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Project Based Learning — Historical Fiction

August 10, 2010

All last year the Humanities II PLC worked on revising our curriculum into project based learning.  My teaching partner Mary Woods (marymaypo on Twitter) and I developed a historical fiction project for our World War II Unit.  What we got back from the kids was really good!

Historical fiction allowed us to meet many curricular goals in both English and social studies, and it was a replacement for the traditional MLA-style research paper.  As you will see from the project sheet the students had to select a persona to assume and write that person’s story, entering his or her life no earlier than 1938 and then leaving the character by 1946.  During the war years (1939-’45) this person had to be at least 16 so that the character is a young adult during the war — and possibly serving the nation at some point.  If the character was an immigrant that person’s story had to take into account the legislation of the early ’20s which curtailed immigration to the U.S. substantially.

You will notice that we did not allow students to assume a Japanese persona.  This was because our mentor text for the unit was When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.  The students needed to research and create their characters and in her novel Ms. Otsuka had done the research already.  (By the way, if you’ve never read it you should…it’s a fantastic book and students WILL respond to it!)

The final product was four 5-page (approx.) chapters corresponding to four different mini-eras of World War II.  Over time the character had to develop and mature, react appropriately to the news of the war or to being a part of the war, and be historically accurate the whole time.  This is where the research paper skills are employed.

To begin the project the kids had to get an idea of what 1938 United States was like, so Mary and I put some print and electronic resources into learning  stations (most were hosted on Moodle).  Using a guided inquiry process the students learned about the nation in ’38 and came up the the questions that they still needed answers to in order to get a more full picture.  After this process the kids were ready to research and write.

Mary and I connected with our friend and colleague Marci Zane (marcizane on Twitter) of the IMC/Library to teach research skills.  Students think that they know how to search, but in reality we needed to teach them how to use search engines.  So for a few days that winter Marci came to our class and taught them how to key word search, how to narrow searches and how to search in and across the subscription databases that Hunterdon Central has.  Without her help the project would not have been of the high quality that it was.  If you are going to replicate this in your school then reach out to library staff and get them in class to help you.

Then after that the kids started to write Chapter 1,  and they posted their drafts (incomplete at the time) to a Moodle forum.  We taught them how to peer edit and give constructive criticism since the suggested revisions were going to also be posted in the Moodle forum.  As suggestions came in the students revised their writing, and as due dates came and went Mary and I gave formative assessment feedback on each chapter’s draft.

After the chapter 4 formative feedback had been given the students worked on their final products.   The four chapters had to be put into a book format, reflect the suggestions and revisions from formative feedback and constructive criticism and then get uploaded to us for the final, summative assessment.

I know that the kids cared about this assignment because the characters that they created were multi-dimensional, and I was fully invested in these “people” and their stories.  The kids were careful about historical accuracy and really tried to write creatively and vividly.  Some of them drew upon their own family’s  heritage to write their stories, and some of them created a whole new world.  But all of them had to do significant research to get a historically accurate narrative and at the end of the project their research skills, especially electronically, showed improvement.

And the best part about the whole deal was that I didn’t have to read one flat, unimaginative, uncreative research paper.  At all.  🙂

As always here are our materials.  For this project we don’t have too much because much of it was hosted on Moodle.  If you have questions just contact me.

World War II Historical Fiction Project

Historical Fiction WWII
Historical Fiction Rubric

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One Comment leave one →
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