Novels to Knowledge:

Learning American History through Literature & Writing

Online Class: 2020-2021 School Year

Instructor:  Holly Van Houten


American History is rich with drama and conflict, so approaching it through historical fiction makes for a compelling and memorable look at the making of this country! Many Newbery Award winning authors have taken advantage of the intrinsic adventure and excitement of American history to produce wonderfully engaging and enriching novels that Middle School readers LOVE!  This year in Novels to Knowledge we will look, chronologically, at some of the most important events and moments and consider how they shaped our ideas about what it means to be an American. 


During the Fall Quarter, we’ll begin with Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, exploring the Puritan origins of many of the colonists and examining how their ideas influenced aspects of American practicality, our strong work ethic, and, tragically, the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.  We’ll then explore the quest for independence and the revolutionary spirit of America as we read the classic, Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Our last selection for the fall quarter, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham, takes place after the Revolution and highlights contributions America has made to scientific and technological innovation.


For the Winter Quarter, we will jump forward to the Civil War, as we read Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt.  This novel follows one family from southern Illinois as the sons become soldiers on different sides of the war.  This drama-filled adventure story blurs the lines between history and fiction and highlights the extreme hardships many families face in wartime.  Of course, disagreements don’t always lead to war, and our next novel finishes out the 19th Century by exploring the controversies surrounding the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin.  Jacqueline Kelly’s novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, looks at turn-of-the-century, rural America and how individuals and small towns coped with the rapid changes brought about by scientific and technological innovation. We will then finish our quarter with Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which offers a glimpse into the life of southern sharecroppers and the hardships they face as they try to grasp a bit of the American Dream for themselves.  


During the Spring Quarter, we will begin by exploring many of the issues that defined the Great Depression in America.  Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel, Bud, Not Buddy, brings to life the difficulties faced by adults and children alike, as people lost jobs, homes, and hope.  Students will learn about Hoovervilles, food lines and the fight for labor unions.  We’ll move beyond the Great Depression, much as the country did, by entering the WWII era with Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.  Sheinkin details a captivating, historical account of how the bomb was built, the secrecy surrounding Los Alamos, and how American, Soviet and German espionage agents struggled for dominance.  We will then conclude our year-long look at Newbery winning, historical fiction about America, by reading The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt.  This book uses seven of Shakespeare’s plays as a lens through which the young protagonist can better see the conflicts of the late 1960s, including the assassinations of political figures, the Vietnam War, hippie culture, and racial conflicts. 


I am confident that students will love these amazing books, and will enjoy thinking critically about American history, as they write down their ideas about each book in essay form.  Over the course of each quarter, students will write three essays (2-3 pages in length). This class will take students step by step through the process of creating strong essays. We’ll be emphasizing the entire writing process – from planning through drafting and revision.  Writing well allows students to express their ideas, argue their opinions and demonstrate their knowledge.   As they write about these novels, students will go through the process of organizing, developing and clearly articulating their ideas -- an excellent way to learn about any subject.  We will use a Round Table Revision Workshop format to look at essays together, as a class, so students can also learn about the reactions their writing elicits from others and build their own critical thinking skills.  


In this class, we will be implementing technology to help us work on the Writing Process. This class will meet online each week for two hours through Zoom - an online video meeting platform (free for students).  The Zoom video platform will allow us to meet like a regular classroom for lecture and discussion purposes as we immerse ourselves in wonderful literature and the process of writing literary analysis essays.  The class will also utilize Google Classroom for assignments, discussion forums, and work-sharing both during class sessions and outside of class. Taking advantage of the incredible, collaborative power of Google Docs will allow us to share ideas and revision techniques far more efficiently. This class will be a great opportunity to enjoy some wonderful novels and practice essential literary analysis and writing skills.