Over the past few semesters I have had the pleasure of collaborating with creative writing teachers in my building for weekly “Library Wednesday” lessons. In our school, creative writing is an elective course comprised of students in grades 9-12. We have done numerous creative writing projects, from creating children’s picture books (that were later delivered to Kindergarten students at our local elementary school) to writing short stories told entirely through text messages. But perhaps my favorite project we have done was a historical fiction short story assignment. I brainstormed and researched project ideas and collaborated with the teacher to create the assignment using resources I found online (primarily this assignment available from TeachersPayTeachers). The project was originally conceived with the previous AASL standards in place, but easily meets many of the AASL National School Library Standards for learners with very little modifications.
I began the unit by showing this video from the Scottish Book Trust featuring award-winning young adult author Elizabeth Wein sharing tips for writing and researching historical fiction. Next, we provided students with several exemplar stories to serve as a model. I suggest works pulled from A Tyranny of Petticoats or The Radical Element, both edited by Jessica Spotswood. Then we started with the research. The teacher and I selected time periods we wanted the students to choose from and then outlined the information they needed to provide for the research portion of the project. I created a research guide that led students directly to our most useful online resources as well as print resources. In addition, I provided information about evaluating outside sources for accuracy. We asked students to identify how people dressed, how they went about their daily lives (obtaining, preparing, and storing food, hygiene practices, etc.), common tools that were used, and more. The research portion of this assignment was a lot of work, but worth it in the end.
Once students had completed their research, they began the writing process. We always start our lessons with some prewriting activities in which students outline their thinking and ideas. Once they had brainstormed character, plot, and setting, they began writing. We asked students to submit a story that was 3-4 typed pages in length and provided a rubric for guidance. Students were asked to create a fictional story based on a real historical figure from their chosen time period. They had the freedom to choose to depict a fictional account of true events or to create an entirely fictional plot.
The biggest struggle students had was in using authentic dialogue including accents, dialects, and old-fashioned words. In the future, I will add an element to the project that includes identifying primary source documents from the time period to help students with this issue. In addition, I will add a “brainstorming keywords” component to the unit and guide students to useful keywords for dialogue such as vernacular, colloquialisms, and slang. Overall, students were engaged and seemed to enjoy the assignment. Their learning was evident in their final submissions and we ended up with a couple of truly beautiful pieces of historical fiction.
Has anyone else found ways to combine research skills with creative writing? Do you have any tips or tricks to share?
Author: Brandi Hartsell
Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knoxville, TN. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at HHS in 2021. Brandi was also recognized alongside colleagues as recipients of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) Teacher Collaboration Award in 2019 and 2021. She has served (and continues to serve) in many leadership roles within TASL. Brandi has presented professional development sessions for TASL, Halls High School, and Knox County Schools. Brandi loves sharing ideas and brainstorming…also cats…and true crime. Follow her on Instagram @hhslibrarytn.