How an Unusual Novel and an Ohio Teacher Are Repackaging History Education
I’m the author of a fantasy novel that teaches history, and a high school teacher in Ohio has done some smart, creative instruction with it. This post describes her lesson-building and offers ideas on teaching with my book — along with links to sample lesson plans — in high school and middle school and at the college level.
The book is The Jericho River, by David Tollen (2d. Ed.; Winifred Press 2014). It’s a fantasy novel, but it’s also a history. The plot turns a timeline of Western Civilization into a river in another world. The story’s teenage hero travels the river by boat, on a quest that takes him through Sumer, Babylonia, ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and the other key societies of our past — in chronological order. The text includes short notes about the underlying history. They tell, for instance, how a humble French lawyer’s son became king of Sweden, as well as the origins of coffee, the cat, chivalry, and the Atlantis myth. The story also shows young readers the magic of history: the myth, the pageantry, the castles and temples, the glamorous royals, the downtrodden slaves. And it links history with the type of fantasy adventure many teens enjoy. The Jericho River has won several awards, as well as endorsements from historians and educators — and fortunately, it’s attracted the attention of a particularly creative teacher.
Rudy Edwards teaches at Goshen High School in Ohio, which happens to be her alma mater. She also has a master’s in social studies education, from Miami University. She’s used The Jericho River for three years in a class on the history of Western Civilization, for juniors and seniors, as well as some sophomores. “I was actually looking to lighten up the subject,” Rudy explains. She also wanted to distract students from an unhelpful focus on dates. “I wanted my kids to follow the story, the progression. Dates are very hard for me … and for the students.” And after all, she points out, history isn’t dates. “History is a story,” or “a soap opera.” You might think Rudy’s goals would lead to historical novels, but that’s not what she wanted. “Teachers tend to back away from historical novels because they usually hit only one or two objectives, since they only cover one period.” Hoping for something broader, Rudy googled “fiction” and “Western Civilization” and, “[t]o my surprise, I got exactly what I was looking for. The Jericho River hits multiple objectives.”
During their first two quarters, Rudy’s students study Western Civilization up to 1492, and they read The Jericho River in the second quarter. “It’s a good culminating event,” Rudy says, and it “helps cement what they’ve learned in their minds.” Rudy also gives her class lessons related to the book. Last year, she assigned boat dioramas. Each student built a model boat and scene based on the culture, technology, and style of a historic society visited by the story. And each wrote a summary of the society’s history and its role in The Jericho River. Another year, Rudy assigned a suite of “choose-your-own” activities, particularly written work. The options included an editorial on a controversial issue in The Jericho River, an essay on the student’s favorite passage, a top-ten-list of facts learned, and a faux front-page news article on a scene from the story. “I like thinking exercises,” Rudy says, and these exercises call on the students to think about history.
Rudy suggested another lesson to me, based on an idea from her students. “Lumins” are the mythical creatures of The Jericho River: Greek centaurs and satyrs, Egyptian sphinxes and mummies, Medieval European fairies, etc. Rudy suggested a lumin-creation lesson. For instance: Design a lumin for ancient Roman society, based on images in Roman art and literature. Draw it and describe it in an essay. What values does it stand for? What sort of conduct does it encourage? Is this a lumin for all Romans, or only for certain classes or other groups?
I’ve created lesson plans based on all Rudy’s ideas, and they’re posted (free of charge) at my author website. They incorporate multiple learning objectives — research, writing, technology, visual arts — and teachers can target them to fit their state standards for social studies and language, as well as their unique classrooms. The lessons also offer options for partner, peer, and small group work, and they support multiple learning styles.
Rudy’s used The Jericho River in several ways, and I’m hoping other teachers will too. The book has a five-point educational strategy. First, it teaches students that history is fun. Second, by serving up history as fantasy, it triggers the part of a young reader’s mind that records the details of Harry Potter’s world and of fantasy video games, aiding retention. Third, the story itself serves as a high-level timeline for Western Civilization, giving young readers the entire 5,000-year arc in easily retained chronological order. Fourth, the book connects well-known icons from the past with the societies that generated them. That gives historical context to familiar images, like pyramids, knights, centaurs, and battleships — again aiding retention. Fifth, The Jericho River offers memorable tidbits form the past, increasing interest and the connection between familiar icons and the societies that generated them. For example, the notes explain that those winged babies in Renaissance paintings aren’t actually cherubs. They’re called putti, and people confused them with cherubs during the last couple centuries. Biblical cherubs were actually gigantic, fearsome beings.
The Jericho River is particularly useful for high school world history, as well as for sixth and seventh grade core teachers, since it supports their dual responsibilities for history and English. And obviously The Jericho River works in Western Civilization courses like Rudy’s, as well at the college level. It’s particularly powerful in the hands of creative teachers, like Rudy Edwards.