FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

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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.

10 thoughts on “FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically”

  1. Are you sure you don’t want to share your syllabus?! I’m a first-year teacher and want to approach my English curriculum thematically as you have done.

    1. Hi Leslie. While I empathize, having been there, I do think it’s much better to decide what works to include and how to structure it for yourself. My syllabus is also not really in a shareable format, as we have a learning management system at school where I have stored it. It’s not a document or anything, and it wouldn’t be accessible to anyone outside my school. I probably should transfer it to a document when I have the time.

  2. Hi there! Thank you so much for all of this helpful information. I am making the switch this year from chronological to thematic, and I am excited (but also scared). I completely agree with you here about the benefits of going thematically and that the kids don’t really need the movements to get a lot out of the course. Do you do any set up of the movements when teaching the lit? For example, if you are teaching a Puritan work or a Transcendentalist work, do you discuss the movement they come from briefly? Do you introduce the history/time period? I’m just trying to work it all out in my mind. I want to be successful at this switch!!


    1. Hi, Amy. In terms of teaching the movements, I only share what might be important for students to understand or even just to appreciate some of the things that were happening in the literature. For the Modernists, for example, it’s helpful to know that the world had just engaged in World War I and the impact of the war on those writers was profound. Also, it’s helpful to know that this is a time of rapid technological development. I always talk about what was happening historically when a work of literature was produced, especially if knowing this information will enhance understanding.

  3. Thank you for your tips on teaching literature thematically! I completely agree with you that relevance of literature to students’ lives is far more important than them memorizing the components of a literary movement. I noticed in high school, and especially college, that I wasn’t as engaged at the beginning of the semester because we started by reading older, oftentimes less relevant texts. Like you said, I think it’s really important to hook kids on the concepts and themes we’re studying rather than feeling obligated to teach in chronological order simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s the theme of the story that sticks with students, not the time period it was written or the designated movement literary scholars assign it. We need to emphasize the content and relevance of each story so that students are motivated to learn more about it. I believe our job as teachers is to help students view literature as something to invest in because it speaks to or about them and not because it’s something we make them read to check off a box in the curriculum. I appreciate your thoughts on this and will definitely keep it in mind as I am designing my own units next year!

    1. I think of it like this: literary movements are probably of interest to English majors and maybe even writers (but even that’s a stretch). But if you consider the large percentage of students who do not go on to be either of these, it makes much more sense to focus on engaging students so they will develop strong reading habits and learn to communicate better.

  4. Dana, thank you for sharing your insights. This connects strongly to one of my grad school classes where we are encouraged to think about history at a much larger scale that just national history. I am interested in thinking about what an elective that taught a combination of literature and history would look like. As a South African, I think I would like to look at a thematic approach to African literature and seeing how that could connect to global themes. I think there are valuable connections that could be made. I appreciate your ideas about getting students to have choice within the texts they will address. Could you expand more on what you think that would look like? I have seen independent reading used very well in my classroom, but these are not texts that fit into a specific theme or genre. I just wonder what giving student choice may look like.

    1. It can look a lot of different ways. You can give students a reading list of poems or stories and allow them to select which ones to read. You can have literature circles with novels or stories. For example, I’ve given students in one of my senior short story electives E. Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories and asked them to read one required story, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” and three choice reads from the collection. In my current AP Lit class, students select a few poems and stories from a list to explore on their own through a comparison to a work we read together. I also do independent reading, which is entirely driven by student choices. I know many English teachers today are advocating for getting rid of the class novel, but I find a lot of value in sharing a text. However, I do think we need to allow students to have more choices about what they read. Also, in terms of choices within texts, one thing I see a lot is asking all students to write on the same prompt. Why not ask them to select an essential question and discuss how a text addresses it? Or why not have them propose topics for papers? Or ask students to select a lens through which to analyze a text. Or ask them to select a method for analyzing it (such as TPCASTT). Students can come up with the questions about a text that they want to discuss. My students do this all the time in Socratic seminars. They write the question and prepare for the discussion. You can also offer students ways to demonstrate their learning rather than just one type of assessment. Choice can look a lot of ways. It’s about offering students agency and control over how they read or learn.

  5. Could you explain a little more about the digital stories and how you use This American Life podcasts? I love the idea and am very curious what that final project looks like in your classroom.

    Thank you!

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