A new blogging friend, Sharechair, blogged about a great Amazon offer of free audible books. I rushed to Amazon and downloaded about ten of them. The first one I listened to was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, narrated by Simon Vance.
Vance transports you to 1850s England in a time before cell phones, cars, planes, or any kind of easy communication that we have today. The wonderful fiction becomes a window to the world in that time period through the characters. and the descriptions. If you are studying this period of history, David Copperfield,in my opinion, becomes a primary source.
I hope that English teachers across America are hearing this. With the coming of Common Core, literature, as such, is deemphasized, and informational text is taking the forefront. This will affect the high school English Language Arts class more than any other because by high school students will be required do 70% of their daily reading in informational texts including primary sources. For teachers who love to teach only literature, there is a low outcry. For those of us who teach history, there won’t be too much change. History students have to read. Now it will count as part of the day – reading informational texts, but history (and science) teachers can’t do it all even if they give 100% of their time to reading. English teachers will still need to spend about 50% of their time in informational text.
As I understand primary sources, they are the fountain of information that historians use to discover the past – to “do” history. As a “document”, David Copperfield, is a primary source because it is not “about” the past, it IS the past. Written in 1849-1850 in a series of articles, David Copperfield enables the reader to unravel the past. The reader experiences the language of the time, the overly polite way that English people conversed tinged with dry humor and a touch of sarcasm. Through the book the reader can observe the life of the middle or working class, and understand how desperate life was before there were social safety nets. They can learn about child labor, and why laws were written to protect the young. They also learn about the limitations that women, particularly young women, endured, and how women learned to navigate the waters to provide form themselves and their children. They can view a time before compulsory education. The book traverses the world. Several of the characters emigrate to Australia, then still a colony of England. There they find freedom and financial success. Students should use their map and math skills to realize the magnitude of that move.
This is my argument for using this piece of literature as a primary source, an informational text, if you will. In order to do this effectively, however, I would also argue that the English teacher needs to partner with the Social Studies teacher in order to teach students how to dig the historical nuggets from the “informational document” rather than merely concentrating on the wonderful story line. Reading David Copperfield as an informational text has a different purpose, and must be read differently. The students are now on a quest to discover what life was like in mid 19th century England – and the world. They need to corroborate the information they glean from reading the period fiction with other non-fiction sources that authenticate the information they read in Dickens’ work.
When reading informational texts, students need to read closely. They can do a quick read for enjoyment of literature. For a typical language arts class they might read this fiction more closely to pick the characters apart. They might look at the way Dickens used words to describe characters, setting, and make an emotional appeal, but rarely do they go beyond that to look at the kinds of employment the characters have. They probably wouldn’t ask, “What does that employment allow them to do?” A language arts lesson might point out the social conditions in passing, but the historian might research the various types of employment that were available to men and women of the time. What were the educational requirements for the choices they had? Which careers were the most profitable? Why were the characters who were unsuccessful in England, successful in Australia? This book is all about economics and geography.
Looking at the Historical Analysis Skills listed in the Framework and in the Common Core Implementation Toolkit that I wrote in conjunction with other history-social studies consultants in California will help the language arts teacher use classics like David Copperfield as a primary source document by asking the analytical historical questions to help students uncover the past. Or better yet, English teachers could collaborate local history-social studies teacher to plan what literature might help their students understand the time and places they study.
My final argument is that taking literature out of the curriculum for students is not going to help students any more than taking history out of the curriculum. Students need to learn how to think critically and analyze facts. Using literature as a primary source is one way to keep both fields viable, and teach students to think for themselves.