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Five Ways to Spice Up American Literature

American Literature Teaching Ideas

Searching for America Textbook Series

I get it. Sometimes literature surveys can be boring, but they don’t have to be! In the old days, I avoided teaching American Lit. because I thought there was no way to spice it up. But I was wrong, and now it's one of my favorites. You can read more about that transformation here. 

Here are five simple ways to spice up your American Literature course!

1. Use some TV and film clips

  • When reading about the history of the Jamestown settlement, I incorporate a few clips from The New World to give my students a visual reference. I especially like the scene where Pocahontas saves John Smith’s life.  Click this link to watch it on YouTube.
  • I have added a few episodes of a TV show to my Early American Lit. unit: The show is Colonial House, a 2003 PBS reality TV show that places contestants back in the 1600s. Episodes are available for free on YouTube and run approximately 55 minutes (perfect for my class schedule). Be warned: Episodes 2 and 3 have skinnydipping scenes that high school viewers should skip! Here are some of the episodes I find useful!
    • Episode 1 shows the preliminary steps of setting up a colony and works well right after learning about the Pilgrims. Click here to see this episode.  
    • Episode 2 deals with colonial church services and works well right before “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Click here to see this episode.  
    • Episode 3 deals with colonial morality punishments (some of the contestants literally get scarlet letters) and works well right before we read The Scarlet Letter. Click here to see this episode.  
    • After these episodes the series loses some of its fidelity to 1600s life, and I do not use any episodes past episode 3.
2. Incorporate a game:
  • The New World Colony-Building Game: I created this game a few years ago as a SimCity-type city-builder game. Students have to use their money wisely as they construct different types of colonial-era buildings (barracks, pillory, trading post, etc.) in hopes that they will boost their number of colonists. Meanwhile, they have to make sure they are growing enough grain to support all their new residents. The game appears in this Searching for America textbook.
  • Witch Hunt: This is a social deduction game in the vein of Mafia (find out who the witches are!) I love to play when we are studying the Salem Witch Trials and The Crucible. The game plays just like Mafia, and you can create your own version by substituting Mafia "associates" for witches. Click here to read more about my version of the game. The game also appears in this Searching for America textbook.
  • Clash of the Characters:  In this activity students design their own literature-inspired video-game style fighting character to duke it out with their classmates. It's kind of fun to see Captain Ahab and Moby Dick duking it out. Click here to read more about this game.
3. Pair a text with a film:
  • Rather than reading The Crucible and then watching a film version of The Crucible, I prefer to pair that work with The Scarlet Letter. We read The Scarlet Letter and watch The Crucible then compare the themes. It’s a much more "higher-order thinking" exercise for the students.
    • Another example:  I read The Great Gatsby and watch Of Mice and Men (1992).  This makes for a great comparison of the Roaring 20's and the Great Depression.
4. Get out into nature:
  • So much of American Literature deals with appreciating and celebrating nature. Ironically, we read these inspirational passages sitting under fluorescent lighting and staring at concrete walls. One year when studying Emerson and Thoreau, I had the privilege of taking my students to the local state park (just a few miles from our school). The students spread out among the rocks and trees and wrote about what they saw. The results were amazing! I understand that maybe not everyone will have this luxury. Virtual tours of a state park are an option: Check out these virtual tours offered by Yellowstone:  At the very least, take your students out to the school lawn. That will be a little bit of nature!

5. Incorporate script-stories: 

  • You probably guessed this one was coming! I am a firm believer in the power of script-stories. Script-stories give students an active role in literature. Use some of the free scripts available here to intro classic works like The Scarlet Letter, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry FinnYou won't believe the results! Check out these free resources here.  And if you like using the free ones, check out the Searching for America series.

Bonus tip:  If you study Native American Literature at any point during your survey of American Literature, make sure you check out the free presentation we have available on the site. It adds some visual flair and student choice to the content! Click here to see it! Click here to make your own copy through Google Docs.


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