Where we learn history through classic children's books.
How To Teach History With Living Books

How To Teach History With Living Books

For many, history was not one of the fun subjects at school.

Random dates.

Random facts.

Random people with funny names going into battles with even funnier names.

Does any of this sound at all familiar?

And the question. The one always at the forefront of young people’s minds when they manage to keep themselves from daydreaming long enough. Why does any of this even matter? Or, put another way, how can all these things which happened so long ago have any relevance to my life now?

How Can History Be Relevant?

Of course, this is a big problem faced by many a history teacher. We as educators know that studying history was, is and will continue to be ever more important (see this blog post to explore why). The problem is, how can we help young people to see this too?

In this blog post, we will explore how the use of ‘living books’ can transform your students from uninspired daydreamers to engaged and alert class participants.

What Are Living Books?

Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923) was the educator who popularised this term ‘living books’. Concerned by how uninspiring dry, dull, fact-heavy textbooks were proving in the classroom, she promoted the use of narrative-driven, human-interest-centred books instead (look here for more information). She believed that such educational materials were much better suited to capturing the imaginations of young learners and inspiring them with a love for their subject.

And today, families all over the world continue to agree with her; Charlotte Mason’s methods remain extremely popular.

Benefits Of Using Living Books

By going beyond dry facts and dates, living books can enable readers to have an emotional connection with what they are reading. So often, students don’t understand the point of what they are studying because they can’t relate to the educational materials. By contrast, living books are narrative driven and human interest centred – meaning that students can become truly invested in them. Once they empathise with the main character of the living book they are reading, it is a short step for a teacher to show a student how the topic they are studying bears relevance to their own life.

How To Choose History Living Books

There are three main components that are necessary for a book to have the potential to qualify as a living book.

1. A Compelling Narrative

Living books must be narrative driven. It is from the story that much of their power to fascinate young minds originates.

2. A Relatable Main Character

As already discussed, for a student to understand the relevance of the topic they are studying to their life today, it helps if there is a main character that they can empathise with and relate to. This way, the distance between the historical period they are studying and the times they live in is shortened.

3. A Historical Setting

This point almost goes without saying. For a book to be able to teach history, it is essential that it is set in any period of history prior to the one we are living in. Bonus points if the historical period is described in vivid and evocative ways – so that the student can really feel like they are experiencing that time.

Using Classic Literature As Living Books

At Living Book Home School, I make materials which use classic children’s books as living books. Tales like Anne of Green Gables and A Christmas Carol are classics for a reason. They don’t just engage and entertain but they teach us something too.

In the Anne of Green Gables Living Book History Course, we learn what it was like to be a child in early-twentieth century Canada. In the process, we see how childhood was changing massively when Anne of Green Gables was written.

In the A Christmas Carol Living Book History Mini Course, we explore how Charles Dickens popularised (perhaps even invented) both the traditions and ‘spirit’ of Victorian Christmas.

How To Use Living Books In Lessons

Be Observant

When it comes to using the appropriate living history books in class effectively, a lot rides on your to capacity to be observant. Ask yourself:

What’s different about the opinions, ways of life, traditions and more that are shown in the story to our life today?

Why might this be?

How do the things the characters say reflect the different attitudes people had back then?

In the Anne of Green Gables Living Book History Course, even passing remarks by some of the characters are explored and shown to demonstrate big differences in how we see childhood now compared with in the past.

Use The Story As A Gateway To Deeper Study Of The Past

Once you’ve noticed the key differences between the period described in the book and today, it’s time to learn about those differences in a deeper way.

It is good to provide students with both primary (resources made during the historical period being studied e.g. newspaper articles from back then) and secondary sources (resources made after the historical period being studied e.g. by a historian talking about this time). Charlotte Mason believed in encouraging students to reach their own conclusions on the topic being studied. Providing them with a range of historical perspectives can enable students to do so – particularly if combined with thoughtful questions to help them formulate their ideas.

Next Step

Here are 5 possible living history books which you could use both to fascinate and educate your child:

  1. Anne of Green Gables – to learn about early-twentieth century childhood.
  2. A Christmas Carol – to learn about Victorian Christmas and its impact on how it is celebrated today.
  3. Little House on the Prairie – to study American pioneering life.
  4. Children of the New Forest – to learn about the English Civil War.
  5. Good Night Mister Tom – to learn about evacuation in the UK during WW2.
  6. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl – to learn about the Holocaust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *