Why I Teach Thematically

I received my course survey results, and the feedback has me thinking, as it should, about what I need to improve and what is working well. I have consistently received good feedback from students on connections between my class and other classes and connections to the world outside the classroom.  I prioritize these types of connections in my approach to teaching. I consider it a high compliment when students express the opinion that something we did felt relevant.

I’m convinced that one reason students see these connections is that I approach teaching literature thematically. While teaching survey courses chronologically is common, particularly with American or British literature, there is no reason a survey course has to be a chronological march through the literature. My personal feeling is that chronological approaches ensure that students don’t study the most engaging and relevant literature until late in the course. 

I never liked teaching genre-based courses either. In these courses, a teacher might teach a poetry unit, then a short story unit, then maybe a drama unit, and so on. The CED for AP Literature is organized as a genre-based study, which is something I don’t like about it. I feel that genre-based organization leads students to see genres as separate from each other and doesn’t foster connection. 

One of the greatest influences on my teaching has been backward design. Maybe some of you were reading this blog when I read Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design and blogged about my response to it.

Reading that book set me on the path toward teaching literature thematically, and I would never go back to another approach. I think approaching literature thematically helps students see relevance in the literature. Students have a sense of our shared humanity. In other words, we can learn valuable things about ourselves from literature.

I owe a debt to Carol Jago, Renee H. Shea, Lawrence Scanlon, and Robin Dissin Aufses. Their text Literature & Composition for teaching AP Lit has been influential in the thematic approach I take to teaching that course. Even though I don’t use the text and do not use most of the works suggested in their thematic units, I found their themes compelling, and borrowed several of them for my approach to teaching my AP Lit course:

  • Identity and Culture
  • Love and Relationships
  • Home and Family
  • Conformity and Rebellion
  • Tradition and Progress
  • Art and the Artist

I admit I don’t always get to all of these units, so I prioritize them. I teach Song of Solomon in Identity and Culture, Homegoing in Home and Family, Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours in Conformity and Rebellion, and Never Let Me Go in Tradition and Progress. I’m thinking about doing an Ishiguro literature circle instead next year—students would select either Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day, or Klara and the Sun in the Tradition and Progress unit if I make that change.

I include short stories and poems that work thematically with these units. The Love and Relationships unit is entirely poetry and short stories. I’ve done a play in the past and am considering doing The Importance of Being Earnest as a drama—if I do that play, I need to cut back somewhere, which is tricky. I admit I should be including more drama, but I prioritize teaching poetry because my students have read more drama prior to my class and need to read more poetry than they have.

This year, my Love and Relationships unit included the following works:

  • A revisit of “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come On in My House” by Clint Smith (students read his collection Counting Descent for summer reading)
  • “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron paired with “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” by Rudy Francisco
  • “Bright Star” by John Keats and “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (paired texts with clips from the Jane Campion film Bright Star)
  • “The Storm” by Kate Chopin
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
  • Sonnets 116 and 130 by William Shakespeare
  • The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • “The Dead” by James Joyce (with a timed writing practice)
  • “Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx
  • “The Outing” by James Baldwin
  • “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats (with a multiple choice practice)
  • A Rudy Francisco deep dive with “If I Was a Love Poet,” “Scars,” and “To the Random Dude Who Started Dating My Ex-Girlfriend…” (all of which can be found in Francisco’s collection Helium)
  • The essay “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (thank you to Scott Bayer and Joel Garza for inspiring its inclusion)

Turning a critical eye on this list, I can see there are not many women. However, do teach a lot of women writers in other units, and I believe it balances in the end. The students seemed to enjoy this unit. There is a mix of canonical, classic literature and new voices. Many of these works could easily be read in different units if we focused on other thematic elements. “The Dead,” for example, could easily be about Home and Family and Tradition and Progress, but I taught it with a focus on Gabriel and Gretta’s marriage and his feelings of jealousy when he learns of Gretta’s premarital love life. Themes act almost like lenses—they provide a way for us to approach the study of literature to see what it has to teach us about that theme.

Students refer to the unit theme often in our discussions. They see the common threads that unite all the literature we are studying. I believe it contributes to their ability to see connections to other classes and life outside of the classroom, too. I had the wonderful, gratifying experience of seeing one of my students read a poem she had written at an impromptu poetry reading hosted by one of my department colleagues. Before she read, she said the poem was “inspired by AP Lit, the Love and Relationships unit.” My heart sang. She saw the relevance of the theme, but she was also inspired to contribute her own voice. Isn’t that what we want for our students?

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