Escaping from Home: Using Historical Fiction to Teach Social Studies and Language Arts

By Dr. David J. Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction: Writing a Historical Fiction Novel
My colleague and I co-taught an upper level undergraduate teaching methods course that combined social studies and language arts. He brought his expertise as a language arts/literature professor and combined it with my knowledge as a social studies/history professor. This partnership led us to developing an effective interdisciplinary curriculum. One of the things that was birthed from our partnership was how effective historical fiction literature could be as a teaching tool.

A topic that we both were passionate about was African American history. We were constantly trying to find ways to effectively teach it and demonstrate to our students that Black history is American history. As a result, we thought “why don’t we write our own novel that we could use as a tool to teach history.” One that our teacher education students could use in their own classrooms when they became teachers. The result of these many conversations was the birth of our novel written in 2021 Escaping from Home: A Novel about Slavery and Freedom.  

      

My Early Development as a Reader
But as a child growing up attending an inner city elementary school I would have never styled myself as a writer. Books were limited in my home, so I had not been exposed to a lot of literature. I remember as a child in middle school at one point dreading the fact that I had to read an entire novel for an assignment. I have always loved to read, and I always have had sort of an obsession with books (Especially brand-new books). However, when we had to read lengthy books with multiple chapters for a grade, the task seemed quite daunting. But something changed for me, somewhere halfway through Six Grade. My teachers began to introduce us to historical fiction novels, and as I began to read those books I fell in love. It was sort of like, “where have you been all of my life.” So, by Eighth Grade when we read My Brother Sam is Dead by James and Christopher Collier, I was hooked. I was not only drawn to historical fiction (Which is now my favorite genre along with dystopian fiction), but I had fallen in love with reading in general. It was historical fiction (Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Roots: The Sage of an American Family, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Grapes of Wrath, The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible that helped thoroughly transform me into a lifelong student of literature, history and social studies. 

Exposing Young People to a Variety of Books
One key to my journey as a reader is that at first, I had concluded that I was not the biggest fan of reading long chapter books. But that was not the case, it was simply that I had not been exposed to genres I enjoyed. Once my insightful teachers exposed me to great historical fiction, I became a voracious reader and remain so to this day. These principles are transferable to classroom teaching. Teachers should expose their students to a variety of books with various types of genres. I am a believer of the idea that everyone likes reading, they often just have not found the genre that resonates with them.    

Using Historical Fiction to Teach
A great way to teach students history is through historical fiction. My colleague and I explored this fact often in our social studies/language arts methods course. We assigned several historical fiction novels such as Mildred Taylor’s The Friendship: Logan Family Saga to highlight key social studies concepts. We guided students in developing effective objectives and assessments around the literature, aligning the lesson with state and national standards. My colleague and I coupled the fiction with non-fiction literature and textbooks to help students differentiate between fact and fiction. What historical fiction did for me as a child was expose me to history in a more engaging way. Historical fiction maintains the integrity of the larger historical contexts and concepts but adds fictional characters and scenarios to certain time periods in history. 
 
So “What is Escaping from Home” all About?
A key aspect of US history is the legacy of slavery in America. My co-author is a white man, and I am an African American male. The book was born out of our many candid conversations about race relations, US history and the intersection of history and literature. I had grown up as a child in an inner city predominantly black neighborhood and my colleague had grown up in a white suburb. We compared notes on our lives. These themes are interwoven throughout the book. Escaping from Home features the unlikely friendship of two young men (One a poor white teen and the other an enslaved African American male). The setting is on a large slave plantation in Virginia in the 1860’s. We were intentional about teaching many lessons of history, such as African American history, geography, slave religion, plantation culture and literacy. But we would want people to know that African American history is not simply a sub-genre of history, it is US history. We try to convey that through the novel.

Resources for Integrating Historical Fiction into Curriculum
Why and How I Teach With Historical Fiction
Lesson Plan: Historical Fiction from Flocabulary
Historical Fiction Lesson Plan
Teaching Historical Fiction with Reading Activities for Kids
Build Your Stack: Preparing to Teach Historical Fiction
Looking for the History in Historical Fiction: An Epidemic for Reading
Historical Fiction Lesson plans and teaching resources
Teaching Historical Fiction: Using Time Periods to Support Understanding, Grades 3–8 [Graphic Organizer]
Middle School Historical Fiction Lesson