in the power of storytelling.  The goal of the writing workshop is to connect students with themes of history as the students themselves craft a small work of historical fiction. The historical fiction piece engages students more deeply with topics they have been researching, topics that will be developed later in a more formal research essay.  

This year the “History as Story” writing workshop was led by poet and author Allan Wolf, who paints a picture of history through various viewpoints in books-in-verse, such as New Found Land (Lewis and Clark expedition) and The Watch that Ends the Night (sinking of the Titanic). Allan Wolf suggested that students develop their historical fiction piece by using CAST: Characters, Action, Setting, and Truth.

The following sample pieces show how students used CAST to connect with a Truth about their historical topics and re-imagined a moment in history.

American Reformers: “Be the Change”
Seventh graders researched American reformers of the late 1700s-1800s in a “Be the Change” research project.  The opening paragraph of the research paper is a historical vignette that immerses the reader in a dramatic moment of their American reformer.

One student, Ella Piper, envisioned how Mother Ann Lee, leader of the Shaker church in New York, made the treacherous sea voyage from England to New York. Her characters are the zealous Ann Lee and an exasperated ship captain. The action is a dangerous storm at sea, and the setting is the ship’s deck, where Ann Lee is dancing to seek God’s intervention while the Captain and shipmates are furiously battling a sinking ship.  Below is an excerpt:

It was the middle of the night. A yellow moon and its pale, waxy light slowly disappeared under ominous storm clouds, and the skies opened up. The ship was low in rations, and the bodies of the passengers, frail from malnutrition, hardly caused a tip in the hardy vessel, the Mariah, as they began worship. It didn’t bother Ann. Her light hair grew steadily darker in the rain, and, as on all nights, she began to spin. Uncontrolled, sporadic movements overtook her body, mimicking the crashing of the tumultuous sea. “Praise God,” she whispered, and the ship erupted in a soulful, oscillating waltz.

And the rain persisted. The rain came down and the captain came up to handle it and through it all she continued to dance. After all, they were alive and God was with them and that trumped a squall any day. Even though they were ordered back to their rooms. Even though the wind whipped her hair and cut at her face.

“Below deck!” The captain screamed. “Or it’s overboard for the lot of ya!” His voice was hoarse from shouting at the crew. His patience with Ann and her followers, never in abundant supply, was rapidly wearing thin. “That shaking of yours will be put to a stop, whether its by my hand or God’s when we die in this bloody monsoon!” He jerked on the wheel.

The truth is revealed later in final words by Ann Lee as the storm dissipates:

Abruptly, the largest wave so far, one of Brobdingnagian proportions, drew close to the ship. Captain Nelson swore. Baker began to say his prayers. Ann danced. And, as if guided by the hand of God himself, the wave carried the board back into place. The Mariah began to rise.

Ann danced. She smiled. “It is my belief that a true act of God is finding peace in chaos, the eye of the hurricane. Wouldn’t you say so, Captain?”

It was the middle of the night. A yellow moon and its pale, waxy light shone through retreating storm clouds.

US Defining Moments
Eighth graders researched defining moments in US history and iconic persons who influenced those events. As part of their research, students located a primary source photo and used the Library of Congress Analysis Tool to examine how the photo revealed insights into their historical event or person. In the writing workshop, these photos were used to develop descriptive, narrative poems (ekphrastic poetry). Here is an example of how one student, Emma, used the CAST technique with her photograph to reveal insights about the Texas Western 1966 NCAA Championship.

Emma’s primary source photo depicts the Texas Western team posing with their trophy for the 1966 NCAA championship. (View photo in this El Paso newspaper article.) The characters for the poem are the basketball team, “blacks and whites stand side by side,” and the “small white coach (who) does his best to stay hidden.” Emma also created a fictional character, the photographer, as her point of view to describe this victorious moment. The action is the photographer setting up to take the photo, “As I steady my camera to take a legendary picture,” and the poem ends with the “flash” of the camera.  Though the setting is not described, a sense of place is suggested as the players stand shoulder to shoulder, a “colorful canvas” as “blacks and whites stand side by side.”  The truth, or moment of insight about this historical moment is revealed in several lines. The poem alludes to the Civil Rights struggle–“Challenges and the races/They had to win to make their statement”–as well as the unity of the team–the coach “treating each and all like an equal son” and the team “connected in more than just great pride.”  

Texas Western
3, 2, 1
Scattered smiles and serious faces
In the Miners I see the traces
Of all the challenges and the races
They had to win to make their statement.

The small, white coach does his best to stay hidden
He takes no credit for all they have done
Treating each and all like an equal son

As I steady my camera to take a legendary picture
I see the significance of this colorful canvas
Blacks and whites stand side by side
Connected in more than just great pride.
Flash!

This poem by Emma prompts a final reflection about what is history.  Historians often stress the importance of examining the historical context and purpose of the primary source that is being evaluated: meaning is constructed.  Literally, what is the historical lens that the photographer of Emma’s poem uses to help viewers see this moment of victory in the Civil Rights struggle? Questions for future research might be the following:

“What were the challenges that the Texas Western team faced?”
“Were the team players really united?”
“What was the coach’s role in this struggle and did he avoid the limelight?”
“Did this championship win change attitudes of society?”

The “History as Story” writing workshop is an exciting opportunity for students to add their voice as they shape an understanding of history.  I encourage you to find a moment in history that fascinates you and, through the power of storytelling, look closely and think deeply about truths that have shaped our Nation.

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