Helping Young Readers Think Like Historians

Deborah Hopkinson 2015by Guest Blogger Deborah Hopkinson, Author and 2015 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

I’m excited to be speaking at the 2015 Literacy for All conference, in part because I learn so much from educators. Teachers and librarians are the literacy experts. Me? I’m just a former fundraising professional and now full-time author who loves to write about history.

When I visit elementary and middle schools, I’ve found more young amateur historians out there than you might think. I almost always begin a session by asking students what kinds of books they like to read. It’s no surprise that readers are enthusiastic about scary stories, animal stories, mysteries, fantasy, and dystopian novels. But I’m always gratified to find a few students who like historical fiction or nonfiction.

History used to be considered boring: a litany of names and dates to be memorized. I remember being uninterested in my history textbook, but fascinated by the stories in the shaded boxes, which made me curious about what it would be like to live in another place and time.

As an author, I’ve sought to discover these stories through both historical fiction and nonfiction, including my new nonfiction title, Courage & Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in WWII Denmark and my forthcoming historical fiction set in New York City, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.

Bandit_Final_Jacket_medium

I’m interested in how we study and teach history, and how authors and educators together can inspire young people to develop a lifelong interest in learning about the past. I believe story is an important element in making history fascinating. Through stories, we better understand who we are and where we have come from. Putting good books into children’s hands help them imagine themselves in the place of someone else, whether it is the kid sitting next to them or someone from another time or place.

Professor Sam Wineburg, who founded the Stanford History Education Group, has said, “Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the millennium, requires the education of our sensibilities. This is what history, when taught well, gives us practice in doing.”

The Stanford History Education Group (https://sheg.stanford.edu/home_page) has some tremendous resources for teachers to help students learn to read – and think — like historians. Instead of memorization, inquiry is at the core of each lesson plan. There are also classroom posters available that feature the four principles of historical thinking:

Visual literacy can also be an important tool to engage students’ interest in history. Many students are visual learners. When I present to students in schools, we spend time looking at historical photos to examine what pictures can tell us. “What’s going on here?” I ask. “And what do you see that makes you say that?”

I’ve found this exercise immensely helpful. In our bright, technology-driven, colorful world, it can be hard for young people to connect emotionally with a black-and-white photograph. But when students have the chance to imagine themselves in the picture – building the Empire State Building, taking courageous action against the Nazis, fighting a cholera epidemic, or walking along the decks of the Titanic, the past becomes more real.

Pioneering 19th century history educator Lucy Maynard Salmon said, “History must be seen.” In addition to looking at photographs, I like to challenge students to use their own eyes and look around at their own families and communities to help discover more about history.

When I encounter people of the past I feel a deep connection to other human beings who preceded me, and curious to know more. In crafting my stories for young readers, I strive to share that connection. I hope my stories help spark critical thinking as well as curiosity and emotional connections.

The object of study, Lucy Salmon said, should be “the search for truth.”

History, after all, is a lifelong study, a search for truth and meaning, not just of the lives of others, but of our own.


Deborah is speaking at the Literacy for All conference on Monday (11/16) and Tuesday (11/17). Monday’s session is entitled, “Be a Detective! Helping Readers Think, Research, and Write like Historians.” That session will be repeated on Tuesday and she has an additional Tuesday session, entitled, “Imagine Possibilities: Picture Books for All Readers.”

Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of more than 40 books for young readers including picture books, historical fiction, and nonfiction.  Deborah’s nonfiction includes Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924, and Courage and Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark. Deborah’s historical fiction title, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, won an Oregon Spirit Award. Her forthcoming books include, Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of the Borrowed Guinea Pig, and A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.

A native of Massachusetts, Deborah received a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts and an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Follow Deborah on Twitter @deborahopkinson or visit her on the web at www.deborahhopkinson.com.

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