Keeping a classroom library is a rewarding way for a history teacher to contribute to the reading culture of a school. The classroom library may contain a variety of reading, including books written by historians, magazines, graphic novels and historical fiction.
In particular, I enjoy challenging a group of students to read at least one historical novel over a period of four or five weeks. The purpose of the initiative is to improve students’ literacy skills and enhance their passion for history by immersing them in the magic of stories inspired by the past.
Each student is free to choose an historical novel from the bookcase at the back of my classroom. Alternatively, students are free to bring their own. We agree a schedule of class time for Drop Everything and Read (DEAR). If a few or more of the group request, I may facilitate access to the classroom at break times. I also participate! Currently, my second year history class have accepted the challenge and I am reading Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
I give each student a homemade bookmark. I think they appreciate the effort! While they read, I play classical music in order to create a relaxing atmosphere. The music of Mozart seems to be the most effective. After we read, we informally chat about the books and discuss their historical themes. You may find that the students will recommend books to be added to the classroom library. The experience is thoroughly enjoyable for all!
The historical novels in my classroom have been sourced via second hand bookshops, Amazon and by donation. My school kindly provided some money towards the cost.
Is this an initiative you would like to replicate? If so, here is some advice. Ensure you have a sufficient number of books. Readers like choice and some will read more than one book over the four or five weeks. Select your books so you can employ the strategy with different year groups. I have broken my selection of historical novels into three categories of reading age: first year (12-13 years); junior (14-16 years); and senior (17-18 years). Keep it interesting by selecting books that cover a wide variety of historical themes.
Outside of a reading challenge, allow students to borrow books from your classroom library at any time. Have a recording system and ensure your books are marked with a label or stamp.
Some Recommended Historical Novels
Spies by Brian Gallagher
Kings of the Boyne by Nicola Pierce
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Once by Morris Gleitzman
The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Clash of Empires by Ben Kane
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
The Choice by Edith Eger
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Every year, normally on the second Wednesday in June, the Leaving Cert History exam takes place. Higher Level students have 2 hours 50 minutes to answer a documents based question and three long essay questions.
A top, or even 'middle-of-the-road' grade cannot be achieved without an extensive amount of writing. From the first minute to the last, the exam is a writing marathon run at a sprinting pace.
Granted, extended writing is a fundamental skill of History. It is important that young historians can produce essay type answers that show not just a dept of knowledge but also an ability to think independently. However, in setting this challenge, the State Examinations Commission should ensure sufficient time is allocated.
In the immediate aftermath of the exam, History students, hands still aching and fingers numb, commonly and justifiably complain that more time was needed. Students have to 'hit the ground running' with little or no time for essay planning and review of answers. The time allocated for the Higher Level Leaving Cert History exam should be increased from 2 hours 50 minutes to at least 3 hours.
A 3 hour exam would bring History into line with a number of other exams. Higher Level Business Studies, Engineering, Biology, Construction Studies, Design and Communication Graphics, Accounting, Physics and Chemistry are all 3 hour exams. The amount of writing required for History is, at the very least, comparable to the aforementioned exams.
The State Examinations Commission should consider allocating at least 10 extra minutes to the Higher Level Leaving Cert History exam. This would be a fair and equitable move. It would in no way compromise the integrity of the exam. It would have a positive impact on student wellbeing. Indeed, the student voice should be heard. Students should be consulted. What are their views on the time allocated to history? That consultation should begin at 4.51 pm tomorrow.
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The leaving cert history exams take place on Wednesday 14th June, 2.00 - 4.50. The junior cert history exams are also on Wednesday 14th June. Higher level, 2.00 - 4.30. Ordinary level, 2.00 - 3.00. Click on the links below for the full timetables.
History Matters 365 Blog
A history teacher's survival guide.
Christian O' Connor, History Teacher, St. Mary's Secondary School, Mallow, Co. Cork.
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