A New Approach to Teaching American Literature

American Literature

Teaching American LiteratureWhen I first became an English teacher, there was one subject above all others that I intended to avoid:  American Literature—you know, that typically junior-level English course with everything from dry Puritan writings to indecipherable Huckleberry Finn dialect. What fun. Not only did the literature fail to excite me, but as an American myself, I deemed my country’s literature too close, too familiar. The stories of the rest of the world seemed more interesting and important. Yet, as it often happens in life, I found myself walking the very path I had intended to avoid. The assignment of teaching American Literature fell to me, and I reluctantly complied—knowing full well that it would be drudgery—a prediction that proved to be accurate during that first year teaching it. I chalked this defeat up to the subject matter and resolved to avoid it in the future whenever possible.

When the opportunity (demand) came to teach American Literature again a few years later, the prospect of more drudgery forced me to re-evaluate. Maybe the content was not the problem. Maybe I was. Perhaps my students hadn’t been engaged in the subject matter because I hadn’t been engaged.      

Sometimes in order to be a better teacher, you must become a better student. So the next time around I resolved to become a better student of the literature. I tried harder, I dug deeper, and in doing so I made a breakthrough. I developed a true passion for teaching American Literature.                    

As it turns out, the reasons I had first derided American Literature were actually some of its biggest assets. It was familiar, yes, but also applicable. (Anything students learn about their own country is something they can immediately apply.) The literature I had written off as simple and underdeveloped was actually complex and challenging—not to mention vital to the development of the country I call home. How could I not teach it?    What hooked me most the second time through was the realization that the United States of America began as an experiment—a balancing act of ideas and beliefs that barely received a chance to exist in the first place. Even today America is still a country locked in a constant struggle to hold true to its values while still extending itself toward new challenges. The experiment continues.         

At many points in American history, the experiment seemed doomed to fail, yet it survived—miraculously. Along the way, as America survived more obstacles, the country became more defined and developed a national identity. The literature of America is a map of this process, a record of our country’s development. At times the literature was simply a reflection of national struggles, and at other times it was actually a catalyst for those struggles, but at all times the literature was there—pushing America to become better. Key fiction and non-fiction pieces helped shape what it means to be an American.                                                                

In our time it seems that America is again facing an identity crisis. Some look to the past and say we have forgotten what made America great in the first place. Others look to the future and say America must change to meet the demands of the future. I posit that both sides are correct. The balancing act continues.                                             

Where will our young people fit in? Well, they are the future, so they must be educated—prepared to face the future problems of America. As an English teacher, I must teach them the only way I know how:  showing them how America has defined and redefined itself through its literature. In essence I am not just teaching American Literature; I am attempting to create better U.S. citizens through a better understanding of America itself—what it meant then and what it means now.                                                       

My tool for this lofty quest is the American Dream, the thread that runs through all American Literature. This dream was there from the very beginning, and it progressed from era to era, adapting itself to new challenges and concerns. Pilgrims and pioneers built their lives upon it. Great leaders enshrined it in law. Wars tested and tried it. Outcasts expanded its reach. Crises questioned its validity. New generations revived it and adopted it—making it their own. This dream is not only for the past but also the future. As I teach the American Dream, I encourage my students to embrace it for themselves in order to build their own lives and enrich their future. The dream lives on through them, and the experiment continues.

Certain texts have emerged as the “great works” in American Literature. While these works can be debated, vilified, and debased, they endure as great works for a reason: They capture the successes and failures of the American Dream in their own time period. Yet many of these texts are missing from most classrooms simply because they are inaccessible or indecipherable to the average high-school student. In order to immerse my students in a thorough survey of American Literature, I had to find a way for them to experience many important texts from America’s past in a single course. I turned to a classroom technique that I had found successful before: Reader’s Theater script-stories. This technique allows me to streamline the literature and better engage my students in a full-class learning experience. As another strategy, I use as much history as possible to round out the literature. To me history and literature are two sides of the same coin. History grounds literature in reality, while literature gives history a voice. Have I been successful? Over the years my students have responded well to the literature, thought deeply about its connection to America’s development, and written introspectively about what their country means to them. Have I equipped them to be the next stewards of America? Only time will tell.                                               

In the Searching for America series you will find the script-stories, which I have used to adapt many important fiction and non-fiction texts from American Literature. I have done my best to preserve the author’s intent and style, while still making their works more accessible to modern learners. Like me I hope you will see American Literature as an enjoyable and important subject to teach!

The first volume of  this series, Searching for America: The New World,  is now available through Amazon.com. This volume features 11 script-stories and includes the full story of The Scarlet Letter. To find out more click here.

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