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.”

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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Prison Performing Arts

My local NPR station broadcast a rerun of This American Life last night that made me stop cold and listen.  The episode, entitled “Act V,” centered around a drama program that serves prisons, exposing inmates to Shakespeare through performance.  Click on the plus sign to listen to the program.

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Stories like this are why I wanted to teach literature.

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