Healing Fictions: African American Middle Schoolers “Restorying” History Through Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Ebony Thomas

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

Literacy and/or English/Language Education
How do students read tales about the past? What kinds of stories might they tell in response to these histories? Many popular historical topics in children’s and young adult literature—slavery, segregation in the Jim Crow South, the Japanese internment camps of World War II, and the genocide of Native Americans, to name just a few—are set amid the incomprehensible horrors of American history. In Healing Fictions, I will examine how African American middle school students in Philadelphia and Detroit navigate disconnections between literary representations of the past they read in school and their everyday experiences in their communities through the stories that they tell. In particular, I am interested in how Black middle school students in low-income urban neighborhoods read, interpret, and narrate history through the literature they encounter in their reading and English Language Arts classes. After inviting youth participants in my study to choose, read, and respond to historical African American children’s and young adult literature, I will then ask them to retell or “restory” the historical information that the authors present in the books, and then narrate their own family and community histories, creating double-voiced narratives that connect the past to the present.While the challenges of teaching history through literature have been taken up more generally within history, English, and area studies (Baker, 1984; Boerman-Cornell, 2011; Cole, 2007; Kharem, 2006; Loewen, 1996; Nodelman, 1990; Oglesby, 2007; Schwebel, 2011), I propose to extend this line of inquiry specifically into the teaching of historical African American literature at the middle school level. As we provide historical texts and facilitate reading and discussion in classrooms and other spaces inside of schools, we have to consider the ways history is presented by the texts (Edinger, 1998, 2000; Martin, 2002), as well as the ways that literacy teachers and learners construct narratives of society and self through literature and the curriculum (Glenn, 2012; Tatum, 2008). Furthermore, the ways authors interpret and narrate historical events may interfere with student understanding and engagement, causing feelings of disconnection from reading and school (Tatum, 2008). By situating my study among young African American adolescents who attend school in two low-income urban neighborhoods in different regions of the United States, I am attempting to shed light on how students who are among the most disconnected from and underserved in schools grapple with these issues.Fictionalized accounts of past events written for middle school students are often framed within metanarratives, or master stories, of progress, triumph, and optimism. African American history is often carefully retold in ways that show principles of liberty and equality always prevailed over the forces of slavery and racism. However, the lived realities of many of today’s urban students clash with these master narratives of triumph and unfettered progress. When children’s and adolescents’ experiences contradict those of the characters they read about, they are bound to feel disconnected from those characters and their histories. Inviting students to “restory” the history they read so that it is relevant to their lives may improve student engagement with the past – and in the present.
About Ebony Thomas
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is an assistant professor in the Reading/Writing/Literacy Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Detroit Public Schools teacher, Dr. Thomas joined the Penn GSE faculty after completing her PhD in 2010 at the University of Michigan’s Joint Program of English and Education, and working as an assistant professor of reading, language, and literature at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her program of research focuses on children’s and adolescent literature (broadly construed), the teaching of African American literature, history, and culture in K-12 classrooms, and the roles that race, class, and gender play in classroom discourse and interaction. She is currently the principal investigator of a multiyear reading and classroom interaction study at a West Philadelphia middle school, partnering with notable literacy teacher, activist, and blogger Samuel Reed III. She has published current and forthcoming peer reviewed articles in the Journal of Teacher Education, Qualitative Inquiry, Linguistics and Education, English Journal, The ALAN Review, and Sankofa: A Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Dr. Thomas is a former NCTE Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color Fellow, is a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Research, and was elected to serve on the executive committee of NCTE’s Conference on English Education (CEE). In 2014, her work received an Emerging Scholar Award from AERA’s Language and Social Processes Special Interest Group.

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