A new semester is upon us, and because there’s something that keeps me from doing the same thing with each class, I’m switching things up a little bit this quarter. In the past, I’ve grounded my American Literature classes around literary movements. Even though students asked entirely unique questions and they may have each selected different books, they were always exploring those things under umbrellas like Romanticism or Modernism. And, that’s always worked fine. But I noticed that they weren’t doing as well as I would’ve liked on the common final exam, which is a synthesis essay defining what it means to be an American. So, I’m pushing myself into something new this quarter with my American Lit class–a new structure to better prepare them for a common final exam, to help them more aptly synthesize what they learn, and to allow them more time to reflect and prepare a course-level “So What?” artifact. I ask my students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones to work on skills that are challenging to them; why not challenge myself with something a little new, too?
The class began with a diagnostic unit, kicked off with a personal response piece that answers the final exam question–what does it mean to be an American? Next, I split them up into small groups, each assigned a single literary era to study. I maintained a lot of control over this mini-unit–assigning an essential question, the standards, the activities, and the assessment. However, students still documented their process through an adapted Inquiry Learning Plan template, and they were in charge of creating guiding questions as well as choosing their texts. Each group presented their findings to the class (a diagnostic for a few speaking and listening standards), and all students noted their greatest takeaways from each presentation. The kids took us through information they discovered from various texts about their literary eras: Colonial, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.
Afterwards, I handed out a list of thesis statements from their diagnostic essays–a sampling of voices from our contemporary literary era. I asked them to determine what their theses say about us now. Then, we applied their guiding questions to our experiences as Americans including:
What important events took place?
Who were the important authors?
Who were the most influential people?
What is the general tone of the period, and/or what emotions were expressed?
I recorded their responses as they spoke, and that became a basic list of themes or topics from our contemporary literary era. Our next step is to develop essential questions from those topics that will lead students into our first theme-based unit for which they will select one text from each era to study the theme’s treatment and/or development over time.
I will be posting periodically throughout the unit to let you know how it’s going. If you have any questions or thoughts on the process, please post in the comments below. I hope you will join us on this exciting adventure! I’m very much looking forward to learning in a new way with my students, and I welcome any feedback you might give.