Introduction to the Searching for America Series
When 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 elective 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, it just seemed too familiar. The cultures of the rest of the world seemed more thrilling, more exotic, and, therefore, more interesting. Yet, as so often things go 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. My predictions proved to be true: The year was drudgery. My students were not engaged—simply because I was not.
There was an interval of a few years before I was required to teach American Literature again. In the meantime I had sworn it off: “I tried it, and it’s not for me. Some people like that stuff, but I don’t.” However, when the opportunity (demand) came around again, the thought of another year of drudgery caused me to re-evaluate. Maybe the content was not the problem. Maybe I was.
Over the next few years of teaching American Literature, my viewpoint changed. I learned that the reasons I had avoided it were actually some of its biggest assets. Its familiarity had failed to interest me: I wanted to learn about far-off places, other countries and cultures—not my own. But while familiarity can breed apathy, it is a by-product of applicability. Anything you learn about your own country is something you can immediately apply. And the more I gave American Literature a chance, the more complex and interesting the familiar, old texts became. Sometimes in order to be a better teacher we must become a better student. I became a better student of American Literature and in the process discovered my passion for teaching it.
A shift in focus was required, too. I determined that I was not just going to teach American Literature—I was going to teach American culture…to a bunch of Americans. On the surface this sounds ridiculous, but just because we speak English does not mean we understand how it works. Right, grammar teachers? And just because we live in America does not mean we understand how it functions or why it is such a privilege. My ultimate goal became this: To create better citizens through a better understanding of American history and literature.
To me the key to understanding American culture is the American Dream. As I looked into early 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 it and tried it. Outcasts expanded its reach. Crises questioned its validity. New generations revived it and adopted it—making it their own. Here was something that my students could apply to their own lives and enrich their future. So I used the theme of the American Dream as a thread to draw students into the literature.
The great works of American Literature can be debated, vilified, and debased, but they endure as the great works for a reason. They are the works that capture the successes and failures of the American Dream in their own time. Yet many of these texts are missing from most classrooms simply because they are inaccessible or incoherent to the average high-school student. My mission became this: to create a new way for students to experience important texts. To accomplish this, I turned to a classroom technique that I had found successful in the past—Reader’s Theater script-stories.
Silent reading is a valuable and necessary educational tool, but it does not energize a classroom atmosphere. It also fails to engage reluctant readers. By turning classic American fiction and non-fiction texts into Reader’s Theater script-stories, I was able to achieve both of my goals: Streamlining American classics that were too burdensome to fit into a typical high-school course and engaging my students in a full-class learning experience. Instead of reading about Captain Ahab, they got to be Captain Ahab.
As another strategy, I decided to use history to round out the literature. To me they are two sides of the same coin. History grounds the literature in reality while the literature gives history a voice. Therefore, my American Literature course also became a chronological trip through American history.
In the Searching for America series you will find many important fiction and non-fiction texts from American Literature and history. It is true that I have adapted them, but I have done so with the utmost care for preserving the author’s intent and style, while still making them more accessible to modern learners. I hope you will find these materials as useful as I have. Since American Literature is now one of my favorite courses to teach, I hope that it will be yours.