Learning Through Stories: Using Historical Fiction
Writer Tony Bradman, who is teaching the CLPE’s Developing Historical Enquiry courses, explores how Historical Fiction can open doors into wider parts of the curriculum.
I’ve written many different kinds of books in my career as a children’s author but, in recent years, I’ve concentrated on Historical Fiction. It’s one of two genres I used to read as a child that made me want to be a writer. The first was Fantasy. I was at Junior School in the 1960s and a great teacher (take a bow, Mr Smith!) read The Hobbit aloud to my class over the course of a year. That got me hooked onto books, and I soon found my way to writers such as Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff who wrote Historical Fiction.
I enjoyed these stories, of course - they were full of action and adventure and rich writing. But I was also fascinated by what they revealed about the past, and that led me to develop a life-long interest in History itself as a subject. A large part of why I now enjoy writing fiction is because of the historical research that goes on behind it. I like nothing better than finding out as much as I can about a particular period - from books, the internet, visits to museums and historical sites. As my kids would tell you, I’m very fond of a good ruin.
When I started talking about my historical books in schools, I began to realise they had a lot of potential supporting other areas of the curriculum. Children were fascinated by the history as much as the story. I’ve never been a teacher, but as I talked to classes and looked at the displays on the classroom walls, I saw that these books could definitely open doors into wider areas. In my view, for historical fiction to be any good you need to make sure that the past is represented as accurately and credibly as possible, while ensuring that the story is strong and the plot and characters remain interesting and gripping. The wider links made and the research involved in historical fiction ensures there are always going to be aspects of the text that can support cross-curricular learning in classrooms and help to cultivate enquiry and curiosity across different subjects. I’ll use some of my recent books and the History course I co-deliver at CLPE with Primary Advisory teacher, Katie Myles, as an example of how this is possible.
My most recent story is Winter of the Wolves, set during the early years of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain. It’s about Oslaf, a young orphan boy, who is taken in by the chieftain of a tribe about to leave their ancestral homelands in the south of Denmark for Britain. The story fits into the Anglo-Saxon part of the History curriculum. I was particularly keen to direct children to think about what it might have been like to leave an ancestral homeland and try to build a new life elsewhere, a common experience of many migrants today. This type of reading helps children develop their questioning skills and their ability to make hypotheses, helping them understand historical concepts such as continuity and change. There’s relevance to aspects of persuasive writing in the English curriculum too: when teaching this, I talk to kids about the importance of suspense in stories (‘Will Oslaf and his tribe make a new home for themselves?’), cliffhanger chapter endings, and how to make a plot work.
Another obvious subject area to look at is Geography. In the story, Oslaf’s tribe moves from a marshy, coastal area in southern Denmark to a similarly marshy, coastal part of Eastern Britain, which eventually became Suffolk. I’ve asked children to think about what made that region attractive to settlers - did it have something to do with a similarity to home? Or was it that it was easy to get to in the boats they had? This meets the National Curriculum objectives, helping children place their growing knowledge into different contexts.
My book Viking Boy is has become very popular in schools - the title tells you that it’s firmly set in the Viking age. It’s the story of a young Viking called Gunnar, whose home is burnt down by raiders. They also kill his father, and Gunnar swears to take vengeance on them. But to do that he believes he needs some help, so he sets off to Valhalla, hoping to bring his father back to the land of the living where they can take vengeance on the raiders together. There is plenty of Viking action and background in the story: the Norse God Odin makes an appearance, as do the Valkyries and the three Norns, the weird women who weave everyone’s fates, so all of this contextual knowledge helps children to develop an understanding of the Viking world. But there’s Geography in the book too. Gunnar starts off on Norway, but travels to the Land of Ice and Fire, which we know as Iceland. He’s also made into a slave at one point, which would allow you to explore the fact that slavery was an essential part of the Viking world too. There’s a blacksmith as well, and a sword that’s re-forged, so there’s even an opportunity to explore the science behind making Viking weapons.
Stories are great in themselves, but they can be useful in the classroom in all sorts of ways too. This is particularly true of Historical Fiction, but even contemporary stories can often present cross-curricular learning opportunities. The texts chosen for this type of teaching should authentically stimulate interesting, engaging, inspiring experiences that develop curiosity, empathy, knowledge, critical enquiry and learning engagement. The trick is to keep your eye out for these experiences and opportunities for creative learning as you’re reading!
Teachers who will be attending the History course with me and Primary Advisory Teacher Katie Myles at CLPE will experience using high quality texts and creative approaches to develop a cross-curricular unit of work, exploring critical reading skills and how to evaluate sources as well as how to incorporate creative teaching approaches in history lessons effectively. We’ll be looking at how teachers can use texts to help children with their inference skills and growing historical awareness.
Tony Bradman will be leading the CLPE’s Developing Historical Enquiry courses which focus on Vikings, WWI and the Romans. (Book all three to recieve a special discount.)
The books referred to in this article are:
Winter of the Wolves - Bloomsbury Education
Secret of the Stones - Barrington Stoke
Viking Boy - Walker Books