Historical Introduction to Early American Lit

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SWBAT articulate the relationship between historical context and literature by researching and debating the definition of literature and the impact of early American history on the literature of the period.

Big Idea

Is Twilight literature? Let the debate ensue! And you thought the Edward versus Jacob battle was a contentious one...


This lesson will only be the second day of instruction with students, so at this point we're still taking care of introductory material regarding learning preferences and how the course is structured.  While many teachers launch into course material right away, I have found that my year is much smoother when I take time to "pre-load" students with learning preference information and a deeper understanding of how and why my curriculum is designed as it is.  I always teach literature within its historical context so that students are better able to connect literature with its authors and themselves.  I also find that for me, the more holistic approach (instead of more segmented units on specific topics) gives me more freedom to select texts from other time periods to showcase specific aspects of the work, connect literature and themes throughout generations of Americans, and address any weak skill areas that students may display over the course of the year. 

Allowing students time to develop their identities, both as readers and as students, is another major objective of my class.  The opening days of instruction will be filled with opportunities to learn more about themselves and how to use that knowledge to their advantage.  Throughout the year I will try to guide students into being more independent, confident, and aware learners.  The Common Core requires students to routinely engage with higher-level texts, critical thinking, and uncertainty while reading.  In my experience, readers must have both content knowledge and a high level of confidence in their own abilities in order to continuously meet the challenges placed before them by the Common Core.


35 minutes

Last class period, students took the Multiple Intelligence Survey and were immediately given individual results, which students transferred immediately to a Google Form to consolidate all of my class information into one, usable spreadsheet.  Since that time, I have worked with the data to create graphs which show cumulative results of all classes.

At the start of this hour, I will project these graphs for students to gain an understanding of how their results compare with their peers' results and to brainstorm and add ideas to our study strategy list that students may already effectively use.  We will discuss as a class what this data suggests about the larger question, "How can we learn more effectively as a class and as individuals?"  Students will also be using their Learning Preferences Handouts that were given to them last class period as we attempt to answer this question.  Other questions I will pose during this opening instruction will be:

  • Do you think these results would be the same as results gathered five years ago or five years from now?  Why or why not?  Use examples to illustrate your case.
  • Where do you think our different "intelligence" strengths come from?  Is this learned behavior or genetic?  Explain.


The ideal outcome of this discussion time is two-fold.  First, discussion will necessarily play a big role in my classroom.  The Common Core devotes an entire standard to speaking and listening skills, so it's clearly an important skill for college and career readiness.  This is an especially nice perk for teachers, in my opinion, because what's better than having intelligent discussion with students?  That's a huge part of why I love my job!  Starting with the expectation of informed, vigorous discussion will set an appropriate course tone here.  Secondly, in my experience, students really benefit from putting thought into how they learn and why they learn that way.  Most of my students are completely unaware of how to study, even as 11th graders.  A small percentage of my students come to me with a "bag" of prepackaged study habits, but even those students are lost if they haven't evaluated how well they WORK for them.  This discussion is vital for communicating the idea that how actual learning happens has transformed through history and is completely individualized.  The only thing uniform for all students is that EVERYONE must know and apply what works for them...preferably before getting to a wholly-independent environment like college!  Once students realize that they have unique styles, they can quickly start building a personalized repertoire of study strategies that fit those styles instead of working against their natural ability to "try on" someone else's learning style.  They will also more clearly recognize that learning preferences may change (be it by media or some other force), so they should always be self-reflecting on their learning habits and effectiveness.

After our discussion concludes, I will have students take their final learning preferences assessment, the Canfield Inventory.  This assessment gives students multiple layers of information that may be useful to their academic careers.  Conditions for ideal learning, content areas of strength, and preferred learning modes are all generated by this assessment.  Results will be tallied through the "Canfield Results-izer," which uses an Excel workbook to automatically analyze student responses.  This information will not be given to students today, but it will be shared with them during the next class period in a similar fashion as today's Multiple Intelligence Survey will be reviewed.  

Since students will finish their inventories at different times, I will also take this time to allow them to set up access to two main digital tools that we will use this year if they haven't already.  They will use the "how-to" information posted on my website to set up access to their online textbooks (through Pearson Success Net) and written instructions or a video tutorial to create an Evernote account with a Web Clipper extension for easy webpage bookmarking.  The textbook information is specific only to my classroom, but Evernote is an amazing tool for teachers everywhere to use with their students.  I started using it last year during "research paper season" to replace paper notecards with digital notecards, but my use quickly blossomed to incorporate collecting web sources, book sources, notecards, working bibliographies, and outlines all through Evernote.  This tool gives teachers a more functional way to monitor student collection of the more diverse sources required for research by the Common Core, and it provides students with the ability to better warehouse, index, and access their information to synthesize their research.  This year I plan to expand my use of Evernote with students to house a variety of smaller research projects, notes, and lecture summaries.  Setup will be extremely easy for students, so this should only take a few minutes.  When students finish with setup of this account, they will be instructed to explore more about how it works by selecting articles that interest them from the Evernote Tutorials page.



Building Knowledge

20 minutes


After all students have completed their Canfield Inventories and digital account setup, we will move on to explore our connection to literature as individuals and as a nation.  First, however, I will ask the students a series of questions which will ultimately result in the class building a definition for the word "literature."  That progression will unfold like this:

  • Okay, so first question.  This is American Literature class.  So my question to you is this:  What makes literature literature?  Is any book or story literature?  Does text have to be fictional to be literature?  What do you think? 
    • As students give responses, which will all be rather tentative at first, I will note their ideas on the whiteboard in a list.  Typical answers are that it has to be good, famous, and popular.  At this point in the conversation, any and all answers are praised for adding to the discussion!  It's a scary thing to talk on the second day of class!
  • Great.  So at least we know that all of the material in our textbook will be "good, famous, and popular!"  Score!  (Any kind of joke here will be helpful for breaking the ice!  I feel free to be a goofball.)  Okay, so I have another question.  When you say "popular," what do you mean by that?  Like, for example, Twilight is popular.  Is that literature?  Will that be right here in the lit book with Mark Twain?  
    • Usually students will begin refining their "definitions" of literature.  I will erase things that they collaboratively decide are untrue on our whiteboard list, and I will add things as they refine them.
  • I like where you're going with this!  So you're telling me that it has to be popular for a long time, not just a comparatively short while.  That makes sense.  Is there anything else you want to add to the list here, or can we make this into a definition?  
    • I will add any new ideas and then have students turn it into a sentence which I will write and they will take down in their notes.
  • Now it's the moment of truth.  Can I get someone to look up "literature" in the dictionary to see what it actually says there so we can compare and add or delete as necessary?  
    • A student will use a dictionary to give the definition, and we will cross out or add necessary material to make our definition accurate.  Students will do the exact same thing in their notebooks to get in the routine of guessing at vocabulary, then checking their guesses, which is required in the Common Core.
  • Thank you!  We weren't too far off, nice job.  So knowing the definition of "literature" now, what do you predict will stick around and become "literature" in the future?  What are we producing that will end up in textbooks being studied in 100 years?  Have you thought about that?  It's kind of creepy to think about, actually, but what do you think?  
    • This conversation will get more students reeled in, but whatever they say will perfectly set you up for our next portion of the discussion, which is how historical context plays a critical role in literature.  The more they discuss why or why not Harry Potter or the Percy Jackson series will make it into history, the better!  You may also be surprised to hear several dismal responses about this generation's literature production possibilities...this is your fair warning!
  • What do you think we'll be writing about in the future?  More vampire tales or crazy science thrillers?  Are there any themes you could see increasing?  Why?  Does that say anything about our culture?  
    • Again, this will vary, but any discussion thinking about the cultural significance of literature is a good one in my book!  It also allows students to offer opinions which may be very different that their classmates' opinions.  Acting as a model to appreciate all of these responses and a mediator to ensure that all students are heard and respected lays a wonderful framework for a discussion-based classroom.
  • What's going on in our society and culture definitely does have an effect on the literature being produced.  I mean, how could it not?  Your culture really infuses everything you do, so that makes sense.  What kinds of things are going on now in our American lives that you see coming through in literature?  As an example, with all the technological advances, I see lots of literature and film about technology taking over and going bad somehow.  Jurassic Park, I Am Legend, I-Robot...the list goes on.  I think that's connected to us being kind of concerned about technology advancing so quickly.  Can you see other themes in books or film that come out of current cultural events?  
    • Answers will vary.


Once students can clearly see the connection between societal context and literature, I will move to the next section of the lesson where they take this new understanding and investigate what historical events and cultures contributed to shaping the literature of Early Americans.


30 minutes

I will ask students to examine the timeline in the Unit 1 "Story of the Times" section of their Prentice Hall Literature: The American Experience textbooks to evaluate the historical events from "the beginnings" to 1750.   A good substitute (with more valuable links to associated information!) can be found at the "Timeline of Pre-United States History" Wikipedia page.  After allowing about a minute for students to review the timeline, I will ask students to point out events that they feel are important enough to culture that they would impact literature.  Whatever events they suggest, I will ask them to tell me what they think would be the effect on literature because of that event.  Common events noted will be the early explorer expeditions, developing the printing press, colonial settlement foundation, the Salem Witch Trials, and more.  

Once we have reviewed the timeline, I will ask students to read the "Story of the Times" portion of the textbook which introduces the historical background and literature of the period before every unit.  Another great substitute for this reading can be found from the U.S. Department of State's "Early American and Colonial Period to 1776" page, though I would skip having students read the sections about specific authors.  A shorter substitute is also offered from the U.S. Department of State, entitled "Early American and Colonial Period."  While reading, students will take notes on the informational text using headings and subheadings to guide their note-taking.  I always allow students to take notes on their own for the first unit, but we will go back after students have completed note-taking nearer the end of the hour to make sure they have hit the main ideas of the text.  Allowing them to take notes first gives me a better understanding of where each student is with note-taking ability so that I can remediate these skills as we continue with the year.  My students will be taking notes using Google Docs, so reviewing note progress is easy and available to me at all times.  I have attached a complete set of notes and an outline to create these notes (which I used with students that required accommodations) in the resources for this section.

Main points I want to be sure to highlight are contained in the notes attached.  My largest goal will be to demonstrate the connection between historical context and literature, with special focus on the specific characteristics of literature by Native Americans, Puritans and Pilgrims, Southern Planters, and Explorers.  Extra attention will also be spent developing student understanding of Puritan values as they apply to shaping American ideals and literature.


5 minutes

As a final activity, I will introduce students to one of my stand-by introductory assignments, the "Express Yourself" tile.  Every year, I have students choose a quote that they relate with from a source of their choice.  It can come from a book, song, film, TV show, author, philosopher, or anyone else that is famous and could be known to people all over the country.  That rule eliminates family quotes, personal creations, phrases that their friends say as "inside jokes," and other sources which could not be further researched.  This works really well as an introductory assignment, because it acts as a mini-snapshot of class culture and immediately drives dialogue between students who may have never previously spoken.  Additionally, it asks students to go out and find quotes that are well-written and meaningful to them.  Often, these quotes employ exactly the kind of language that we look for with the Common Core, like that of satire, irony, or figurative language.  Also, the assignment itself asks students to simply connect with WORDS that they love, which is a task that may feel foreign to students at first, but it's an idea that is so important to the Common Core that they have a substandard that specifically addresses the need for students to connect with "fresh" or "particularly beautiful" language.  This assignment gets students to launch right into this standard with text of their choosing, laced with personal value.  As an added bonus for me, I always end up referring back to the "Express Yourself" bulletin board throughout the year, as students undoubtedly pull quotes from people like Franklin, Emerson, Gandhi, MLK, which we discuss later in the year.  It's awesome spontaneous recognition for the unwittingly "forward-thinking" student that selected the quote months prior to that lesson!

These quotes will also be appropriate for a school setting, and students that submit quotes that are not school appropriate will earn a 0%.  After selecting a quote, students will display it on a piece of paper (that I have elevated to calling a "tile").  This year I will have a size requirement (so that I can hang all of the tiles on one giant bulletin board!), but typically my only size rule is that it is at least 8.5" x 11".  Other requirements for the tile include:

  • correct spelling & accuracy of quote
  • proper punctuation of a neatly-written quote using quotation marks
  • author given credit on front of tile (or character in the case of a TV show, film, or novel where it would make sense to use a character over an author)
  • student name on the front of the tile (so students are easily connected with work)


Students should not use pencil to write the quote, and the tile must use color in some way, though it certainly doesn't have to be an artistic masterpiece.  My logic for creating these visual requirements is so that the tiles, which I leave hanging throughout the year, are a visually appealing part of the classroom.  Even though they are displayed year round, I notice students all throughout the year ogling my quote wall to read the quotes their peers have connected with.  Some students will approach this as an art project and create masterpieces that your classes get to enjoy all year, so that is definitely an added perk of this assignment.  Even without elaborate artwork, however, the "Express Yourself" tiles make for great discussion, increased student connection, a genuine application of appreciating the beauty of language, and insight into your students' personalities. 

Next Steps

Students will turn in their "Express Yourself" tiles two class periods from today in order to give them enough time to create something that connects to their personalities and makes them proud to share.  These will be turned in and graded for meeting the requirements before I hang them up.  Students will not be required to share their reasoning for selecting their quote, because many students will connect with text for reasons they may not want to share.  I feel like the connection is the most important part of this assignment, not the explanation.