My district uses SHEG’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum and while I think it is very well done, I worry that for most students History is becoming death by a thousand primary sources. I loved reading history when I was a kid and still remember devouring every single Louis L’amour western, even though they all have the same story and three-act structure. I have written about the power of narrative in History and am concerned that narrative reading and writing is being sacrificed to the almighty gods of primary source analysis and argumentation, at the considerable expense of student engagement.
So for the last few years, I have been asking my students to read historical fiction and non-fiction in class. I create time for this by placing video lectures online and assigning them in lieu of homework. This allows me to focus on reading and writing skill builders in class. I modified a book pass activity from (Ogle, Klemp & McBride, 2007, p. 38) and turned it into a WWII speed dating reading activity where students presented three books they might be interested in reading to at least two other people. This gave each student a choice of 9 books. The net results were 127 students reading 82 different books.
Early this year, I assessed note-taking skills in quarter page increments. This created an arms race for the number of pages of notes students would take, but their test scores did not show any indication of processing those notes beyond basic comprehension. In order to improve their reading of fiction and non-fiction, I was going to have to design activities that would help them make connections to the historical event. I decided to continue using my playlist approach, which allows students choice in selecting the activities they prefer, even though I am concerned that the scope and number of tasks unnecessarily stresses my students out. I advised them to take traditional notes by noting the people, places, events, and plot of their books, but be prepared to complete 2-3 of the tasks below in class.
Reading Tasks for Independent Book Projects
- Profile five historical figures that appear in your book in at least 150 words. Cite your sources.
- Connect/corroborate 10 historical details from your independent reading book with your textbook.
- Connect/corroborate 10 historical details from your independent reading book with the transcript of the WWII/Holocaust video lectures.
- Connect/corroborate 10 historical details from your independent reading book with internet sites. Explain how each site is a legitimate, unbiased website suitable for academic research.
- Paraphrase 10 difficult, or hard to understand passages from your independent reading book using your background knowledge of WWII/Holocaust.
- Summarize 5 actual historical events portrayed/mentioned in your book. Cite your sources.
- Identify five movies that are similar to your book.
- Connect/corroborate 5 historical details with one movie and your book.
- Create an annotated timeline with maps that emphasize the historical details and plot of your book.
- Develop 3-5 research questions and produce an annotated bibliography demonstrating that you have the skills to research an important aspect of your book.
- Write a book review in class based on the notes you have taken on your book.
- Create an Ignite Talk to convince an audience of historians about the historical importance of your book. 20 slides, 30 seconds each slide.
Last year, I had students develop independent projects that would prove to me that they had read their book. The year before, students did individual projects again, but I also had students do book talks in small groups with my rationale being, if they could talk about their book for ten minutes, I believed that they had read it. This year, I hope the summarizing, corroboration, and paraphrasing tasks help them dive deeper into their reading and make greater connections with the historical content. I am interested in learning from other teachers who are assigning reading in their classes. How are you increasing independent reading in your class?