As writers (and teachers of writing), we’re all familiar with that old adage “write what you know.” Sometimes, though, that advice can limit or just plain bore a writer. How might we challenge students to try writing what they don’t know or, in other words, to write to discover more?
One approach might be to have them explore the intersection of family history with larger historical events. How was my family involved in the Civil Rights era? What did Grandpa do during the time of the Vietnam War? Why and how did Lola emigrate to the United States?
This approach works especially well for ages 12 and up, and is one I’ve used with advanced and adult writing students.
1. Share children’s and YA books that portray young people involved in historical events. Some of my favorites encourage readers to take a closer look at an era or event not widely known or studied in school. Many include author’s notes about the author’s tie to the story and how she came to research and write the novel.
* The Great Migration by Eloise Greenfield. A series of poems about African Americans, including the author’s parents, who left the South between 1915 and 1930 for the greater freedom they hoped they would find in the North.
* The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Shang. Contemporary novel, set in America, about a smart, funny 12-year-old girl who learns about China’s Cultural Revolution from an elderly relative.
* The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Historical fiction about two Cuban children who emigrate alone to the United States as Castro clamps down on their middle-class parents in the early 1960s. Based on experiences of author’s parents and mother-in-law.
* A Troubled Peace by L. M. Elliott. Historical fiction focused on the chaotic years in Europe just after World War II. Inspired by the author’s father’s experiences as an American pilot during the war.
2. Encourage students to choose a relative and think about what they would like to ask him or her. Have them jot down questions about a given 5-year span in the relative’s life. What was your favorite item of clothing? Food? What did you and your friends like to do? What was your favorite book or TV show? Why? What did you like best about living during that time and in the place you did? What did you like least? What was the biggest lesson you learned? What were three historical things that happened during this time and what do you remember about them? Is there something you can show me (photo, memento) from that time period?
3. Have students interview their relative and write down the answers. Then have them shape their material into a coherent piece of writing entitled something like “What Grandpa liked about this time period” or “Grandma comes to the United States.”
4. Share pieces with the class and have students discuss what they may have learned and been surprised by.