As an English teacher who is married to a history teacher, I can say with confidence the two subjects are beautifully interconnected. Afterall, English and history are both disciplines in the humanities. Though I wouldn’t consider myself a historian, I am a student of history, as are many English teachers. Even if you don’t find it your passion, you likely dabble in a bit of historical research when you’re preparing to teach a novel or unit. When English teachers contextualize a work of literature to historical or cultural times, they use a historical lens for analysis.
However, so often, this context comes directly from the teacher, rather than giving students the charge to study the historical context. The goal for today’s post is to encourage you to shift the historical context from you, the teacher, to your students. Using a historical lens to interpret a work of literature, students can gain insight on cultural, political, and other social themes.
A historical lens is just one of many literary lenses that students can use to find meaning in a work of literature. Before we begin, you might want to check out this article about what are literary lenses and why you should use them in your classroom. Now, let’s get into ways that we can make the shift from a teacher-centered historical lens to a student-centered lens. First, we must talk about Historicism versus New Historicism. These terms mark a very important distinction for classroom use.
New Historicism Background
Before we talk about the historical lens in ELA classrooms, we have to start with the broader literary theories that came first. In this case, this means starting with Structuralism. Structuralism is a school of literary theory that studies the structure of a single work or many works to discover patterns and principles. Derived from Structuralism, historical theory is a literary theory that examines the text in terms of historical themes, time period, and culture. Whereas the older historical tendencies were to use history as a factual background for literature, New Historicism takes a different approach.
New Historicism examines the way a work of literature reflects the history and culture of the time period. Therefore, similar to Structuralism, New Historians interpret how literature reveals cultural, political, and historical patterns, themes, attitudes, and biases of the time. Finally, this progression takes us to the historical lens in secondary ELA. Historical lens concerns itself less with historical facts and dates and more with social themes and interpretations.
Historical Lens in the Classroom
The Historical Lens Difference
One of the most important factors when using a historical lens in your English classroom is that students should move from “who,” “what,” and “where” questions to “why,” “how,” and “to what extent” questions. The point is that in a literary context, pointing out dates and places is just the beginning. Rather we want to encourage students to uncover cultural, political, and social interpretations. The goal, then, is for students to draw conclusions based on these interpretations. Here are some examples of the shift:
- From: What is the historical time period? TO: Why does the author write about this historical time period?
- From: Who was in power? TO: How does the historical background of the text provide meaning to the work?
- From: Where does the story take place? TO: To what extent does the historical location influence the author and/or characters?
Historical Lens Activities
In the classroom, historical lens provides a great opportunity for student-centered inquiry. As a teacher, you will act as their advisor, guiding their research and interpretations, but not dominating the conversation. Here are three activities to help students use historical lens in the classroom:
The first component for historical lens is research. Depending on your students’ research skills, you may be able to give your students free rein. Still, providing structure can be helpful:
- Give students guided questions to help their research
- Discuss credible resources
- Narrow their choices by providing pre-planned websites
- Approve their resources
- Create annotated bibliographies
Nonfiction Text Pairings
In a literature course, you can bring the historical lens to students with nonfiction text pairings. Not only is this a valuable way to bring new perspectives on the topic, but it also can provide non-fiction test prep. Podcasts, articles, newspaper editorials, websites, political cartoons, and scholarly journal articles are just a few examples. Of course you can make these pairings as individual activities, but another option is to use several of these options in one activity. This is a great way to practice synthesis. Here is an example of how I use multiple text pairings in one student-centered activity.
- Choose several nonfiction text pairings on a related historical theme or topic.
- Put students in groups for four to five.
- In groups, ask students to annotate and discuss the text looking to make connections to the literary work.
- Instruct students to present their insights to the class. They should provide an overview of the document, historical connections, and interpretations of the literary text as a result.
Once students have completed research and make connections, they can participate in discussions to develop their interpretations. Just like reader response lens, historical lens works well with panel discussions, silent discussions, and Socratic Seminars. These discussion strategies provide just enough structure while still being student-led.
Upping the Engagement With Historical Lens
Because historical lens is linked so closely to literature, students likely will find this lens to be both interesting and accessible. From the teacher perspective, historical lens makes a natural connection to the units and novels that you already teach. Historical lens, along with formal lens, reader response lens, and biographical lens complete my fab four lenses.Using these four lenses as an access point, you can challenge students to analyze with a variety of diverse perspectives. For example, this novel study presents historical lens with guided questions.
One of the main reasons I use the term lens is because it helps students assume a role to “see” the analysis. In fact, some of my favorite ways to use this lens is through roleplay. For example, I love using this fun twist on literature circles with a roleplay for formal analysis. You can read more about how I facilitate literature circles here. To get a feel for what I mean, download my free literary lenses novel roles.
Finally, if you’re looking to teach students about all of the different lenses, check out my Literary Lenses Workbook. This workbook includes student-ready 12 different lens activities that can be applied to any text.