Many historical fiction books have scenes where a woman or another person from a minority group is not treated fairly. Unfortunately, that is the truth of our history. Fortunately, this is shocking to most people now a days. When I read these scenes, students have shocked faces and ask, "What?! Why?! They would do that?!" Its important for them to understand the context in which this sort of thing took place.
I remind them by asking if they remember a scene like this from a recent read aloud (not the one we're currently reading). They remember being shocked. I explain that it is shocking because it was wrong then as it is now. However, history plays a specific role in what a characters finds acceptable or not.
In this lesson, students are going to describe specific character behaviors or thoughts as it is tied to history.
I start by preparing a learning journal with a title and the name of the main character. Using some of the more vivid examples from the text, I write down a behavior and then cite a reason for it. I elicit a few more examples through a whole class conversation before moving on. By having a whole class conversation, I"m able to clear up a few misconceptions. For example, students noticed that the main character was brave because of the way she stood up to people in the story. However, that character would be brave, regardless of the time in history. I turned it around and asked them why she felt she needed to be brave? Eventually we got to the real reason, which was because she was ginuinely affected in a way that we would be now-a-days.
After modeling, asking them to share their ideas in a class conversation, and clearing up misconceptions, I have students write down ideas about one of two other characters from our class read aloud.
After they write about another character, they get a chance to share and either verify their theory or change it based on the conversation they are having with their peers.
Finally, I review the process:
They then review their book club books and collect ideas about main characters from the book.
It is very common for strong characters to have complex personalities and traits that students can relate to. Most of those characteristics are not bound by history. However, it is also very common for characters to behave or think a certain way because of the time the live.
Unfortunately, some of the historical fiction books that students read, either rely on the reader's background knowledge to identify the time of history the story is taking place. Another type of book has a main character is actually not from history but travels to it.
For these students, I ask them to identify the feelings or thoughts the main character has to their situation based on what they character is experiencing in history or discovering about history. Their main character's are probably behaving more that way the reader would if they were in the same situation.
Identifying the connection between the character and the effect of the time of history helps the reader learn more about that time.
After students have collected ideas about characters in their book, they meet with their book club group.
In the meeting, they share specific examples of behavior their character shows in the book and discuss why they think it is connected to the time in history the book is about. One way they can do that is by providing a counter example of how they or other students might respond in the current day versus the way the characters behaved in the book. They need to also show how the author connects the behavior of the characters to the setting in the book.
To conclude, they can record new information from their book club group conversation.