Introduction To Modernist Literature

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SWBAT tackle a modernist text by gaining knowledge of this literature movement and applying this knowledge as they read.

Big Idea

Without some knowledge of modernism, a Hemingway story would be a complete mystery for my students.


Today, I introduce students to modernist literature. This is the fourth movement in American literature that I introduce them to. I introduce the movement within a historical context, which helps students understand the authors in this movement as well as its importance within twentieth century American Literature. They are used to getting an introduction to some of the central elements of a particular literary movement and then using this new acquired knowledge to make sense of a text from that particular movement. 

Introduction To Modernist Literature

15 minutes

I introduce students to modernist literature by providing a brief historical context because it provides a good picture of what influenced authors of the time. I write the following points on the board and ask students to copy them on their paper as I explain them.

  • WW1 is first instance of mass destruction
  • Major technological change
  • Urban cities grow
  • Grief over loss of past; fear of eroding traditions

With these points, I want students to understand the response some of these authors had to WW1 and their changing world. Students write these on a paper that will become a reference as we read modernist literature.

I then distribute this short bulleted list and ask students to tape/staple/glue it to the paper where they have been writing notes on the historical context of this movement. This bulleted list contains elements we expect to see in actual modernist literature. It is a long list and I don’t need student to spend the time copying these. The plan is to go over these points by highlighting the key words in each bullet point. This will allow us to discuss each point and focus on what these are trying to communicate, as we do in this video.

I then ask students what they think is the next step. They easily predict that we are reading a modernist text. I excitedly say, “Yes!” so that I drown out any groans. I have a copy of Ernest Hemmingway’s “The End of Something” ready for them. Hemmingway is central American modernist literature author and it is important for students to be familiar with his work. This particular short story highlights some of the modernist elements we have covered. It also offers a structure that draws in students in that they have to discover details in order to make sense of the plot. It has received very good reviews from previous student so I like using it. 

Reading A New Text

35 minutes

We begin to read “The End of Something.” I often like to read the intro to a new story to help engage students and I do this today. After I read the first paragraph, I give them time to go back and highlight important information in this paragraph. This student’s paper is a good example of what I expected students to highlight.

I then explain to students that, being a modernist story, what we highlighted only provides part of the entire story. I tell them that Hemmingway did not want to tell us the entire story directly, but rather suggests things and leaves it up to us to make sense of it. This means we are expected to make inferences in order to understand the entire story. For these reasons, this short story is good for helping students practice Common Core Reading Literature standards 5 and 6, which address the choices authors make in terms of text structure as well as distinguishing what is directly stated from what is really meant. I ask them to think about what we are to infer about this town from the information we highlighted. Students begin to infer that the lumber business sucked up all the resources and that the owners of the mill were the ones that decided to shut down, changing this town for good. We were able to compare this to a college town that only feels like a town because of the university it was built around. I give students time to add these inferences as notes on the margin of this paragraph.

I then ask students to read the rest of that first section of the story, up to the first break, before the word “she” printed in large letters. I want them to read on their own and highlight significant information. Students are often reluctant to highlight a text, but the purpose this time makes good sense to them. They are going to make inferences based on what they highlight and write them as notes on the margin. The purpose is for the highlighted parts and the written inferences to work together to provide the entire story because the highlighted parts by themselves don’t. Before they write notes on the margin, I want them to discuss what they have read. Discussing a text is helpful as they work to make sense of it.

I give students a few minutes to discuss what they have read. I then ask them to share what they discuss and to ask questions about anything they found confusing. Students are able to say that there are two main characters fishing. They are wondering what the relationship is between the two. I ask them to predict and there are a few options. Some think they may be brother and sister, some think they may be friends, and, of course, some think they may be a couple. I do not clarify this because they are about to discover it on their own.

I give them the rest of the period to read the rest of the story and to highlight the significant information. I instruct them to hold off on writing their inferences on the margin. I tell them I will give them time in class tomorrow. I do this because I want to give students the opportunity tomorrow to discuss the entire story because this will help them make all the inferences Hemmingway meant for us to make.