Teaching the Voices of History Through Primary Sources and Historical Fiction: A Case Study of Teacher and Librarian Roles
The ability to analyze alternative points of view and to empathize (understand the beliefs, attitudes and actions of another from the other's perspective rather than from one's own) are essential building blocks for learning in the 21st century. Empathy for the human participants of historical times has been deemed by a number of educators as important for the development of historical understanding. The classroom teacher and the school librarian both have a prominent stake in creating educational experiences that foster the development of perspective, empathy, and understanding.
This case study was designed to investigate the idea that teaching with primary sources and historical novels during historical inquiry enhances students' development of cognitive and emotive empathy. The study was framed around two research questions: How do classroom teachers and school librarians design and teach historical inquiry using historical novels and primary sources? What is the impact of teaching with historical novels and primary sources on the development of historical empathy?
The case study was conducted in an English/history humanities block and the school library in a New York City secondary school. Data were collected through classroom observations, interviews with the classroom teachers and librarian, and samples of student work. On the use of primary sources and historical novels, the study found that primary sources must be surrounded by context to be useful to students in their learning, that secondary sources were necessary for providing that context, and that historical fiction provides social context, but its use must be scaffolded to help students distinguish fiction from fact. In addition, the study found that unless library linkages to primary sources are embedded in classroom instruction, they are not used by students or teachers.
In answer to the second research question, the study found that primary sources have a strong impact on the development of historical empathy if their use is mediated by a teacher or librarian and that cognitive empathy must be developed before emotive empathy. Finally, this case study showed that a school librarian's effectiveness is diminished by fulfilling a resource-provider role with no integration into classroom instruction.