American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes

america photoIf you went to an American high school, I’ll bet your high school had an American literature course. Other courses seem to vary based on type of school, location, and other interests, but American literature seems to be the one universal course. I know it’s the only literature course that all the high schools where I have taught have in common. After all, it makes sense, right? American high school students should study the literature of their country. One would expect British high school students to study British literature and Chinese high school students to study Chinese literature and so on.

Many students seem to take this course in 10th or, more commonly, in 11th grade. My school requires American Studies in Literature for most 11th graders. I have taught an American literature course for a large chunk of my teaching career. Typically, the schools I have worked in have had an American literature anthology such as one of the following:


At one time or another, I think I’ve used all of these books in one of their incarnations. The latest editions I used had lots of nice glossy pictures and references to standards, reading questions, and lots of introductory reading material. I think they are all pretty much arranged chronologically, and therein lies the problem. It’s tempting to rely on the way the textbook is laid out when teaching. Grant Wiggins says in his blog post “How do you plan? redux” (emphasis mine):

For myself, I haven’t ever been a slave to a textbook, and go through the process you describe every time I get a new course, constantly revisiting as I move through the year. I always find that I still go too fast the first year, then slow it way back the second, and then pull in subjects slowly as I get better at designing the course. I encourage all other teachers to do the same. My coworkers are always taken aback when they ask me what chapter I’m on and I say, I don’t do chapters.

The easy thing to do is to use the textbook as the plan, but this year, I ditched the textbook, and it was liberating. Instead of marching chronologically through American literature, starting with the Puritans and perhaps a few token Native American pieces and trying to get through as much as possible before stalling out around the 1940’s or so at the end of the school year, I spent a lot of time last summer designing the American literature course I’m teaching from the bottom. I discovered some really interesting things, too, and it entirely changed the way I approached teaching the subject.

Instead of thinking about the texts, I thought about the themes. The themes that immediately came to mind are the American Dream, the American Identity, and Civil Disobedience. I gave it some thought and wound up with the following themes in the end:

  • This Land is Your Land: The American Identity
  • Song of Myself: Individuality, Conformity, and and Society
  • American Dreams and Nightmares
  • In Search of America

For the unit I called This Land is Your Land: The American Identity, I wrote the following essential questions:

  • What is an “American”?
  • How is an American identity created?
  • Why have people come to America, and why do they continue to come to America?

Then I decided the works of literature we would study would need to respond in some way to these questions, so the final unit included works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but also a short piece from Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club usually titled “The Rules of the Game.” We read the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. We read poetry like Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Hughes’s “I, Too,” and McKay’s “America.”

The unit took quite a long time, so the first thing I plan to do this summer is examine the whole year and see what reorganizing I can do.

The second unit, “Song of Myself: Identity, Conformity, and Society” included essential questions:

  • How has the concept of civil disobedience influenced America?
  • What is the role of the individual in society?
  • What is good for the community? What are implications for individuals?
  • Why do people conform? Why do others choose not to conform? What happens as a result of these choices?

The unit includes readings such as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, and Emerson.

The third unit, “American Dreams and Nightmares” includes the following essential questions:

  • What is the American dream? To what extent is it achievable by all? What values does it reflect?
  • Is America a classless society?
  • Can we repeat the past?

We will read The Great Gatsby as a centerpiece and will explore a wide variety of poets from Eliot to Simon and Garfunkel and from Frost to Baraka.

The final short unit will explore the lure of the American highway:

  • Is the journey as important as the destination?
  • How do we relate to our families, communities, and society? To what extent is each relationship important?
  • How do our personal journeys shape who we become?

We will read short works by Welty, Hughes, Frost, Simon and Garfunkel, and Giovanni, but the bulk of the unit will be a digital storytelling project we have been gearing up for with a focus on storytelling that has run through the year, including This American Life, among other texts. Whatever happens, even if I have to chuck out literature I would love the students to study, that digital storytelling project is happening.

One thing I discovered as I planned the year is that without the constraints of a chronology, I felt free to explore works I might never otherwise have chosen, but which define or illustrate the themes quite well and perhaps say more about who we are as a people than works I might have taught in a chronology.

I strongly believe that literature is a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in what we read, and we either connect or don’t connect based on what we see. Using this process, it was my hope that I would choose works that my students could find themselves in but would also still help them understand who and what America is. I felt Barack Obama articulated well what I was trying to create in his speech at Selma.

Obama Selma WordcloudWe are a great country, and we can be greater still if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves in that mirror.

I discovered that the thematic thinking showed more of an arc—it told the story of America and allowed for more diversity in the literature. I ran across this 100-year-old article in English Journal today when I was poking around online: “Required American Literature” by Nellie A. Stephenson. The first sentence killed me (in the sense that Holden Caulfield means).

For the last ten years I have been slowly gathering the impression that graduates of American colleges and American public high schools are appallingly ignorant of American literature.

Admit it. This person is in your department. She goes on to argue that she thinks too much emphasis is placed on English literature to the detriment of studying American literature (with little data aside from anecdotal impressions) to support her assertion. But rather than “exploding the canon,” she really only argues for establishing a new American canon. Among her essentials are Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, Samuel Sewell, and John Woolman. Are they on your list? By the way, no references in the article to women writers or, for that matter, any writers besides white men. And therein lies the problem with the textbooks. If we rely on them, we let them tell us who is important. To be sure, many of the texts I chose for my course are also canonical, but I also made an attempt to bring in non-canonical works and writers with a large diversity of backgrounds and time periods (more modern literature always seemed to get the short shrift from me in the past).

What I need to work on now is paring the list down and offering more choices to students. I was struck the other day in speaking with a young teacher who explained that he didn’t much like to read when he was our students’ age because he wasn’t offered a lot of choice, so he didn’t know what he liked to read. Instead, he either read (or pretended to read) the required texts in school. My own high school experience was strange because I went to three different high schools, and as a result, my background in literature was patchy. I hadn’t read all the literature you were supposed to have read. And I still went on to read it later and become an English teacher. I just don’t buy the argument that we have to read certain texts in high school. I think if we really want to read them, we will come to them when we are ready. Or maybe we don’t read them, and the world doesn’t end.

Perhaps we teach the chronology because that’s what we have always done. Perhaps we do it because it makes organizing the curriculum easy. Perhaps we do it because our books are arranged that way. We should think about why we are doing it. If we threw out the book, how would we teach the American literature? Or any course, for that matter?

One thing for sure: there is not enough time in the world to teach all the literature worth reading. There is not even enough time to read all the literature worth reading. The best we can do is remember the dictum of that great teacher, Socrates (or at least attributed to him): “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

Related posts:

15 thoughts on “American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes”

  1. Loved this. I do spend a lot of time on Puritans in the beginning of the year..Scarlett Letter-Crucible-etc.. I do think that’s an important place to start, going chronological is probably much more interesting to me than the students, and somewhere in there is the required research paper which takes a huge chunk of time. How do you address that process within the course of Am Lit?

    1. Our students write research papers in the context of their history class, so we do not do the research paper in English. As a matter of fact, our students do quite a lot of writing in their history classes, which helps a lot. The research paper makes a lot of sense in history, if you think about it. The subject lends itself to a research paper perhaps better than the literary analysis research paper students typically do in English. Also, I didn’t spend any time on the Puritans, but I do want to pull in The Crucible next year. They study the major Puritan figures in our history classes as well, so I opted to focus more on figures I thought they might not study. My dream is that one day, we can unite our history and English classes into a more cross-curricular experience.

  2. Bravo! I also moved away from chronological order and every unit has some tie to the American dream. I started my lower level classes with Of Mice and Men – high interest and short novel first thing. We then did a rhetoric unit covering some revolutionary pieces, sojourner truth, dr king, etc and just finished our third unit on the crucible. Next week we start Frederick Douglass and cover am poetry through a march madness bracket reading two poems per day and voting on our favs. I loved not being tied to the book!!

  3. I agree that thematic organization is the way to go! The first school I worked at was a charter school in NYC that got a lot wrong, but one of the things I liked was how they set up their English curriculum. Each year was actually organized by theme: freshman=identify (I forget their exact wording), sophomore=clash of cultures, etc. And this was the driving force for the English curriculum in those classes (or at least in theory). One of the few things that stuck with me from there.

    1. I like that, too, Michael. We do something similar. Our American literature course is the only one that people teach chronologically, though. The others as all thematic.

  4. I taught American Literature for the first time in 2006, by the book, but by 2007 I was reorganizing it thematically. My primary goal was to connect with modern writers in every unit to support my struggling readers who got discouraged by months of “old stuff” when the material was chronological. I teach 9th grade now, but I’m going to share this post with my colleagues working with 11th grade. Thank you for articulating your process so clearly.

  5. I am excited about your ideas to reorganize the course. Does anyone have a syllabus to share? Now’s the time to start the planning! Thanks in advance.

  6. Thank you so much for this! I am working on my eleventh grade American Literature curriculum and this helps so much. You inspire me often with your insightful blog!

  7. Thank you very much! You have made me rethink how I am going to teach American Literature this fall. I am excited about leaving the chronological order behind!

  8. I love this idea! I always feel bogged down trying to cover American literature chronologically and wanted to make a change. I saw a great idea for teaching American lit geographically . . . That would be fun!

    1. That could be a very interesting approach. I see potential for looking at New England as the cradle, the South as the gothic/influence of the past/grotesque, and the West as the great frontier/journey.

Comments are closed.