What can a novel teach us about history, and how can history deepen our understanding of a novel? That was the two-part question seventh and eighth grade students were busy tackling in both their English and history classes last month.

At the start of the year, students read “Blue-Eyed Slave,” a carefully researched historic novel set in Charles Towne in 1764 with two 13-year-old heroines, one a slave and one a Sephardic Jew. Then they immersed themselves in their own research and writing for five weeks to explore the book’s three major themes: Judaism, enslaved people, and the global influences in Charleston.

“We used the book to introduce historical thinking, and what studying history is all about,” says history teacher Mary Webb who collaborated with her humanities colleagues to create the interdisciplinary project. In her class, students studied primary sources to deepen their understanding of historical events and references in the book. “From studying old maps of Charleston to reading The Book of Exodus which narrates the escape of the Jewish slaves from the Egyptians, we did a deep dive into the book’s main threads.”

From there, students were tasked with creating an object that represented something significant in the book, whether it be a teapot which was a popular souvenir after the repeal of the Stamp Act or a replica of the Da Costa House where Jewish people gathered to worship before synagogues existed in Charleston. “Then we used their ‘artifacts’ as an opportunity to showcase how to write a historical essay,” says English teacher Nana Westbrook. “First you identify the object, explain what it means in the book, what it means in history, and what you think the significance of it is.”

The project culminated on Wednesday, September 20 with a very special visit from Marshall Highet and Bird Jones, the co-authors of “Blue-Eyed Slave,” who spent a day on campus tying everything together. In English classes, they taught students how to analyze a photo without dates or explanation to try and figure out its historical context, and from there, create a story around it.

“We were asking what things were, and Bird would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know either!’” says Harper Haselden ’29 with a laugh. “I think that was the best part because when you read the book, you think they know everything. But really, they didn’t know everything at first – they’re just good at figuring things out. She went to actual places to figure out facts she put in the book, and research like that seems really fun.”

That evening, Jones, the researcher, and Highet, the author, discussed their joint approach to researching and writing during an event open to the public as a part of the Ashley Hall Writers Series. As they spoke, the audience was surrounded by the artifacts created by Nautilus students, as well as posters they had researched and created.

“It was wonderful seeing the students engage so deeply in an activity rooted in critical thinking, analysis, and information seeking,” says Allison Parks, Director of the Intermediate and Nautilus Programs. “I love what this project showcases overall–learning at Ashley Hall goes beyond the words on a page.”