Why True Stories Matter: Help Students Read Their Way Into Social Studies

Students who read more know more. It isn’t as though these readers are taking notes as they devour biographies, historical fiction, or accounts of historical events. But without conscious effort, readers inhale information about geography, architecture, transportation, and culture. Much of this information is retained.

Avid readers are intrepid, unafraid of exploring unfamiliar territory. They also know that long doesn’t necessarily equate with boring. Unfortunately, there are too few of these keen readers and too many who have never known the pleasure of learning history through story. As a result, students object when teachers assign reading, moaning, “It’s boring.” “We don’t have time.” “Too hard!” Teachers become worn down by the litany and fall back on lecturing to fill in students’ missing background knowledge. All too often, nobody is listening.

We need to disrupt this phenomenon. In her recently published book Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf warns that regular online skimming and scanning is leading to a loss in engagement in more complex texts — primary documents, dense ballot issues, contracts, op-ed articles — demand.

In an article on The Guardian, Wolf writes: “We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a 'bi-literate' reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.”  

Wolf’s argument is compelling. But how can teachers develop this biliteracy in students for whom the cellphone is a vital limb?  One idea is to meet them where they live, in a world of complex visual images. Consider assigning students one of Don Brown’s extraordinary graphic historical books, The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018), Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans (2017), or The Great American Dust Bowl (2013).

These books were constructed through meticulous research and include detailed citations to assist students with further inquiry. Every page invites the kind of deep reading and analysis that Maryanne Wolf worries is being lost. 

Students are also drawn to books where the writer tells her own story—for example, Melba Portillo Beals’ March Forward, Girl. Best known as one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School, this memoir of the preceding years makes the strictures of Jim Crow laws painfully real. It also celebrates the sustaining power of church and community.

Other titles that engage students in social studies include:

Elementary School

  • Before She Was Harriet, Lisa Cline Ransome
  • Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, Duncan Tonatiuh
  • Brave Girl, Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, Michelle Markel

Middle School

  • The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pederson and the Churchill Club, Phillip Hoose
  • Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Candace Fleming
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, Susan Campbell Bartoletti

High School

  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond
  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan
  • Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, Beth Macy

One could argue that the close reading of history will better prepare students for the rigors of university coursework, but really, the urgency to have students reading true stories is even more important than that. Books like those listed above open readers’ eyes to the circumstances of people’s lives in places and times other than their own. They help to chip away at solipsism and invite questions about justice. To me, creating a classroom of readers seems to be one of the best things teachers can do to make the world a better place.

Isn’t that why we went into this business in the first place?

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about HMH's new Into Social Studies program for K-6 students.