Thursday, December 17, 2015

Historical Fiction Makes Learning Fun

It seems everyone except the Powers That Be understands that the way to get kids excited about reading and learning is to make reading and learning fun. When teaching history, this means telling exciting stories, not merely teaching boring lists of names and dates.

One teacher used my Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, in a gifted class of fourth and fifth graders in New Mexico. She said, “Using this historical fiction has been a window into Ancient Egypt – its people, culture, and beliefs. My class enjoyed doing research on Egyptian gods and goddesses, and hieroglyphs. Projects extended their knowledge of this fascinating time and place.”

I often get e-mails from teachers who are using one of my historical novels in the classroom, and they report enthusiasms from the students. A teacher at a middle school in Washington state once told me, “We have been using your book, The Well of Sacrifice, as one of our lit circle books this year. Your book has been a very popular one for the kids … all levels of reading ability, and strongly supports our social studies theme.”

Social Studies and More

Using historical fiction in the classroom can have many educational benefits. First, and most important, many historical novels are a lot of fun. This makes learning easier! In addition, historical fiction can lead to great discussions about fact versus fiction, cause and effect, and viewing history through different perspectives (modern ideals versus the standards of the time, winners versus losers of a conflict, etc.).

These discussions go beyond social studies and can actually contribute to preparing for standardized testing. One positive to the Common Core is that the standards do, in theory, ask students to understand the why and how of events, and not just the factual what. They also ask students to judge between facts and opinions, and to know whether statements are backed by evidence. Historical fiction, perhaps paired with nonfiction, can help introduce these concepts.

Enthusiastic teachers get students involved with the text through a wide variety of projects, some clearly academic and some that appear to be mainly for fun. Students enjoy drawing cartoons or developing skits of scenes in the book. Persuasive letters or group discussions get a playful boost by having the students write or speak from the point of view of one of the book’s characters. Some teachers plan a party (perhaps with accompanying author visit) to wrap up use of the book. Parents may send in appropriate snacks, and the kids give presentations, using posters or dioramas to illustrate their areas of research.

Something for Every Student

To some, this may not look as educational as reading textbooks and memorizing information. However, people learn in a wide variety of ways. Some are more visual, benefiting from seeing lots of images. Others are verbal, learning well from words in speech and writing. Yet others need physical activity to help lock in information. Some students may learn better in social groups, while others work better on their own. Using a variety of projects in the classroom offers something to all of the students.

Historical novels can be used to teach almost any concept you can find in the classroom. Another teacher who used The Well of Sacrifice in her fourth/fifth grade classroom said, “This book is not only a great adventure for middle grade readers, but it is a useful tool for classroom teachers…. We used the book as the backbone of several language arts exercises such as: written and oral reports about the Maya; literary criticism of characters, plot, and sequence; persuasive essays on human sacrifice vs. murder and Mayan culture vs. our own culture; and art projects from wood burning to mapping. We studied geography and the rainforest. The students’ enthusiasm for this book pushed our curriculum into other disciplines including math.”

Wow, what lucky students!

A New Semester

If you are a teacher or librarian, you’re probably looking forward to some time off work. (If you’re a parent, hopefully you are looking forward to having the kids at home!) Winter break is a busy time, which frequently includes travel, family visits, special events such as concerts, shopping, and far too often, cold or flus.

Amid all the commotion, some of it fun and some of it stressful, do you have time to get ready for the next semester? Do you use your “time off” to prepare lesson plans, or at least read books that might work in the classroom? If so, do you have any historical fiction on your reading list for the break?

Lesson plans

For lesson plans for The Eyes of Pharaoh and The Well of Sacrifice, visit my website’s “for teachers” page. On the “reading list” page, you’ll find some of my favorite historical novels, plus links to other sources for discovering historical fiction for young people.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.


  1. My best students (7th grade social studies) just finished reading The Well of Sacrifice in a special lunch time honors seminar. They loved it and recommend it.