Having examined immigration from many angles since September, our fourth graders recently embarked on their final unit of the year — writing a work of historical fiction about those iconic American immigrants, the Pilgrims. It always ends up everyone’s favorite unit of the year— delving deep into all the great material available about these oft mythologized folks, having to figure out how to separate fact from fiction, getting to read really old stuff, and going back in time to Plimoth Plantation — it is fascinating indeed. Additionally, it gives the children a chance to synthesize all they have learned in the course of the year about immigration, about researching the past, about historical thinking, about reading critically, and about writing — in this case, historical fiction.
Currently, just as all good writers of history do (fiction or nonfiction), the children are immersing themselves in the world of those Mayflower passengers — reading a wide variety of primary and secondary sources to garner as much information as possible prior to writing their own works of fiction. Next month, when they are ready to begin writing, they will use what they already know about historical fiction — for we have considered the genre carefully throughout the year in preparation for this unit. In particular they will now have to consider “What makes a good work of historical fiction?” as it applies to themselves as writers.
By now, a few weeks into the unit, my students have read several books for children on the Pilgrims to get an overview, produced maps and time lines to help ground them in time and place, and are now doing one of my favorite activities of all — reading a few pages of Mourt’s Relation. One of the seminal primary sources of the Pilgrims, it was published in 1622 (in London presumably as a sort of advertisement to encourage more to come) and offers readers direct contact with those long ago people, complete with long winding sentences, nonstandard spelling, and a fascinating sense of what things were like for them on that ship and afterwards. I’ve written an article about how to do this with kids and much more in my books on history, in case anyone reading this wants to do it too.
For this lesson, I found a copy of Mourt’s with the original spelling and the kids and I translate it together. They adore the unconventional spelling and having to figure out what things mean (since dictionaries aren’t useful as today’s definitions are often not the same as those of 1622). We create a key and use it to read the first few pages. To give you a taste, here are a couple of pages from this week’s work. (We did this for the first time on the Smartboard so our annotating is a bit clumsy, I’m afraid, and not as clear as when we did it on regular paper. I did the very messy first page while the second one was penned by the far neater learning specialist who works with me several periods a week.)