Teaching American Literature: My Units & Favorite Lessons

TEACHING AMERICAN LITERATURE

I am heading into my fifth year of teaching American literature, and I absolutely love it. I am thankful that I’ve been able to develop my curriculum and refine my lessons and practices over time. Knowing I have a collection of engaging, effective lessons makes planning for a new school year less daunting. Instead of getting stressed, I can get excited about teaching some of my favorite lessons and finding new, creative ways to tweak them. 

But I know how it feels to be completely overwhelmed with the thought of American literature because there are so many texts, themes, options, and approaches. I also know how helpful it is to merely glance at another teacher’s ideas and plans, so I decided to spread the American Lit love by offering you a glimpse into how I teach my class.  At my school, this course is offered at the 11th grade level, and it is the standard English class for students who are not taking AP.

This blog post is not a comprehensive curriculum map, but rather, an outline with a few of my favorite activities for each unit and some thoughts on what I plan on changing this year. I do plan on writing blog posts for each unit that I mention below, so you can look forward to those for even more information. Also, this is just a look at Semester I, so stay tuned for another post of Semester II.

Happy planning!

UNIT 1: American Perspectives & the American dream

This is a mini-unit that serves as the foundation for my year-long American literature course. In the past, we’ve specifically focused on the American dream, but this year we are taking an approach to incorporate more unique voices from diverse writers. Inevitably, we will discuss the American dream from the perspective of different individuals, but we aren’t locking ourselves into the “dream.” This mini-unit is a way to expose students to key ideas, questions, and themes that we will encounter throughout the year. Additionally, this unit allows us to preview essential skills and obtain some writing samples that will help inform our instruction.

That being said, my two favorite activities do involve the American dream, but both of these are great ways to introduce different perspectives and voices.The first activity is actually a genius (not my own idea) simulation that introduces students to the concepts of privilege and social mobility, and thus, the American dream. You can read more about it here, but essentially, you put a trash can at the front of the room and instruct students to create a paper ball. Students must stay in their seats, and they get only one chance to make the basket. Students in the back quickly get frustrated and voice their complaints, while the few privileged students in the front often make the shot.

When I do this activity, I hype it up and don’t provide any context, because I want my students to discover the purpose of this simulation on their own. After everyone has a shot and I reward the winners with candy, I ask the students: “Why do you think we just did this activity?” and we discuss the symbolism of the trash can as the American dream. This simulation really opens up students’ eyes to the reality of the American dream. Many of the students in the back of the room don’t even have a clear view of the trash can (the dream), because there are so many people (obstacles, inequalities, etc.) in their way. After we discuss the game as a class, I facilitate reflective writing. I ask students to consider how this game influenced their thinking and what they would like to learn more about as we progress through the unit.

My other favorite activity involves analyzing political cartoons that comment on the American dream. I have this as a freebie in my TPT store! I actually do this lesson in the learning stations format, so each cartoon is a different station. A quick Google search will gives you lots of options for cartoons.

Like I said, I am tweaking this unit a bit this year, so stay tuned to my Instagram and this blog because I hope to share the new things I do.

UNIT 2: Hysteria and “The Crucible”

Our first full-length unit is anchored in a study of hysteria through Arthur Miller’s tragedy, “The Crucible.” We analyze the play as an allegory for McCarythism/the Red Scare and focus on Miller’s purpose in writing. 

The best part of this unit is simply acting out the play, but I also love all of the pre-reading activities we do to introduce students to Puritanism. My hook is a fun “How Puritan Are You?” Quiz that previews the values and practices of Puritanism in an engaging way. I also love teaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” simply because it freaks the students out so much. I stand on my desk and channel fiery rage as I reenact the sermon for my students. You can check out my activities for this here. I have all of my Crucible activities in a growing bundle that you can find here and I will be adding more to this in the coming weeks!

My other favorite lesson that I do for pre-reading is actually a different simulation called the Dot Activity. Once again, I did not create this, but it’s seriously the BEST way to show students how hysteria unfolds and how individuals were targeted during the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare. You can read more about the Dot Activity here, but here’s a breakdown: You give students index cards; most are blank, but a few have red dots, and the goal of the game is for students to form groups that are dot-free. You let the students run wild for 5-10 minutes and watch the madness as students quickly begin accusing others. At the end of the time period, the group with the largest number of non-dots wins. If a dot has infiltrated a group, that group is disqualified. Students will get SO into this game, so beware. Last year, my students got so loud that a neighboring teacher let me know we could be heard beyond the four walls of my room. Whoops!

I have a few changes in the works for this unit, because I am cutting down the time I spend on it in order to make room for some more writing in other units. To accomplish this, I am going to teach “The Crucible” as a literary analysis/film analysis hybrid unit. We will likely watch all of Act 3 and parts of Act 4, pulling in excerpts to supplement the film. I’m a firm believer in the power of film analysis as a tool to scaffold literary analysis. I actually wrote a bit about how I facilitate film analysis in this post about students who struggle with reading.

UNIT 3: Revolutionary Rhetoric

To study persuasion and argumentation, we analyze the texts and speeches of the American Revolution, as well as more modern texts. Then, students select relevant topics for 1:1 Lincoln-Douglas debates. This year, I am going to incorporate more student choice by providing other options beyond the traditional debate. I’m thinking some kind of multimedia project where students create a website, podcast, PSA, letter to a legislator, etc. Formal debates will still be an option, but I don’t want to force students to debate when they can demonstrate their mastery of the standards in their own unique way that suits their individual learning styles.

My favorite part of this unit is actually my favorite lesson OF ALL TIME: Speed Debating! I am not exaggerating when I say this! This is a lesson that gets every single student engaged, which is a rare feat when you teach high school English. It is so student-directed and engaging that you can just float around the room and “watch the magic happen,” as I like to say. 🙂 During this activity, students participate in mini impromptu debates over various topics, some silly and some serious…but all guaranteed to spark some friendly controversy! Students are challenged to use as many rhetorical appeals and devices as possible, and they track their opponents’ use of these strategies as well. If you want more information on speed debating, check out my blog post here.

Another fun lesson is my Rhetorical Devices Question Trail, an engaging, kinesthetic activity that gets students moving around the room to identify examples of rhetorical devices in songs. A question trail is an activity comprised of different multiple choice “stations” or “spots.” These questions are posted throughout the classroom. At each station, students answer a multiple choice question. Each answer (a, b, c, or d) will send the students to a different station. If students answer each question correctly, they will travel to each station and complete a full circuit. If students answer a question incorrectly, they will eventually find themselves at a station they’ve already completed, which tells them that they need to backtrack. This gives you clear, immediate feedback. You will quickly see who is getting it (“on the trail”) vs. who is not (“off the trail”).

UNIT 4: The Pursuit of Happiness & Transcendentalism

In this unit, we study the traditional Transcendental texts of Emerson and Thoreau before reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. I hook students with another fun “How Transcendental Are You?” Quiz and use learning stations to preview key tenets of Transcendentalism. I also like to show the movie trailer for Into the Wild and ask students to make predictions about the text. I’ve found that Into the Wild is a gem of book that engages some of my most reluctant male readers, especially the outdoorsy types! If you teach Transcendentalism, it’s worth checking out, even if you only use excerpts from the text. You can check out all of my Transcendentalism products here and my Into the Wild resources here.

My favorite part of this unit is our culminating assessment: the Socratic seminar. I love all Socratic seminars, but this one in particular always ends up warming my teacher heart because the students have such rich discussions about the pursuit of happiness, nonconformity, the role of nature, and other relevant themes. The question “Is Chris McCandless a hero or a narcissist?” always prompts a controversial debate among students.

That wraps up my first semester of teaching American literature. Because this blog post is already long, I will continue with Semester II in a second post. If you’re already planning and want to get a sneak peek at at the rest of my year, here’s a Semester II outline with links to some of my resources:

UNIT 5: Romanticism

UNIT 6: Synthesis Writing

UNIT 7: Harlem Renaissance

UNIT 8: The Great Gatsby

Share:

9 Comments

  1. Jennifer Watson
    July 21, 2018 / 4:36 pm

    This is awesome! Thank you!

    How many weeks would you say you spend on each of these units during first semester?

  2. Jeni
    July 21, 2018 / 10:40 pm

    Hi Abby,
    I love following you and your work. I will be teaching a course this fall which is the only course we really teach American Lit at the school, but we call it Lang and Lit. We get 1 semester with our 10th graders to cram as much as we can in, then the second semester they move to our Composition class which basically prepares them to write a research paper. Our school’s student project, which is also a graduation requirement, is that they write a research paper during their 11th-grade year on their own using what they learned in the class. They pick a topic complete the paper and give a speech. I have taught this class a couple of times and neither time have I been completely happy about it. Just wondering if you had only a semester to teach what would you do from all of your American Lit curricula. I haven’t really done Gatsby before because the AP teacher likes to do it with her AP students. Just looking for some input from others on their ideas. I loved teaching the Crucible and the Puritan work, a Raisin in the Sun and some of the Civil Rights, I have loved teaching of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, but then I feel bad I never get to the poetry and they often miss all of the great American Poets. Any ideas or input would be so appreciated!

  3. July 22, 2018 / 1:01 am

    I love the idea of the dot game! I’m starting the year with Crucible, so I’ll definitely have to give that a shot.

  4. Jennifer
    July 24, 2018 / 5:12 am

    What is your pacing for the units? About how long do you spend on each one?

  5. Dina Patterson
    July 27, 2018 / 1:14 pm

    These ideas sound awesome.

  6. Shara Troutner
    July 27, 2018 / 2:06 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m teaching American Literature for the first time this year, and I’m so excited with your ideas!

  7. Cambria Alford
    July 29, 2018 / 6:13 pm

    This is SO helpful for me, as I’m about to teach American Lit for the first time. How long do you spend on each unit? Also, how can I see what you do for the last four units?

  8. August 6, 2018 / 5:03 pm

    Thanks for this! I am teaching American Lit for the second time this year and I know I have a LOT to revamp to make it better. I just put together that I bought your Harlem Renaissance bundle last year and really enjoyed using it. Thank you for sharing what you do!

  9. JOAN
    September 19, 2018 / 10:09 pm

    Hi! Are the political cartoons no longer a freebie? Thanks!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *