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Teaching Literary Genre

A focus on Historical Fiction

Getting students to understand genre could be taught with definition, examples, and then testing their knowledge. That could be done, and no judgement on any teacher who does it this way. I get bored easily and when I am bored with my own lesson, guess how the 25 other people feel?

Most years I teach Nick Lake's In Darkness (see my Top 10 page) as an example of historical fiction. This year, however, I am alternating with another novel, Every Day by David Levithan, which is not historical fiction. Instead, I created a project to teach this genre where I can also evaluate the uses language to communicate and learn competency.

This cross-curricular project requires students to experiment with storytelling. They must choose a topic or time period that they learned about in history this year, and create a legend. The legend is to be based on facts from the history of Quebec and Canada curriculum. Students can tell the story of Jaques Cartier arriving in New France, for example, but tell the "behind the scenes" stories where they can embellish details or make them up altogether.

One group of students wants to tell the story of how when Cartier's crew started to get sick and die from scurvy, the legendary explorer ran into a band of pirates with whom he made the deal to trade some of his remaining crew for cases of oranges.

Part of the project requires them to research the information on which they will base their story. They are allowed to be humorous and exaggerated, but the base must be built on fact, for which they will be evaluated.

Furthermore, they will present this as a story. They are not expected to write the story down and memorize it. Instead, they must practice retelling it until it feels natural and they are ready to present. This is not an easy task, but luckily we recently invited a guest storyteller, Eric Michaud, who specializes in Quebec folklore. Of course, I would never expect my students to give me the same quality as a professional storyteller, but he provided them with an expert example of the historical fiction genre as well as storytelling. He also had us in stitches.

Of course this requires the collaboration of their history teacher to evaluate the value of the factual information within their story. Lucky for me, I work with a great and friendly staff. Also, their history teacher is my husband, and I gave him no choice!


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