Contextualizing Realism & Naturalism with Informational Texts

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SWBAT analyze informational texts to evaluate the purpose and credibility of authors and articulate ideas that contrast with students' existing knowledge about Civil War era documents.

Big Idea

Luring students into nonfiction isn’t a hard sell using a “behind the scenes” approach to investigate the major names of the Civil War.

Lesson Overview

Today will be our official start to the unit on Realism & Naturalism.  As I typically do, students were assigned to take notes over the upcoming unit's history and literature after the test administered last period.  If you're starting with this unit or lesson, our discussion in the Introduction section will be focused around the independent reading and notes in The American Experience, Prentice Hall Literature Online: Common Core Edition (pg. 462-473), which covers the nation's major historical events and literary movements from 1850-1914.  The same material could also be covered using an alternate set of materials, including America's Best History U.S. Timeline and the  Realism and Naturalism pages of PBS's The American Novel.  A set of student notes is included in the Resources section.


20 minutes

Our lesson today will start off with a discussion of the historical context and major literary genres, Realism and Naturalism, of this unit, which runs from 1850-1914.  Since students will arrive to this class period with their own notes on these topics from our reading assignment last time, we will just be hitting on the "highlights" of the reading section and important ideas of this unit.

  • In addition to the obvious issue of slavery, what other differences divided the North & South and helped pave the way to the Civil War?  (The North focused more on commerce, while the South was deeply agricultural; the Industrial Revolution created cities with transportation and factories, while the South was still relying on slavery.)
  • Just like in previous wars, what was the effect of the Civil War on society and literature?  (It unsettles people and makes them more and more distrustful.  It brought the lofty Transcendentalists and Romantics down to a place where they can't ignore the pain and suffering around them and must become more down-to-earth.)
  • What are the major effects of the Westward Expansion and Industrial Revolution?  (Both of these events led to major U.S. advancement and a change of life that persists for decades upon decades afterward.  The Westward Expansion offers new opportunities for all kinds of people who may not have had them [for economic reasons, societal reasons, or other reasons] and gives writers a whole new landscape to write about.  The Industrial Revolution creates even more immigration, urban growth, labor issues, and huge economic disparities between those who own the companies and the cheap labor they employed.)
  • Mark Twain calls this the "Gilded Age."  What does "gilded" mean and how does it apply?  (If students struggle with this term, I will reference the cheap little rings sometimes sold in clear dispensers for a quarter at grocery or convenience stores to help them understand the term.  I will explain that they are often "gilded," but with routine wear, the junky metal or plastic shows through.  After they understand the term, students will suggest that while everything seemed to be perfect and fancy, major problems existed under the surface that were being concealed.)
  • This era was rife with social problems, which were obviously topics of literature of the period.  What kinds of work showed these social problems?  (Spirituals, narrative nonfiction, and journalistic pieces.)
  • Your textbook discusses Horatio Alger and his "rags to riches" archetype.  Do you still see this pattern as popular in today's literature and film?  (Students will likely reference more films than books, but I feel strongly that it's important to connect themes across generations, no matter the medium!  As we continue to purposefully explore literature, students have begun incorporating more literary works into these discussions from earlier readings this year, so I am confident they will continue this!  They may reference Disney films, nonfiction works like the autobiography of Bob Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, or Steve Jobs, and more.)
  • The idealism of the Romantics and Transcendentalists is long gone, despite the unity that, ironically, brought the nation together after the Civil War.  What are the major trends of the Realism that replaced these more-imaginative genres?  (It focused on real-life, which was usually pretty depressing.  Life was hard!  It showed that.  It's very honest, objective, and factual, and major themes include loneliness, isolation, and the problems with society.)
  • What are the major themes of Naturalism?  How are they related to Realism?  What's the ONLY major difference?  (Naturalists also looked at how hard life is and portrayed it in a realistic way.  It portrayed ordinary people in real-life situations and focused on human endurance of hardship.  It evolved from the fear of industrialization and anonymity that the "new world" was turning into.  The only difference between Realist and Naturalist genres is that the Naturalists believed that some larger force--fate, nature, heredity--ultimately determined human destiny.)
  • What is Regionalism and why did Realists and Naturalists use it?  Both of these genres focus on accurately portraying reality, so it makes sense that they would use dialect, environmental features, and attitudes exhibited in the places they were writing to make their literature more true-to-life. 

Building Knowledge

30 minutes

After we review the notes, we will move on to learning a little more about the history of the time, specifically the Civil War, to better frame our investigation of our informational texts today.  Students will open a Google Doc, and I will instruct them to keep a list of their reactions, surprises, and information that they learn while watching the John Green video below.  While all students have learned about the Civil War, many have not done so for some time and this video offers all kinds of interesting, helpful information that students will be able to put to use in our upcoming reading.

Following the video, I will ask students to explain to me some of the things they found interesting or learned that they never knew before.  Things that typically come up include:

  • The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free slaves that it had the power to free.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation probably had less to do with condemning slavery and more to do with keeping Northern generals "legal" in not returning them.
  • Britain got rid of slavery before we did, which is why after Lincoln focused the war on slavery, there was little danger of the South being able to get British support.
  • Brazil had slavery too.
  • They had machine guns in the Civil War.
  • Large cemeteries, not churchyards, were a result of the large-scale death of the Civil War.
  • Matthew Brady staged photographs and put his name on other people's work.
  • Italy has had 732 Prime Ministers in 180 years!  
  • Since the North won, we became more Industrial and elected to have a national government that was centralized and Federalist.
  • That collective noun, the United States, didn't become singular until after the Civil War.
  • Income tax and a national currency were results of the Civil War.
  • The war cost a total of $6.7 billion, but it would have only cost $3.1 billion to purchase all the slaves at that time.

In order to provoke more discussion, I will ask students to consider and discuss the following questions:

  • Was Matthew Brady being unethical by staging Civil War photos or does the importance of documenting the war make it acceptable?  Support your opinion with your reasoning.
  • Photoshop is routinely used today to edit and change images.  Is this practice unethical?  How do your feelings on Photoshop relate to Matthew Brady's use of photo alteration?  If it contradicts your opinion on Brady, what's different between the two situations?
  • Green points out the economic difference between the cost of the war and the cost of the government purchasing all the slaves and freeing them.  Do you think his purpose is to suggest that we should have saved money and just purchased the slaves?  What evidence do you have that supports your inference?


30 minutes

Today's class-readings will come from historical narrative texts, which students can sometimes take some cajoling to get excited about.  Before we start reading, I will ask students to recall some of the features that narratives (like biographies, autobiographies, diaries, etc.) have that can make them more interesting or exciting to read.  We have discussed this previously, so I assume students will fall back on those discussions and suggest they offer a new point of view about an event, give readers an inside story about a person, and more.  

Ralph McKim's Diary (15 minutes)

After we build a more positive attitude for reading, I will direct students to a text from Ralph McKim, A Soldier's Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate, with an Oration of Motives and Aims of the Soldiers of the South, which has been compiled by the Library of Congress, Ameritech Digital Library Competition, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This stellar source goes beyond McKim's journal entries, which are widely available, by offering retrospective commentary and new research that McKim collected on the battles and situations he describes in his journal.  We will be reading from page 203-207, which describes an encounter at Gettysburg.  Before reading, I will ask the students to consider the credibility of the diary.  They will likely say that it might be biased since McKim is only talking about the Southern perspective and the title suggests he will try to argue what the South's motives were during the war.  While we read the selection aloud (ignoring the red commentary for the moment), students will be asked to consider the following ideas and be prepared to discuss them after reading:

  • How effective is McKim's description of the setting?  
  • How credible and objective is McKim as a reporter of this encounter?  Why?
  • What was McKim's purpose in documenting this experience in narrative form?

 After we read, students will offer their answers to the above in a whole-group setting.  To start off this discussion, I will ask students how many of them feel that, given a mound of sand, tiny artificial trees, and little green soldiers, they could recreate McKim's scene?  Most students will respond that they could (and will likely ask you to do so...but fight the urge and your principal will thank you!) due to the extensive use of specific scenic descriptions, including directional words like "left rear" and "left flank," distances like "20-30 paces," measures like "right angles," and time elapsing so they could imagine the sky.  This will lead into students correctly answering that while he has the potential to be very biased, McKim's account is relatively credible and objective since few emotion words are used and his admission that he is only reporting things to the best of his memory (like the flag comment).  I will ask students to point out exceptions to his unbiased narration, and they should be able to identify his comments about the motives of his superiors and the use of the phrase "gallant little brigade," which is positively connotated and implies bravery.  Finally, students will suggest that his purpose may be to document this experience for his own memory (since it's a diary, which is generally personal) or to share his insight with later generations.  Students will debate whether or not he knew it would be published when he wrote it, but as long as they show their reasoning, either answer would be acceptable.  It's hard to say, honestly, but the Common Core is really focused on the reasoning and support for arguments, so I feel like even unknown questions are worth discussing!

After we complete this discussion, we will go back and read the red "amendments" to the diary, which are comments and later research McKim did on this battle.  I will ask if these additions make him more or less objective that we previously thought, and students will again offer their opinion and reasoning.

Robert E. Lee's Letter (15 minutes)

Next, I will ask students what they currently know about Robert E. Lee.  Typically, students only know that he was a Confederate general from the South.  (I confess, that for most of my life, I also saw him in only that light.)  That question will help set students up for the ideal amazement for Lee's insight in our next reading, a letter to his son, George Washington Curtis Lee, in January of 1861.  Before we start reading, I will ask students to focus on the following questions, which will be discussed after we read the short letter:

  • This letter is part of a back-and-forth series of letters.  What do you suppose the letter immediately preceding this one was about?  How do you know?
  • What is anarchy?  (Answer this while introducing the questions!)  How does Lee feel about it?  What is going on at that time that Lee views as anarchy?
  • Though Lee and Henry David Thoreau are DRAMATICALLY different people, Lee's ideas about the present state of American affairs are really similar to Thoreau's thoughts on government.  How so?
  • What's surprising about Lee's stance on succession and the war, that you might not have ever previously known?

Once we're done reading, we will again go through the questions orally.  I will let students pick whichever question they want to discuss first, so they can use clues from those answers to work up to their most-difficult question, which is likely to be connecting Lee to Thoreau.  They will not typically have a problem picking out clues that show Lee's son's letter inquired about his thoughts on the war and included a book for him to read and give his opinion on.  Likewise, they will probably also be stunned while reading to find that Lee didn't want to succeed, didn't favor war, thought succession was anarchy, and if it came to war, would give up all fighting and grudge-holding after the war was over (even if they lost).  He's so genuinely pro-American here that students can quickly grasp these details, and with the knowledge they currently have about him, they will undoubtedly be surprised by this.  

If students struggle to connect Lee with Thoreau, I will reread two lines from the first paragraph, "As far as I can judge by the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert both of these evils from us! I fear that mankind will not for years be sufficiently Christianized to bear the absence of restraint and force."  After reading these lines, I will ask students to translate the first and second sentences, which they would have already translated to answer earlier questions.  Then, I will reread the second sentence and ask students to translate this into language we are more familiar with.  Eventually, they will read this sentence as "It will take years for people to be kind/civilized enough to live without rules and consequences."  Once they have the translation, I will ask how this idea connects with Thoreau's believe about government through the following "refresher" question set:

  • What did Thoreau think about the government?  Think back to our reading and discussion about On Civil Disobedience.  (Students will probably say that he thought the government was too involved and there should be no government.)
  • Did Thoreau advocate anarchy then?  (Students will recollect that he did not want anarchy, but there should be as small of a government as possible until eventually people could get rid of government all together and live without it.)
  • Why did Thoreau say there shouldn't be no government immediately?  (Students will remember that he thought people couldn't handle no government because they're used to it and needed the restraint to keep them in control until they had self control.)
  • So how is that idea similar to Lee's?  (Both people thought that there would be anarchy if all types of control from a government were taken away.  They both suggest people need to be controlled at some level until they grow enough willpower, empathy, compassion, and responsibility to live without control.)


10 minutes

In our final few minutes of class, students will begin reading our final text of the day, Stephen Crane's Episode of War (page 105).  Feel free to read the story right through Google or you can download a free electronic copy of the book from the same screen! While students read, they will complete another Metacognitive Reading Log, noting at least difficult or important sections of text from each page (with an associated page number).   In the right column, students will be responsible for commenting on the meaning of the quote, asking a question, explaining the rationale used for figuring out a difficult vocabulary word, connecting the text to some other text or personal experience, or narrating the process and reading strategies they used to figure out what challenging pieces of text meant.  They have done several of these, so they will be pretty familiar with the requirements.  In addition to linking a copy of the Metacognitive Reading Log Template, however, I will also link the Metacognitive Reading Log Rubric and encourage students to read through the expectations before starting this process.

Next Steps

Next class period, we will use student questions and ideas from the Metacognitive Reading Log to frame our discussion of the story.  Additionally, I plan to browse through the student folders tomorrow night to ensure that students started these logs in class and have completed them.  If students haven't started by that point, their turn-in rate is much lower, so I like to email them reminders to get a higher completion rate!  While it does take some extra effort, the reduction in headache-causing incomplete work is worth it.