Sarah brainstorming with an ISD 7th grader, Feb 2014.

Sarah brainstorming with an ISD 7th grader, Feb 2014.

Next week I’m heading to the International School of Dusseldorf for a second year. It’s a dream job. The ISD humanities teachers and I will be turning students on to how to Turn History On.

We will guide young minds in combining factual research and creative writing to produce tales of historical fiction.

And if that weren’t already excellence enough, we will then direct students in how to publish their masterpieces as interactive digital books!

Research + Storytelling + Technology

I told you it’s a dream job!

The historical focus for my visit this year is the Age of Exploration. Before my arrival, my ISD colleagues will have introduced students to the era and to the earliest encounters between European explorers and the native peoples of North and South America.

Throughout the research process, students will be on the look out for an historical figure of interest to them. This figure will become the focus of their individual research. It could be one of the Europeans – Columbus, Cotez, or Pizarro – or one of the Native Americans – Squanto, Montezuma II, or Atahualpa. They will then research the history of this figure through the following lens:

Sarah conferring with two ISD 7th graders, Feb 2014 (it was crazy hair day).

Sarah conferring with two ISD 7th graders, Feb 2014 (it was crazy hair day).

How did long-term advantages in such things as geography, cultivable plants and domesticable animals, and material resources help to promote the technological advancement of civilizations?

Pretty impressive ask for a bunch of 12 and 13 year olds, right?

But the learning doesn’t stop there. Because then I swoop in to work with the students on how to sculpt an exciting tale from their factual research, thus turning the history classroom into an interdisciplinary laboratory that marries fact and fiction.

I’ve been plotting my visit all week. And here, in a nutshell, is the plan:

Step One: Genre Study

I’m going to start by introducing students to the genres of historical fiction and creative non-fiction. To do this, we will analyze one great work of historical fiction that serves as a prime example for students to emulate.

I’ve picked ENCOUNTER, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Shannon. I love this book on so many levels. It’s a revisionist history of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island of San Salvador in 1492, revealed through the point of view of a young Taino boy. The boy tries to warn his people against welcoming the strangers, who are more interested in the Taino’s gifts of golden ornaments than in friendship. But his elders refuse to listen, because he is a mere child and it is their cultural way to be generous and giving. Decades later, the boy, now an old man, looks back at the destruction of his people and culture by the colonizers. Indeed, the Taino no longer exist.

Step Two: Combining Factual Knowledge & Creative Writing

I will use ENCOUNTER not simply to highlight a great example of the focus genre, but also to engage students in analyzing the elements of story structure. Then, we will embark on an expansive group brainstorm to create a shared “fact map” of what the students already know about the Explorers from their previous research.

Next comes the fun part as I guide students, through a series of short writing exercises, to use these facts to begin the process of creating tales of their own invention based in the setting, place, and time of their chosen historical figure. I will also stress to them the importance of keeping track of and citing their resources, and show them how to do it.

Sarah teaching story structure using a home-made graphic organizer.

Sarah teaching story structure using a home-made graphic organizer.

Step Three: Offering &
Accepting Feedback

No one can produce a great tale without a little help, however. So I will also encourage students to organize writing support groups, and I’ll teach them how to offer each other feedback throughout the creative writing process. I'm going to model my tried-and-true method for offering constructive critique by reading from my own current manuscript, LEGEND OF THE PLANT HUNTERS, and asking students to use it to critique me. (Don't worry about me. I can take it.)

As it happens, LEGEND OF THE PLANT HUNTERS includes many scenes of 16th-18th century Europeans in the Americas. European plant hunters tagged along on numerous expeditions to measure the earth's circumference or to chart the course of great rivers. While their fellow engineers, cartographers, and astronomers were busy discovering trade routes and proving the mathematical breakthroughs of their day, the plant hunters risked life and limb to seek out the world’s far-flung natural treasures and bring them back to their kings.

They were the original Indiana Joneses. Their discoveries provided for the development of modern medicine and aided the advancement of the Industrial Revolution (think: rubber). Thus, my story becomes another genre example for students to draw from, though one closer to creative non-fiction.

Step Four: Publication

Lunchtime volunteer Meet & Eat facilitated by Sarah with ISD secondary students.

Lunchtime volunteer Meet & Eat facilitated by Sarah with ISD secondary students.

To conclude our time together, I will introduce students to the potential built into the iBooks Author publishing tool by walking them through the choices I made when producing the interactive book version of BEWARE MADAME LA GUILLOTINE. I will show them how they can use images, interactive maps, video snippets, and gaming widgets to illustrate and further enhance their historical narratives, while also revealing to their teachers the extent of the knowledge and understanding they gained through research.

I want them all to get full marks on this project, so I will spare no secrets.

Unfortunately, I must leave Dusseldorf before the students will have completed their magnum opuses. But thanks to today’s digital technology, they can share their finished works with me all the way over in London. They just send me a link, and I’ll be able to view and review their work from the comfort of my own home office.

I can’t wait!

What are your thoughts on using technology to enhance the learning process?

How do you turn kids on to history – or any subject for that matter?

How do you Turn History On?

Please leave your thoughts by clicking "comment" to the right.

Stay turned for more from me next week while on location in Dusseldorf, Germany!