Writing History Alive

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6th graders write novellas about 19th-century life

By Hannah Whitehead

Hannah Whitehead and 6th grader editing his novella

It is late fall, and 6th graders are making important decisions that will affect the next several months of their experience in humanities class. The novella project is set to launch, and the first step is to create a convincing, engaging main character who will live through the Civil War years we study, 1855–75.

The students must ponder and answer many questions. Is my protagonist going to be patient or short-tempered, stubborn, empathetic, cheerful, generous, or gloomy? We look at main characters in novels we have loved and talk about what makes a good protagonist. The students will live with these characters, so they had better be folks they care about, so they can make us care about them as well.

Decisions about the character’s life circumstances require extensive research in books, movies, and the internet. Will the character be educated, or not be allowed go to school? Will he be apprenticed to a blacksmith, or perhaps be a farm child, a slave, a son of privilege, an itinerant peddler, a cooper? Will she wear the quiet garb of a Quaker girl, or the silk flounces of a plantation owner’s daughter? What will the family eat? What are the family’s political views? Do they support the abolition movement, or are they horrified by it? Do they care? Do they work for rights for women, children, the imprisoned, the mentally ill? Everything that we study has two questions behind it—how will this affect my character, and can I use this in my novella?

The setting for the first chapter, the main character’s ordinary life, affects what happens in coming chapters when war breaks out. Will you put your character far from the action? Or do you want a battle in his or her back yard? We get out the battle maps of the Civil War and look carefully for just the right place. Will she live in a village in Ohio or Massachusetts, a little crossroads in Georgia in the path of Sherman’s March, or on the bluffs overlooking the mighty Mississippi in the town of Vicksburg? The next issue to resolve is the character’s house and surroundings. We turn to books of architecture and historic sites for information. We study how other authors give a sense of place in their stories. We ask ourselves, if my character opens the front door, what would he see? Do I have enough information yet? Can I see it in my mind’s eye? The novella project is gathering steam.

While there is a great deal of leeway in the novella project, there are some requirements. You may not knock off your main character until at least Reconstruction. The novella consists of a minimum of five chapters. Each chapter must be long enough to tell its part of the story, develop the characters, and meet some specific historical requirements. You need to be open and ready to try several different revision techniques, and to both give and receive helpful feedback.

The novellas that I’ve had the pleasure of shepherding along through the creating, revising, and publishing process over the years have varied dramatically from student to student. In length, they have ranged from eight or so pages to over one hundred, depending on the enthusiasm, skill, and maturity of the writer. A recently graduated alumnus went back in the summer after his 6th grade year and added several chapters to flesh out his story to his own satisfaction.

Each chapter takes about a month to research, draft, revise, and polish, and then often the beginning has to be reworked to add foreshadowing, get rid of minor characters who never amounted to anything later in the story, and smooth the flow of the plot. It’s an exacting process. Along the way the 6th grade language arts teacher and I coordinate teaching writing skills and help students look at other authors’ work to learn how they manage to slip in information without indigestible lumps of historical fact. Together, we look at the way published authors use dialogue to reveal characters, how they use sensory detail to drop us right in the middle of the character’s life, and how they build suspense into the plot. Then we try to emulate their fine examples. It is a lot to juggle, but our students do an amazing job of it, often surprising themselves in the process.

I look forward to this part of the year because I learn information I might not ordinarily come across. For example, a student needs to know if it is plausible for a spunky girl to disguise herself and join the army when the Civil War breaks out. Together we discover that at least 400 women did this very thing. Where on the battlefield of Shiloh did the 123rd Indiana fight? We go to the records and look at maps to find out. How did people in the 19th century address one another? We find letters and journals to give us the flavor of the language. It is endlessly fascinating and because of the novella, we need to know. It gives purpose to the material and to the research skills we teach. Through the novella project, students navigate the social and political history of the mid-nineteenth century in America via the adventures of their fictional characters, who live through, and react to, the events we study.

The novella project came about in the 1990s when my colleague Brenda Duyan and I were looking for some-thing active to make our study of 19th-century American history more engaging to 11-year-olds. We felt inspired by the Scottish Storyline method to create a smaller, less encompassing version. It has evolved along the way as we’ve learned from our experiences and from the advice of earlier students. Language arts teachers, lately Sasha Maseelall and Carter Latendresse, bring their own skills and enthusiasm to bear, and the project has become richer and more thoroughly supported as a result.

I marvel at the wonderful writing that can come from this project. I use the backs of discarded novella drafts to print on at home. One day my 95-year-old former English professor mother came over waving a piece of paper on the back of which I had printed an email for her. “Who wrote this?” she asked. And when I told her that it was one of my students, she answered, “My college students didn’t write this well!” Then she wanted to go through the stack of loose pages in the printer to find out what happened next in the story. The reader was hooked—high praise indeed.

Hannah Whitehead has been a Catlin Gabel faculty member since 1982.

Excerpts from past 6th grade novellas

He could remember running. He could remember rain splashing on his head. Big, wet drops that hurt, that smashed, and soaked him in seconds. He was running across a dirt field when he lost the trackers. He presumed that the rain had thrown off the dogs. It was then that he saw the hut.” —Will Jackson ’10

Abigail stood looking up at the clouds floating by, and then let herself fall onto her back in the lush, thick grass. She gazed up, trying to make something out of the clouds. A rabbit, a duck . . . anything. She had always found comfort in finding familiar figures in nature, but today she couldn’t. She had a lingering feeling that something was wrong, or maybe going to be in the near future. Things just seemed a little off.” —Lucy Feldman ’10