ELL Writing Workshop Celebrates Publishing Historical Fiction Harmonica Books: A Collaborative Project with Library Media Center, Art and ELL


By Dr. Christine Cipriani Wilson

  As we look back at the past, there are many landmark moments in global history.  English Language Learners (ELL) at Walworth Barbour American International School are particularly suited to sit in a historical time machine, pulling a few levers to dive into the past across different parts of the world due to their intimate connection of historical moments in time across the globe. The historical fiction writing project that brought together teachers from Library and Media Center,  Art, and ELL at WBAIS resulted in a set of 14 beautiful books which will be on display in the WBAIS Library for the month of March.

  Historical Fiction, is a genre of reading and writing that allowed High School students in the ELL Reading and Writing Workshop to dip into various stories that were set in a time and place in the past reflecting the languages, cultures, and  countries that represent the student community at WBAIS. These stories brought together secondary source research from the library database as well as primary source information through family interviews.

  By interviewing parents or grandparents to understand better a historical event that happened in their time and home country, our ELL students were able to create compelling stories with the key elements of historical fiction. The storytelling elements included plot, conflict, theme, setting, character, dialogue, and, most importantly, “world building” which is defined in the the article, “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction” as “the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time…” (Tod, 2015)

       Source:  Tod, 2015

This unit of study began with a writing workshop guided by Marissa Moss, a published children’s author sponsored by WBAIS Library Media Center. Ms. Moss taught ELL students about the importance of primary source information through the interview process for rich historical fiction writing.  She gave examples from her own books to include Caravaggio: Painter on the Run and  Mira’s Diary: California Dreaming and Bombs over London.  

Marissa Moss, WBAIS Library Guest Author, January 2018 with ELL students learning about interviews

ELL students began interviewing family members often in their mother tongue in order to better understand the historical events which were part of their own history.  Students interviewed parents and grandparents in French, German, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Korean, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Ukrainian, and Czech as well as in English.

         Emma Khan with her family

Their interviews uncovered family stories that had never been discussed in such detail: the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster, 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Angolan Civil War in 1975, World War II from the perspective of a Russian Child, German resistance to Nazism, the 1939 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the Korean 1988 Olympics, Life under the Greek Dictator Papadopoulos in 1967, a Palestinian story of resettlement from Mothalath to Jaffa, and a Lithuanian fourteen year old girl who traveled over 2000 km to safety during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.  

ELL students reviewed their family timeline, interviewed a member of the family on a particular event from the past, and then told a short story covering a specific historical event with one setting. The criteria for the stories were to:

  1. tell the story using the 7 critical elements of historical writing,
  2. portray characters realistically as they were described from the family interviews, and
  3. describe a setting that is authentic through historical facts skillfully woven throughout the text.

Guiding ELL students on keyword searches for historical events using WBAIS Library Secondary School Resources enabled ELL students the chance to find valid sources expected of them in other classes such as I-Search and Senior Project. Ms. Brodsky, our library integrationist, showed ELL students how to find articles that met student’s reading levels as well as providing ample background information for the the setting of their historical fiction stories. The more interesting facts they found about the countries and events that their family talked about, the richer and more authentic their stories became.  

  Questions that were posed to students as they were researching settings for their story included: What kind of clothes did people wear during the time period?

How did the people speak to one another? What were their surroundings like? What were the religious practices, traditions, and primary occupations?

   ELL students added secondary research notes to their family interviews and then completed a historical fiction

graphic organizer to build their story. Guiding questions were provided to include:

  • What major event happened in your novel that you are reporting?
  • Why did this event happen (or why do you think it happened)?
  • How did this event happen? (give details on the sequence of events)
  • What makes this novel historical fiction?  (Explain what elements in your story qualifies this as historical fiction.)
  • What makes the event you have chosen to write about “important” in your opinion?
  • In your novel, what other events happened as a result of this event?  
  • If nothing else happened in your novel as a result of this event, predict what you think could have happened.

The unit was divided into seven tasks.  The first task was the family interview. ELL students developed 15-20 questions to coax a family member’s story about one event that had happened in a specific time and place, taking care not to ask generic questions about their life.  The second task was researching a historical event tied to the family history. ELL students wrote a

description of the setting, describing in as detailed a way as possible the physical and social setting of the story such as location, clothing, jobs, and social events of that time. Task Three involved the development of the historical characters.  This element that distinguish historical fiction from other stories is that it may include actual historical figures as characters. Task 4 involved completing a Historical Fiction Graphic Organizer which tied in all seven elements of the historical fiction story. In Task 5, students practiced the writing workshop model of peer and teacher editing to create a final draft using editing symbols and oral feedback for correcting common errors in their writing. Minilessons on using dialogue effectively and weaving in paraphrased research information of the historical events helped students tell authentic stories. Task 6 involved publishing their story in a 3-dimensional format.  

With Art teacher, Ms. Pierson, ELL students were guided on the art of bookmaking.  ELL students created harmonica books where they included images, drawings, photos and mother tongue translations to their books.  Book dedications were added in English and mother tongue to family members whose stories had been told.

 Ms. Pierson shows Tehillah Naor bookmaking skills

A publication celebration brought out the most important part of this unit–sharing stories to an audience beyond the classroom walls.  ELL historical fiction stories that were shared highlighted a new kind of narrative that represented a broad range of cultures and languages written to entertain, educate, engage in cultural preservation, and ultimately instill moral values to their audience.

  Shady Gara’s Mothalath was read to a

7th Grade Peace Studies Class, where he was able to share insights of a multigenerational Palestinian Israeli story of peace and hope. The book generated deep conversations from both Arab and Jewish perspectives about peace in the Middle East and about the Palestinian Israeli identity.

Shady Gara, with 7th Grade Peace Studies Elective students,  after reading his historical fiction novel about his Palestinian grandfather and the double-identity  of being Palestinian Israeli.

Other ELL students who read their stories reflected that by writing these historical fiction novels and sharing them with others, family stories came to life that they had not known about. Family members who could not read in  English, were able to read the mother tongue translations that were printed on the other side of the harmonica book. Stories shared, passed down to another generation, and shared again has shown that telling a story from the past brings it back to life again to never be forgotten.

Harmonica Book format allows the book to be a 3-dimensional object to be viewed from multiple vantage points which highlights the multiple perspectives of the story

Ukrainian translation of Alex Shoiket’s Chernobyl

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