Tag Archives: literacy

FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about my approach to teaching American literature thematically. I close comments on posts once they are a year old, but this post continues to generate some questions, so I thought I would post an update in answer to the questions people most frequently ask me about teaching American literature thematically.

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

Feel free. I hope they are useful. If you are using them somewhere online, however, I request that you give me credit. If you want to learn more about creating essential questions, I can recommend no source more highly than Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. They also have one focused just on essential questions called Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Are you still teaching thematically?

Yes, right up through the school year that just ended. I would continue to do it next year, too, if I were going to be teaching the course, but my schedule does not allow for me to teach it next year. I would never go back to approaching any literature class I teach chronologically anymore.  The only way I could see teaching chronologically is if the chronology was an important underpinning of a course, such as the development of a particular genre or theme over the course of a given period of time. Even our American history teachers have begun to take a thematic approach to teaching American history. One unit, for instance, covered the black experience from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what about understanding the literary movements?

When I taught American literature (and for that matter, British literature) chronologically, I thought this point was important, too. Seeing how writers collectively influence movements and how movements influence and push back against one another is important… to English majors mostly. To most of our students who are critically in danger of not developing the reading and writing skills or engaging with literature, chronology can sometimes kill their interest by putting the material they are least likely to enjoy reading—in the case of American literature, it’s Puritan writers—at the beginning of the year when we are trying to “hook” the kids.*

Early British literature has the advantage of being a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, it is interesting see how writers across eras are in discussion, too. For instance, if I were teaching chronologically, I might teach “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman around the time I am teaching Romanticism or perhaps a transition to Realism. Then I would teach Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” during the Harlem Renaissance/Modernism. Why? Hughes’s poem is directly talking back to Whitman’s. They should go together. Likewise “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Likewise Crèvecoeur’s discussion of “What is the American?” and voices of immigrants from the 20th and 21st centuries. I care that students make connections and see the relevance of what they read far more than that they grasp that literature periodically shifts around into what we call movements. Controversial, maybe, but I stand by it. I think movements are mostly constructs anyway. No one was looking around and saying, “Well, enough of this Romanticism. Let’s start Realism now.” We can’t agree on whether we’re still in Postmodernism right now or not, and there are plenty of writers who are still writing what we define as Postmodern literature and probably even more who are not. Movements are convenient for organizing literature later, and I would not disagree with people who think English majors should know literary movements, but I disagree that everyone needs to know them (or even cares about them). Writers don’t even necessarily find themselves influenced by what is happening around them. They might hearken back to an earlier writer for inspiration. Or they might be so radically different from everyone else writing around them that it’s difficult to classify them (which is why Whitman and Dickinson are often thrown into a unit unto themselves in literature textbooks).

Can students really get a complete overview of American literature if we don’t teach it chronologically?

That’s sort of up to you. One might accuse thematic teachers of picking and choosing, but chronological teachers do the same thing, only they do it in chronological order. What I have seen typically happen when teachers approach literature chronologically is that students don’t study anything remotely contemporary until the end of the year… if then. I know when I taught chronologically, I often finished the year some time in the 1940’s, if I got fairly far. That’s completely cutting out a good chunk of some of the best American literature there is. If you are building a thematic curriculum, you should choose wisely. I tweak each year when I realize something I really liked doesn’t fit very well and takes up time from other works that will be both engaging and more representative. One freeing aspect of teaching where I do is that we don’t have a textbook. We have novels the students purchase, but we don’t have an anthology because they are expensive, and we found we didn’t make good enough use of them to justify their expense. If you have an anthology, you can still use this approach. You will just need to survey your book and determine what themes jump out to you as important. Then you can move around the book. In fact, you might find you do a better job with the overview if you approach teaching the literature thematically than you would have if you stuck to a strict chronology.

Can you give me your syllabus?

I actually think it’s much better for you to create your own syllabus (and essential questions). You know your students. You know your school. You may have required texts that must somehow fit into the framework. You would know best which contemporary poems and short stories might pair with longer texts. I realize it’s a lot of work to create a syllabus from scratch, having done it, but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t because I created my own syllabus and tweaked it each year. Taking someone else’s syllabus and using it like some kind of script won’t work for you. I’m not trying to be stingy. In my way, I’m trying to be helpful. Handing you a syllabus that reflects what works for me might result in failure for you.

What questions do you have that I missed? Leave them in the comments, and I will update this post with answers.

*I had a student tell me in a course evaluation this year that he/she learned so much about him/herself this year. I was really proud my course enabled that student to learn more about him/herself. Do students see themselves in predominantly white, male writers of European extraction? I’m not saying they can’t relate to those writers. I’m saying if we approach literature chronologically, that’s pretty much all they will read for the first few months. I don’t think that’s right in our diverse society.

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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.”

Update: Comments are closed on this post, but it continues to generate traffic and the occasional question. I have a new post with an FAQ that answers many of the questions I’ve received and offers an invitation to ask your own.

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NCTE 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24
Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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Summer Reading

This post started with a tweet from Gary Anderson about what his daughters were reading:

Gary Anderson tweet

Donalyn Miller shared how sad that tweet made her in a reply. I jumped in and later Paul Hankins, Karen LaBonte and Kim McCollum joined the conversation. A few others dipped in and out. The bottom line. What is the purpose of summer reading? How do we assess it? Should we even have required books or should we let students choose?

My school requires students read three books (four if you’re in AP). Of those three, one is a required book, one is a choice selected from a list of about ten books, and one is a faculty seminar book—students sign up the previous spring for the book they want to read. We have everything from The Eyre Affair to Hunger Games to Bringing Down the House. The students seem to like it, and there is sometimes a mad rush to sign up for first picks.

When students return, our first unit of study is the required book. I usually ask students to create a project for the choice book. The seminar discussion is the only assessment for the faculty book.

Basically, our conversation last night centered around whether we should assign summer reading. I admit I’m torn. I want students to read over the summer, and I want them to pick up books they want to read. I think we try to have some balance in the way we do it at Weber, but I admit some students still grumble. And what we are doing now is a big improvement over what we were doing when I started: three required books, some type of assessment over two of them without discussion (usually a test and an essay). The kids hated it.

I will go on record as saying the chapter summaries deal that a lot of schools do is just painful, and it kills books. My daughter has had to do that for summer reading, and I have watched it destroy any interest she had in the book. She had to do it with Speak, and not only did it frustrate her because she couldn’t tell what constituted a chapter in that book, but the directions given by the school were also no help. Once school started and the teachers recognized this, they backed off on the requirement, and my daughter, who had done a whole lot of work, just felt resentful. Last year, her teacher required these study guides for each book they read. It’s painful! And no choices at all!

I know we have some students who wouldn’t pick up a book all summer without a summer reading requirement. Truth be told, some of them don’t anyway. So what’s the solution? What do you think of summer reading? What should schools do?

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Is Online Reading Really Reading?

The New York Times has an interesting article about how literacy is changing as more teens read online.  I am obviously an English teacher, and I have a lot invested in books, but I also read a lot online, and I see the value.  What do you think?

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Helping Families Support Literacy

NCTE Inbox‘s great post “Helping Families Support Readers” is a great resource for teachers looking for materials to support family literacy and summer reading programs. My own tips:

  • Read by example. Let your children see you with a book in your hand, enjoying reading, and they will want to do it, too.
  • Read to your children. Keep reading to them even after they learn to read for themselves.
  • Set aside class time to read. I don’t do this well because my current school schedule doesn’t allow for it, but when I student taught, my supervising teacher set aside each Friday for reading. Also, the entire school had time set aside two days a week when everyone was supposed to drop everything and read. It had a tremendous impact on SAT scores.
  • If you can, allow for some choice. For instance, if you teach American literature, you might want to teach Edgar Allan Poe, but you can allow students to pick which story (or which three stories) they read. You can also allow students to pick a book or two on their own and get credit for a project or paper based on that book. I have successfully integrated this kind of outside reading in my classes before.
  • Make suggestions. I suggested a reluctant reader try Stephenie Meyer‘s books, and she loved them. She might not have tried them out if I hadn’t said I thought she would like them.
  • Give parents and students resources. Many times I have had parents lament that they can’t get their sons to read, for example. I point them toward Guys Read, which has some great suggestions for books for boys.

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