Category Archives: Fiction

Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

Video games create role-playing opportunities for learning

I was first introduced to the concept of using games to teach history when I read Larry Ferlazzo’s post about teaching with “Choose Your Own Adventure Stories” (CYOAS).  (See, “The Best Places to Read and Write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories,’” “‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Additions,” which inspired my own post: “Student-written ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories’ for learning history,” and a related post, “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education.”)  Using the provided links from Ferlazzo’s recommended sites (such as the Microsoft site with a PowerPoint tutorial and these clowns who actually explain a YouTube adventure quite well despite failing at humor), I created my own PowerPoint CYOAS: “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade.”

The main character was based on a real historical knight who left a charter about his decision to give up his life of robber-baron crime and repent by accepting the call to the First Crusade.  Links to online biographies, online primary sources, and an in-document glossary, provided the means for the students to build content-knowledge.  The links that moved the story provided students with the opportunity to role-play and engage in decisions that would have been relevant to a late-11th century knight.  Some decisions were purely moral and resulted in the same outcome, but the decision would have required careful consideration by a knight of the era who was opting to be moral or not.  The story progressed based on the events of history and historical persons.  In the below sample, for example, the knights in Emico’s entourage attacked the Jews of Mainz, sought to enter the Kingdom of Hungary, were repulsed, and then fell to bandits in the woods during their  retreat.  This is a dead-end scenario.  If the student selects the option of Nivelo refusing Emico’s offer, the story continues.

To recap: the students, by participating the story, do all of the following:

  1. Read related secondary and primary sources (online in this case)
  2. Build relevant vocabulary for the unit (plus, in my glossary of, “Words you may not know,” I included, “Places You May Not Know” with links)
  3. Engage the thought-processes, problems, and decision-making challenges of the historical era
  4. Engage these within a realistic fiction of actual historical events and persons, based on primary document evidence

This is a pretty useful way for students to engage the familiar and the strange in a the foreign culture they are studying.  (It is also a useful exercise for the educator who creates the CYOAS–assuming, of course, that it’s done right.)

It was thanks to Glenn Wiebe’s post, “Gaming the Past: How to Teach with Video Games,” that I was introduced to an entirely new and productive approach to teaching history with video games.  (A fact that was strongly recalled to mind when I visited, “The Art of Video Games,” exhibit and learned about the incredible potential of modern video games.)  Upon visiting Glenn’s site with the above link, you will be provided with links to Teachinghistory.com’s posts by Jeremiah McCall on using and creating simulation games in the classroom and the blog, Gaming the Past.  These tools will give you another opportunity to provide an authentic role-playing experience that helps students learn about historical eras, events, or persons.

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A twist…

Students will benefit from playing these games–their knowledge and understanding will increase.  These games are exercises in historical experiences.  That’s useful for learning.  There is another way to approach this, however.  As you will learn from the links, above, software exists to create simulations.  This means you can make games for your students to play, but it also means that the students can make the games!

I have already advocated for this learning experience in previous posts: “Creating Educational Games,” and, “Some advice and tips on creating educational games.”  The same logic can be used in providing students with the necessary tools to create digital simulations and games.  The same knowledge that was required in making my CYOAS, “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade,” would be the researched portion of the project for the students in developing their games.  The same ideas I suggested for board or card games in the above posts could be used to create digital simulations with the software available, today.

In this way, students are not only engaging in role-play learning for eras, but they are doing the necessary research to create a simulated historical era, and learning enough about the habits and ways of a historical period to create problem-solving scenarios in line with the era.  This is an incredibly useful learning experience, a good way to engage the current generation, and valuable experience in traditional history research.

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Teaching History with blood-sucking, stake-driving style, Or, Why Historians Should Be Vampire Hunters

W. Scott Poole: Why Historians Should Be Vampire Hunters.

Literature and History can be taught in a complementary fashion.  Literature is a primary source for its culture and society; the events of History enrich our reading of many great books; and, in general these two subjects are often complimentary as Literature deals with a certain realism of life that History seeks in past eras.  Literature, itself, can use fiction to teach something about History–indeed, most authors are far more conscientious than Hollywood.  (For the moment we will leave behind my favorite personal anecdote about the graphic novel a student read, and believed, that features the pope ordering the crusades be carried out by his zombie armies.)  But, perhaps few would have anticipated a history scholar advocating the recent novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

Professor W. Scott Poole makes a fantastic argument for making use of the fiction, even that as fantastic as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  (If nothing else the book is a salve for the obnoxious Twilight series, but that’s my argument–not Professor Poole’s.)  He assigned it in his History department’s mandatory “The Historian’s Craft” boot-camp-for-history-majors class as a way to demonstrate how, “primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways.”

The author of the novel, Seth Grahame-Smith, used primary sources to, “recreate the 19th century, indeed give it a lived-in sort of feeling.”  Read the article linked above and, if nothing else, credit Poole with thinking outside of the box and getting his students to really stretch their brains about the era and history.  His students helped him arrive at some interesting conclusions about the book and its interpretation!

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Scaffolding to improve history reading and comprehension

Scaffolding for better history reading comprehension

I am a huge advocate of learning and teaching history through the actual activity of historians.  This means interacting as much as possible with primary sources.  While using primary sources makes the history experience real and genuine, it may be prohibitively difficult for some readers to navigate through English texts that come from a foreign world or translations of foreign language texts.

We have no intention of leaving students behind, but nor can we simply dismiss the use of the texts, so what to do?  I had harbored grand ideas of creating readers with all my primary reading texts including a thorough glossary for my community college classes.  Some day, with a month or two and nothing else to do, maybe I will finally finish the reader; in the meantime…   I assign readings that are typically accompanied with group supports and guiding sheets, while I regularly circulated to check on and assist comprehension, but AdLit.org recently shared a brilliant idea that could be adapted to history and modified for different age groups: Blending Multiple Genres in Theme Baskets | Adolescent Literacy Topics A-Z | AdLit.org.

Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. These supports may include the following:

  • Resources
  • A compelling task
  • Templates and guides
  • Guidance on the development of cognitive and social skills

These supports are gradually removed as students develop autonomous learning strategies, thus promoting their own cognitiveaffective and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge. Teachers help the students master a task or a concept by providing support. The support can take many forms such as outlines, recommended documents, storyboards, or key questions.

~ Wikipedia, “Instructional scaffolding”

In essence, the idea is that one builds to the more difficult text by providing a “basket” of varied readings that introduce the subject matter by an easier means and building to more complex levels of reading.  This is what the article suggests for build-up to reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (keeping in mind that the context for this reading includes challenged readers, ESL students, and modern students who are unexposed to long sustained reading assignments):

Sample theme basket

Most teachers undertake the task of teaching core literature selections throughout the year. The following is a sample theme basket approach, using multiple genres, to one such selection, John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, beginning with children’s picture books and progressing through the core text and beyond.

Picture books, ages 4-8

  • Ada, Alma Flor. Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1997.
  • Altman, Linda Jacobs. Amelia’s Road. New York: Lee and Low, 1993.
  • Bunting, Eve. A Day’s Work. New York: Clarion, 1994.
  • Bunting, Eve. Going Home. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Herrera, Juan Felipe. Calling the Doves. Emeryville, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1995.
  • Mora, Pat. Tomás and the Library Lady. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • Thomas, Jane Resh. Lights on the River. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
  • Williams, Sherley Anne. Working Cotton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Fiction and nonfiction chapter books, ages 9-12

  • Ashabranner, Brent. Dark Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in America. New York: Putnam, 1985.
  • Atkin, Beth. Voices from the Fields: Children of Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.
  • Brimmer, Larry Dane. A Migrant Family. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992.
  • Goodwin, David. Cesar Chavez: Hope for the People. New York: Ballantine, 1991.
  • Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
  • Jimenez, Francisco. The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. Albuquerque: New Mexico Press, 1997.
  • Rivera, Tomás. And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him. Dir. Severo Perez. Videocassette. 1994.
  • Rivera, Tomás. Y no se lo Trago la Tierra / … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Publishers, 1995.
  • Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992.

High school-Adult

  • Barrio, Raymond. The Plum Plum Pickers. New York: Bilingual Review Publishers, 1984.
  • The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford. Perf. Henry Fonda and Jane Darnell. Videocassette. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.
  • Morgan, Dan. Rising in the West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • Soto, Gary. “Red Palm.” Who Will Know Us? New Poems. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990.
  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1967.

~  AdLit.org: “Blending Multiple Genres in Theme Baskets”

In this example, it is possible to see a progression with scaffolding supports: easier literature and film provided a context for the complicated and nuanced themes of the Steinbeck novel.  If a teacher used this at the beginning of a high school literature class, it would not be necessary to repeat the same process with the next work.  If the next book was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, then the process good be revised to place emphasis on fewer picture books, introducing different types of reading, until eventually these supports would not be used at all in introduction to core literature assignments.

For history teachers, the process would only slightly resemble this process depending on age and reading levels of students.  But, similar “baskets” could be used at different levels of education.  Consider the following examples for a high school-level American History class:

American History

Goal:  Consider the competing methods of various parties in the Civil Rights era and which was most effective in creating change:

  • Non-violent resistance and awareness (Martin Luther King, Jr., SNCC–Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) –> Read the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Court cases to change unjust laws (Thurgood Marshall, NAACP) –> Read the Supreme Court Case decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
  • Black pride (Malcolm X, Black Panthers) –> Read the speeches of Malcom X
  • Media coverage (covering the civil rights era and individuals being covered in contemporary news who introduced successful images of black citizens despite the times–athletes, musicians, artists, businessmen, and politicians with increasing crossover appeal)

A.  Youth literature dealing with segregation issues

B.  Photographs from the era (some of these are graphic, but the photo quality is not as good as it is today, so it is worth it to show an honest look at the era and the build-up)

C. Newspaper and magazine reports from the era

D. (The final primary source selections referenced above.)

The example allows you to build the context, so that the more difficult texts are not as overwhelming and the vocabulary is not entirely new.

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Why history is important, The Lion King Example

Oftentimes the past is relegated to, well, the past.  It is argued that it offers little value to the present.  And, then, when it is used as a case study to explain the present, historians regularly shake their heads at its misapplications and misunderstandings.

Today, I offer a simple post about why history is important and why it’s necessary to get the details down correctly.  I offer this via the Disney movie, The Lion King.

If you recall, the crisis in the movie is caused by sinister Scar, king Mufasa’s brother.  Mufasa’s heir, his son Simba, is brought to a narrow ravine and told to wait for a surprise by his Uncle Scar.  In the meanwhile, Scar’s outlaw hyenas stir up a stampede that cascades into the ravine threatening to trample the crown lion cub to death.  Scar, ever so helpfully, alerts Mufasa to his son’s impending doom.  Once Mufasa gallantly saves his progeny, he seeks to escape the stampede’s melee by climbing the walls of the ravine to safety.  As he struggles up the rock face, Scar, instead of helping his brother, sends him tumbling back into the ravine, to his death.  He convinces cub Simba that he is responsible for the death of his father and drives him away.  Without the king or his heir, the throne falls to Scar.

What does this have to do with history or history education?  No one could contest Scar’s claim because the only story they had–that an accident had killed both of Scar’s leonine rivals–supported his succession.  Because, in other words, he controlled the history, he controlled the throne, but should the truth be revealed–as it ultimately was–his claim to the throne would evaporate.  Furthermore, the impressionable young Simba, an innocent cub mistakenly trusting his uncle, was also fed a falsehood that directed and dominated his life until the movie’s climax.

History can be a dangerous weapon when it is controlled by the seat of power.  It can be a dangerous propaganda tool that is fed to youth so they will already be programmed by the time they come of age.  It is notoriously misused to subjugate populations or isolated groups.  There are literally thousands of examples in the 20th century alone.  Without the historical record being corrected, the movie could not earn its happy ending.  So, it often is in real life power struggles.

Just saying...

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My National Geographic Magazine project

In this post, I am sharing my National Geographic assignment.  This is especially useful in generating multi-disciplined assignments and projects.  I use it for home school, but it could easily be adapted to history, anthropology, English, social studies, language arts, or related subjects–the reading level is higher, obviously, so if you are doing it with younger kids, enlist the help of parents or reading coaches.  It also makes a pretty good extra credit assignment, if you do that.

The purpose is to get the student to read one of the articles and then engage in the content at a higher level.  Whether the student reads further, creates fiction based on the article, or is artistically inspired, he or she is reworking the content of the article into his or her own project.

This is a great way to expose students to science, history, sociology, travel, and culture beyond their classrooms!  Once they’ve tapped into the pictures and maps, the story becomes hard to resist.  Each article is a kind of field trip (almost) and it should capture students’ imaginations and fuel their curiosity–for life.

(Additional tip for history use:  Assign older Nat. Geo. magazines from a period you are studying–the old Life magazines work well, too–so, students could, for example, read about the Space Race as it was unfolding.  Now, you’ve advanced it to a primary source project!)

National Geographic Assignment

Directions:  Read the current issue of National Geographic Magazine and do one of the following activities using an article of your choice from that issue:

  • Write a short story
  • Make a board game
  • Write a play
  • Do a related experiment
  • Further reading
  • Write a short report
  • Make a travel brochure
  • Do an art project
  • Invent a product or service
  • Write a blog post
  • Write a letter to the author or someone in the article
  • Make an informative map or chart explaining an aspect of the article
  • Create a storyboard for a short movie or documentary inspired by the article
  • Draw one of the photographs from the article
  • Write a speech
  • Make a cartoon strip
  • Write a song or poem
  • Make a PowerPoint explaining the article or an aspect of the article
  • Create a glossary or encyclopedia entries for the article
  • Design a craft project inspired by the article
  • Create a non-profit/fundraising service idea to address an issue raised in the article
  • Prepare a meal inspired by the article

These projects also make good “show” projects when highlighting the class’s  work or an individual student’s accomplishments.  Stories, artwork, and other projects may be used for contests or projects beyond the school or home school.

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Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education

The literary world has much to offer the study of history.  While I do not mean to suggest that novels should replace academic history texts in higher education (though I’d be less concerned if they replaced many of the textbooks I’ve seen), good historical fiction, or fiction written historically, can augment our developing understanding of historical eras.  Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” or Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” are stories that inform us about our eras of study.

The reverse is also true.  The effort of research and study of primary documents provides a bounty of fruitful forays into one’s imagination.  Without imagination, being a historian is almost impossible since one is compiling a reconstruction of a past era with bits and pieces of information that have been handed down–much has been lost, naturally.  Historians with an inclination towards writing do the world a service; whether they choose to write fiction or not, others will still recreate the past at will but not necessarily with any accuracy; I submit Dan Brown as Exhibit A.

In other words, historians have the done the research and have the imagination to produce fiction that enlightens the world on multiple levels.  They also have a number of other responsibilities that make writing full length novels a challenge given the time available to them.  Many may also doubt their abilities, having a healthy respect for the demands of writing.  Still, where time can be found, the effort would be rewarding for both other educators and readers in the general populace.

By the same token, however, the assignment of fiction writing as part of a larger research project is also a fruitful exercise for the inexperienced history students.  As a multi-disciplinary project, it is incredibly valuable: not only do English teachers have the opportunity to teach them about literature and creative writing, but the History teacher has the opportunity to teach both historical research and test cultural assumptions that they might make.  A character has to behave as she might in the studied era, not in the 21st century; he has to communicate as he would in his era, not in this post-modern information age; she has to exhibit an education commiserate with what her era would teach her, not what she would learn in today’s democracies.

This is such a valuable mental exercise not only for budding historians, or at least young history students, but also for young people who are learning how to find their way in a world that supports many different cultures and mores.  It is an exercise in understanding and in imaginative reconstruction based on available evidence.

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Researching to write historical material or historical fiction

How to Improve Your Researching Skills and Write Accurately | WritersDigest.com.

WritersDigest.com recently published this article on how to research for your work.  One of the reasons many authors enjoy writing is because it offers one the opportunity to explore many things they are curious about.  History offers a huge amount of material and opportunity in this way.  The article linked above is a very good starting point, but I wanted to make some history-specific recommendations to add to this writers’ guide.  These are useful, I believe, for the author of fiction or non-fiction.

Reliable Sources

When a historian writes history, he or she writes an argument for his or her interpretation of the past.  As with any argument, evidence is needed–if an author does not provide adequate evidence, be suspicious!  History is always a journey into foreign lands as separated by time and sometimes physical space.  It is faulty to presume that the past is always familiar, even when at first glance it appears to be a very familiar situation to present circumstances.  This is one of the non-historians most frequent errors!  Presumptions and generalizations based on supposed similarity may provide compelling reading, but are often misleading at best and an entirely misrepresentative of past peoples and cultures.  (I find it particularly troublesome, because if we do it with historical peoples, do we not also run the risk of doing it with foreign peoples?)

Some common examples of this include the assumption that Renaissance artists were generally gay because they were so artsy–it is true that Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy (a term which encompassed a rather large category of sexual deviance, of which when defined for modern audiences often seems odd and confusing) while he lived in Florence, as were many more people than were likely guilty, although evidence does exist to suggest he was in a relationship with a young man.  Another useful example is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which was written as a commentary of Cold War-era commie “witch-hunts.”  As such, it is far more descriptive of Miller’s contemporary America than of colonial Puritan Salem.  Dan Brown’s accounts of the Roman Catholic Church’s history are incredibly flawed–I have no idea how accurate his accounts of science are or are not.  Biographies are often, also, a difficult sort of book both to write and to use as a source.  Often biographies are unbalanced, leaning too heavily towards vilification or laud.  They are also frequently too divorced from the era or eras in which their subject lived, providing a myopic account of the figure’s actions.

So, how does an untrained researcher of history avoid these pitfalls for articles, books or fiction.  Start with reliable sources.  Start with the history book written by a history scholar.  These are identified in many ways, my recommendation is head over to a nearby certified research library as designated by the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries.  Access the JSTOR database and do a search for your topic, this way you can get both reviews and scholarly articles on your topic.  Depending on the era you are researching, there may be other databases that are also more specifically targeted to your research–the librarian will be able to assist you with that.  If you have a university close by and the history department teaches the area you are researching, faculty may also be able to assist you in building a reading list.  (Remember your college schedule?  Faculty are busiest in preparation for a semester and immediately after major due dates such as midterms and finals week–the soft spots are usually when the students are working on projects.)  Another good place to start are the collections of published by Cambridge, Oxford and other preeminent universities and university presses.  These are usually compilations on a subject, such as the Oxford Illustrated Guide to ___ and the The New Cambridge ___ History c. ___ to ___.   (Note: these same companies often also have similarly good materials for youth!)

The advantage to using these sorts of academic resources are twofold: 1) you’ll get good information, and 2) you’ll get good, cited evidence that provides a paper trail for your research, including both secondary (scholarly written history) sources and primary (contemporary original documents from the studied era) sources.  These authors have been through history boot camps, they understand how to interpret the past and are also on guard against assumptions of familiarity or strangeness.  Also, there are general guidelines that they all follow such as stating the intended purpose of the written work, supplying evidence through cited sources, etc.  (Always read the introductions!  Also known as gold mines by history majors and grad students everywhere!)

When it comes to history research, your online sources are generally limited to the following options: 1) the American Historical Association and like organizations of scholars (many exist on more specific areas of expertise); 2) .edu sites that have information or collections of primary sources (caution: these can often be dead or neglected sites that a professor set up, but for whatever reason has ceased using and the school has since pulled), a very useful site of this kind is the Internet Sourcebook provided by Fordham University; 3) internet sites attached to a museum collection or related online exhibit, the Smithsonian, for example, does this regularly, now; 4) internet sites established by a historical site or preservation project which can vary widely from local projects to National Park sites or National Trust for Historic Preservation projects.  Beyond that, one must tread carefully.  History is a subject that many people enjoy, but fewer people actually do well and the web is absolutely groaning with bad historical information for anyone to misuse!

That’s my basic primer.  I was motivated by the useful article from WritersDigest.com and from oodles of experience being disappointed or just plain offended by the inaccuracies that pass out there for fiction.  I long for the day that people actually have a useful and vaguely correct concept of the Middle Ages, for example, as opposed to the prejudiced account of the Dark Ages that was largely, though not entirely, created during the Enlightenment and is wrong or vastly overstated on most counts.  Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of reliable sources and primary documents–that goes last bit goes double for writers of historical fiction!!  Below are some additional reading recommendations before you really get rolling:

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