Teaching Literature

american literature

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Goals for teaching literature: What does it mean to teach literature?


Understanding students’ individual differences: Who are our kids?


Planning and Organizing Literature Instruction: How Do I Decide What to Teach?


Using Drama to Foster Interpretation: How Can I Help Students Read Better?


Leading Classroom Discussions of Literature: How Do I Get Them to Talk about Literature?


Writing about literature: How do I get them to write about literature?


Using narratives in the classroom: What’s the use of story?


Teaching text and task-specific strategies: How does the shape of a text change the shape of my teaching?


Teaching the Classics: Do I Have To Teach the Canon, And If So, How Do I Do It?


Multiple Perspectives to Engage Students with Literature: What are Different Ways of Seeing?


Teaching Media Literacy: What else is a text and how do I teach it?


Assessing and Evaluating Students’ Learning: How do I know what they’ve learned?


Text Selection, Censorship, Creating an Ethical Classroom Environment. and Teacher Professionalism: How do I Stay in Control, Out of Trouble, and Continue to Develop as A Teacher?



1. Your recollections of learning the classics.

a. Write a journal entry with the following starter:

“I remember sitting in English class discussing the canonical novel ________________.” 

Write at least a page as you recount this experience, recalling in detail your classmates’ responses to the text, your English teacher’s approach to teaching the text, the direction of the discussion, and what seemed to work or not work.  Next, describe how your experience as a student with this canonical text informs your consideration of whether you might assign this text in your own class.

b. Make a list of the novels you remember reading in your high school English class.  Compare your list with those of at least three other classmates.  Then compare it to the list of the most commonly taught high school texts from Arthur Applebee’s Teaching Literature in the Secondary Schools. Discuss the degree to which, in your experience, the high school canon has endured.

After completing activities a) and b) above, what do you think accounts for the preservation of the canon as it is taught in high schools today?

What specific contributions can the canon make to the development of social, cultural, or historical meaning for high school readers?  (Give specific examples and suggest learning activities that would illustrate the process of meaning making.)

2.  Analyzing how the classics are taught.  Describe a class you are currently observing for your pre-student teaching or student teaching experience. Then consider the contextual factors that Marcia considered in this chapter:  the demographic characteristics of her students, their previous experiences with literature, their reading and interpretive abilities, and the kinds of literary experiences they might need.  Then generate a list of canonical texts that might work in the classroom as well as a list of canonical texts that you think might not work as well.  Be sure to provide your reasons for each determination

Description of class:

Canonical texts you would teach
in this class

Canonical texts you wouldn’t teach
in this class

















3.  Purposes for the canon.   In Loose Canons: Notes on the Canon Wars (excerpts)
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=79012805 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. questions the purposes of the canon. In one of his most interesting essays, “Canon Confidential,” Gates speculates on the future of the canon.  Read "Canon Confidential" a lighthearted look at recreating the canon, and discuss it.  Then create another scenario where the canon is “destroyed.”

4.  How your beliefs and attitudes shape your teaching.  The film, Mona Lisa Smiles, portrays a female art professor played by Julia Roberts who teaches art at Wellesley College and challenges her students to interrogate traditional gender roles.
View the film and discuss the following questions:

  • In what ways is this film about challenging the educational status quo?

  • What parallels do you see between the challenges faced by the Julia Roberts character and the challenges you might encounter as a new teacher of literature?

  • To what degree do the literature we teach and the ways in which we teach it represent a statement of our values and of the purposes of education as we practice it?

5.  Teaching “great ideas.”  Consider Mortimer Alder’s “six great ideas” listed below and then develop a list of short stories and novels that might help students explore those ideas.  Try to incorporate a combination of canonical and contemporary texts.  When you have a substantial list of texts, fill in the table below.

Great Idea

Possible canonical texts to explore that idea

Possible contemporary texts that might be used to explore that idea



















  • What relevance would you define for each of Adler’s six great ideas? 

  • Is it significant that a given work of literature can be used to address two or more of these ideas? 

  • Is there a correlation between the degree to which a work of literature addresses one or more of Adler’s six ideas and its status as a work of classic or canonical literature?

As you scan the list that you created for Activity #1, which of these great ideas seem to show up most frequently in relation to the prominent themes of those novels?  Speculate as to the underlying reasons for the patterns that emerge.

6. As you think about themes and plot lines from important canonical texts, see if you can discover examples of “texts” within popular culture that repeat, reinterpret, or modernize these same themes or narrative structures.  For example, you might compare Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story; Emma with Clueless; or The Odyssey with Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

Consider each comparison by answering these questions:

• How does the text change to accommodate the needs of a contemporary audience?
• What features of the original text seem to be preserved, and why?
• What features or themes of the story seem to have changed most, and why?
• What accounts for the distinction that we make between “high art” (as exemplified by the canonical text) and “pop culture” (as exemplified by its modernized counterpart)?

Finally, speculate as to why you think the original text was chosen as the basis for a modern retelling.  If you think that the reinterpretation of the classic theme was accidental and not intentional, say how you think this might have happened.

7. Determining The New Classics

a. Create a list of criteria for a novel that should endure in the high school canon.

b. Next, peruse the following contemporary book lists to see if there are any books listed that you have read and seem to satisfy your criteria for teaching:

USA Today: Top-Selling-Books

New York Times: Top-Selling-Books

Powells Books: Top-Selling-Books

Finally, sketch out a lesson plan or outline of possible approaches to the  “new classic”.

8. Analyzing the language and style of canonical books.   One particular challenge posed by classic and canonical literature is a difference in language and style from more contemporary and popular texts.  Less experienced readers can struggle with unfamiliar vocabulary, intricate and unusual syntax (including syntactic inversions, embedded phrases and clauses, and long sequences of modifiers that need to be held in memory until the sentence concludes), and variances in meaning. 

Choose a passage (about a paragraph) from a literary text that is at least 150 years old and that required you to do multiple readings before you felt confident about its meaning. 

  • What specific elements of the text presented the greatest challenge to your understanding?

  • For each of these elements, what strategies did you use to decode the text? How might you group or label these strategies?

  • How might the strategies that you used be generalized into a few [rules of practice] that you could present to high school readers?

9.  Studying narrative reliability.  Any number of literary texts confront their readers with issues of narrative reliability and indeterminacy.  As you think about the narrative style of a frequently taught author like Nathaniel Hawthorne, you become aware of subtle phrasing that throws the truth of story into question. 

Consider the following passages from Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” each of which confounds the readers’ ability to say with certainty what has happened within the story:

“he could have sworn, were such a thing possible. . .”
“He could have well-nigh sworn. . .”
“The listener fancied he could distinguish. . .”
“so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard. . .”
“Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame?
“Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting.  Be it so if you will. . .”

  • How do you reconcile the uncertainty of the narrative with your need to create meaning from it? 

  • What meaning do you attribute to the uncertainty itself?

  • How does readers develop confidence in their ability to construct a coherent story from the incomplete, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory information that the story presents?

10. Historicism and historical context.  In one sense literature is always the product of the historical period that produced it.  In another sense, our awareness of history influences our understanding of literary works associated with historical events or movements.  Consider a work such as The Red Badge of Courage, In Our Time, or The Things They Carried.  Then consider the following questions about the relationship between the historical setting of the work and meaning that you create for the work as you read it.

  • What central concepts does the narrative build upon, and how would these concepts be understood at the time the author was writing?  (For the examples above, think about war, heroism, patriotism, duty, or valor, and the ways in which they were understood within differing historical contexts.)

  • What actual historical events of which you are aware do you see reflected, directly or indirectly, in the literary work, and how does your knowledge of these events shape your interpretation of the work?

  • In what ways might the historical location of a literary text influence your understanding of that historical period?

11. Cultural considerations in studying canonical texts.  “Culture” is a large concept. The term is frequently used without clear distinction as to its meaning, and it is even used incorrectly (cultures and societies are distinct, and thus the work culture does not apply to a group of people directly).  In order to examine works of literature for their cultural implications, then, several points of distinction need to be made.  Review the following list of questions, and then illustrate your answer by making reference to a specific work of literature.

  • What is culture in the sense that that we use this word to refer to a potential source of meaning derived from a work of literature?

  • How is a culture manifested in the actions of characters within a literary work? (Think about a story like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”  What is the most significant event of the story, and how does this reflect some aspect of the culture practiced by the characters?)

  • How does a particular cultural practice create either positive or negative outcomes for the society that the story depicts?

  • How are cultural differences among social groups depicted, and what do you see as potential outcomes of these contrastive depictions?

12.  A sample unit for The Scarlet Letter. 

Activity 1

Character Log


Over the course of this unit, we will be reading The Scarlet Letter and preparing to write a literary analysis on it.  One way to prepare for an analysis paper is to pay close attention to the text and stay focused on a particular aspect of it.  For The Scarlet Letter, we’re going to be focusing on characters.  There are three main characters: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth (aka Roger Prynne).  Each of you will be assigned to one of these three characters.

What to Do:

You will keep a character log that records important information on the character you have been assigned.  As you are read, look for information about your character.  Then, record the page number and write the information.  In many cases, you will want to quote portions of the text directly.  This will aid you greatly in using evidence for you analysis papers.

What Kind of Information:

*            Physical characteristics
*            Personality traits
*            Relationships with other characters
*            Mannerism or other telling actions
*            Symbols associated with the character
*            Surprising revelations
*            Puzzling actions
*            Psychological traits/hang-ups
*            Questions you have about the character

How Much to Write:

At the very least you should be averaging five items a day.  Of course, some days your character will hardly appear in the chapters.  On other days, however, there will be a chapter focusing directly on your character.  Thus, sometimes you’ll have very little to write and other days you’ll have multitude of comments to make.  Overall, it should be several pages of notes. 

Reasons to Do Well:

First, it’s worth 25 points, easily enough to affect your grade.  Second, it will help you on other assignments.  Third, I’m having you do this instead of quizzes.


10 points for number of entries (if you want full credit, impress me)
10 points for quality of entries (same as above)
5 points for having it organized in a matter that makes it easy to understand

Activity 2

Scarlet Letter Discussion/Debates

In The Scarlet Letter there are many questions that seem like they have simple answers, but upon closer examination, they are more complex than they seem.  Tomorrow (Wednesday) we will debate several of these questions.  Each of you will be assigned a question and a side to argue. 

What to Do:

Prepare a 1-11⁄2 minute speech in which you argue your point.  Another person will argue the other side of the question.  Each of you will tell what your stance you are representing and offer support for your argument (citing the text).  After you have each argued your points, there will be a brief period for questions.  You may have notes when you present but do not simply read off of a paper.

What to Turn In:

Turn in notes that tell what question you are answering, which side you argued, and what your main points are.  Your notes should also include a summary of your position and the reasoning behind it.  You should also have a list of textual evidence (at least three quotations with page numbers) that support your stance. 

Points and Grading:

You will receive up to five points for delivering a fluent argument in class. You will receive up to ten points for having a well-prepared, well-organized sheet of notes to turn in. 

The Questions:


1.  Is Hester Prynne a victim?
2.  Is Hester Prynne ashamed or proud of her sin?
3.  Is Hester a good mother for Pearl?
4.  Does Hester deserve the punishment she received?


1.  Would Dimmesdale be better off if he confessed to his "sin"?
2.  Should a reader feel sympathy for Dimmesdale?
3.  Is Dimmesdale a good clergyman?
4.  Does Dimmesdale know (consciously or unconsciously) who Chillingworth really is?


1.  Is Roger Chillingworth an evil man?
2.  Is Chillingworth justified in his deep examination of Dimmesdale?
3.  If you were living in this town and you fell ill, would you go to Chillingworth to get better?
4.  Is Roger Chillingworth a wise man or a fool?

Overflow Question

To what extent is your character responsible or blameworthy for the adultery?  

Activity 3

The Scarlet Letter  Final Paper

This paper is a 2-3 page literary analysis.  You will be allowed to choose your own topic, but your paper should focus on the character you have been assigned.  Your paper should present an argument and be thesis driven.  This means that you will be required to form an interpretation and support it using the text.

By Thursday, you should have a topic chosen for your paper.  On a note card or sheet of paper, write what your preliminary thesis statement is.  You may decide to change it later, but I want to ensure that you are thinking about your papers.  This will be worth an all or nothing 5 points.

This paper will be due on Tuesday, November 9th. 


  • A title distinct to your paper

  • Thesis statement (A sentence in your introduction that summarizes your argument)

  • 2-3 pages, double spaced

  • Parenthetical documentation (no works cited/bibliography required)

Sample Topic Questions:

  • Each of these characters undergoes a change during the seven years between the beginning and end of the book.  How has your character evolved over time?
    What has been the toll of the 7 years?  Be specific (go beyond: Dimmesdale/Chillingworth gets worse).

  • All of these characters have two distinct sides that seem to be at odds (ie. Hester's pride and shame).  Identify two opposite sides of one character and argue which of them is dominant.

  • Compare two chapters that deal with your character (ie. 'Hester at the Needle' and 'Another View of Hester' or 'The Interior of a Heart' and 'Minister in a Maze').  What does an examination of these chapters tell us about a character or the relationships between two characters?

  • Choose a symbol that is closely associated with your character.  Why is this symbol associated with the character and what does it tell us about him/her?  Is the symbol constant or does it change over the course of the book?

  • Are there any points with regard to your character that you and another person in your group disagree on?  Write a paper that argues your side of the disagreement and have your friend write the opposite point of view.

  • All three of the main characters have a conflict between their conscious and unconscious desires.  Write a paper that identifies both of these desires and argue in favor of the one that ultimately controls them.

  • Adapt one of the questions from the discussion/debate for a paper.  You will need to narrow the topic and make it more specific. 

  • Choose a topic of your own and get it approved by Thursday at the end of class

13. Comparing cannons. After reading several texts from different cultural cannons (e.g. Native American, English, African), have students compare the cannons to which these texts belong. Students should answer questions such as, what types of literature are valued in each cannon? What types of characters are most frequently portrayed in the texts of each cannon?

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