Sunday, March 22, 2009

Historical Narrative Assignment

Students often evaluate historical events and the people who lived ages ago by today’s standards and what we know now about the outcome. Sometimes this hindsight makes it difficult for students to empathize with people in the past. In this historical narrative writing assignment, students imagine what it would have been like to live in another time. Then they will write from a fictional character’s perspective a set of letters, journal entries, or story. Students completing this assignment will understand the impact of time and space on perspective, develop a narrative structure, identify events, people, groups and cultures, and practice research skills.

First, develop a list of events or people that your students can choose to write their first person narratives about. I like to make these lists about non-famous everyday people. I also allow students to select any gender or race that would be appropriate for that character. For example in a WWII unit, students choose from a soldier of any country on the frontlines, a Jewish person in a concentration camp, or a French citizen in occupied France. Another example, is to imagine they are a Civil War soldier writing a letter home about their experience, and then write a return letter from the soldier’s wife about civilian life in the Civil War.

Before writing, students research what every day life was like for the character. I require a bibliography of three sources. You may also want to point students to certain Primary Sources like autobiographies or diaries. Students should note historical references like dates, places, and events. These real facts will add credibility and interest to the assignment. For example, a soldier might mention a battle that actually occurred or a leader that actually lived. Encourage students to use descriptions that really bring their audience to the moment. What sounds or smells would the character sense in the moment their writing about?

These papers are unique for the students to write and the instructor to grade. The opportunity to plagiarize is less likely, though still possible. Students may struggle if they have not had many creative writing experiences before. Therefore, give students some specific parameters in a rubric to help organize this assignment and write an appropriate amount. You may also provide students some examples or articles to help them get started. Grade students on being as accurate as possible describing their character’s experience rather than how entertaining it is to read. For example, the character would not have modern technology available like phones or computers. The use and sounds of cars and planes might be very new and foreign to the character. Some students may really thrive in this assignment and try to use dialect appropriate for the character but grammar may suffer. I am ok with this because students are exploring a new type of historical writing and exploring character writing. I also encourage students to post their assignment for classmates to read in an optional discussion.

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