For seven of the ten years I have taught, I have taught American Literature. I feel a close kinship with the subject, and I can almost plan for that class in my sleep now. I change up things a little bit each year because each class is different, but some constants remain. I have to admit that I have this “thing” about where I should be in terms of chronology. To be teaching Romanticism right now makes me nervous because my internal American literature clock tells me I should be moving into the twentieth century at this point.
So why am I pushing related readings into my curriculum, knowing it will stretch Romanticism even longer? I decided that instead of “covering” literature, I would just make sure that the trip was interesting and enjoyable. So I taught a piece of literature I had longed to teach for some time — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We had just read our textbook’s excerpt from Civil Disobedience. I mentioned what we were studying to one of our history teachers, and she sent me a Gandhi bio and some quotes. So we spend perhaps a week reading the words of King and Gandhi on top of the time we had already spent reading Thoreau. I decided we could make this into a good paper, but I felt like my students might need some help to formulate an outline for this paper.
First of all, I decided students would most easily be able to write either a compare/contrast paper or a cause/effect paper. Because we had already written compare/contrasts and students needed more practice with cause/effect, I chose that angle. Next, I assigned students to study Thoreau’s essay and King’s letter for similar strands or “concepts and ideas” for homework.
When students came to class the next day, they were ready to work with partners. Using my clock buddy system, I had students pair off and compare their findings from their homework. Students were given a chart where they could record quotations from Thoreau, King, and Gandhi. I didn’t reproduce it here because it is very simple to make. Essentially, the chart has four columns and several rows. The row along the top of the four columns reads: “Concept/Idea,” “Thoreau,” “King,” “Gandhi.” After students had quotes for three concepts, we came together as a class and shared our findings.
My students found quotes from each author on the topic of unjust laws, civil disobedience, nonviolent social protest, etc. Students added the ideas from other students to their charts. I asked that students create a thesis statement centered around the idea that Thoreau’s ideas influenced civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and King, using quotes as evidence.
We are still in the midst of writing the essays, but I think the connections students made to Thoreau were much deeper as a result of examining his influence than they would have been if I had simply breezed through Transcendentalism on the way to Realism.