Start with stories. Novels, short stories, biographies, autobiographies. Of these I prefer novels and short stories. Historical events, concepts and themes matter when they connect to people. We value primary sources in history class, as we should, but we should not lose sight of the value of fiction. Primary sources matter in that they connect us to the past. Stories matter because they connect us to humanity. I have always thought this, but I have not worked hard enough to incorporate fiction into my history classes. This summer, a few different experiences have convinced me that I need to do more to lead with stories.
Yesterday, I sat down to read International Migration: A Very Short Introduction, which is a book I am assigning for my International Immigration course this fall. Before I did that, I read The Arrival by Shaun Tan. A few days ago I finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As I sat to read the book on international migration, which provides a great foundation touching on a lot of major themes, I kept thinking back and relating what I was reading to the fictional characters I had read about. Discussion of migrants becoming irregular by overstaying their visas made me think about Obinze in Americanah. The experience of being disoriented and the incredible motivation it takes to migrate took me to The Arrival. In fact, these are just two instances where the concepts I read about became real to me through the fictional characters. I connected easily to the concepts with images of specific characters in my head.
Earlier in the summer I participated in a one-day seminar conducted by Leon and Amy Kass surrounding their new interdisciplinary curriculum, What So Proudly We Hail. Together with about twenty other teachers, we read short stories and discussed what they might have to offer us in the realm of civic education. While we focused on analyzing the stories, we could easily have used them as a jumping off point for studying history or current events. A Man without a Country put me in mind of the Edward Snowden case, for example. While I have not had the chance to look through the collection of stories to see what might provide students with those fictional touchstones, I plan to do that.
The summer reading book we use for Modern World History is All Quiet on the Western Front. It really fits the end of the course, and sometimes we just leave it until then. This year, I am going to make a point to talk about it, about the characters, at the beginning, as well as when we get to World War I. Students get a much better sense of that war from the novel than they do from any other source I have ever used. It might make an even better transition into our Renaissance Project, where the students create their own characters and write their Renaissance lives, than a review of medieval Europe. A conversation about the role of fiction in studying history is a perfect way to begin. Start with the story.
Our US history students read A Nation Rising by Kenneth C Davis. We are going to spend the first class discussing the stories in the book, the people and what happened to them. The historical questions and themes will emerge. We need to start with the stories.