Literature & Historical Background

Discussion in 'Secondary Education' started by Ms.H, Sep 4, 2011.

  1. Ms.H

    Ms.H Companion

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    Sep 4, 2011

    Hope your school years start (or are starting) off well!

    How do you integrate historical background information into English classes? Is it something you do assess on? Do you find a way to incorporate it into writing pieces? Or is it just a "good to know" sort of thing?

    I teach both a British Literature and a World Literature course. Both of these classes naturally have a component that involves learning about the historical and cultural context in which each piece of literature was written.

    However, I have trouble making this part meaningful. I sometimes feel like I tack it on like an FYI sort of thing. As we read I will sometimes point out or ask students to look for reflections of the philosophies of a given time period or something like that. Beyond that, though, I find I don't use the information a whole lot. If a student asked, "why did we have to take notes abou the Victorian era?" or "why did you give us that lecture about the Renaissance if it's not on a test?" I wouldn't be sure how to answer.

    I don't want to quiz or test them on every piece of information I give out in class. I don't really have time to review and reinforce the information enough to feel justified in testing them on it. They don't really need to know the order, names, and dates of the monarchs during the early Renaissance period in England. However, I think that going through the story of the way power was often shifting back and forth and the uncertainty that accompanied these events is helpful in understanding the values of the time and the messages in the literature, besides for being a just plain interesting story.


    Thanks for any comments/ ideas you can provide.
     
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  3. bandnerdtx

    bandnerdtx Aficionado

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    Sep 4, 2011

    This is always such a fine line for me, too. I teach American literature, and my BA is in history, so there have been times when I had to pump the brakes and remind myself of my course objectives. I think it's important to give *some* background information, but only enough to create a very basic framework. After that, I let the literature tell the story. As we analyze the characters or the scene, I'll explain history as needed.

    I've also found that if I do some nonfiction pieces from that time period FIRST and have them make predictions about the people and THEN do some notes and/or an overview, they remember it more.

    For example, we're studying Puritan literature right now, ending with a study of The Crucible (yes, I know it's not a Puritan piece, but that's where our district puts it...). First, we read some small snippets of Puritan pieces, about 6 total. Some of the snippets are just a few lines long, none is more than a paragraph. I pick things that I know will be relatively easy for them to understand. Then we make predictions and inferences about them through the writing. Next we read a longer piece (excerpts from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Plymouth Plantation). Then we watch a video (5 minutes or so) about Puritan influence on the "new world." THEN we take notes on the Puritans in preparation for reading the Crucible. That pattern seems to work best for us; it's the VESTED method: view, experience, speak, transform, extend, deliver. The "notes" don't occur until the "transform" part of the process.
     
  4. KatherineParr

    KatherineParr Comrade

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    Sep 4, 2011

    I work closely with our English teacher and we integrate our literature and history components. Frequently, the two mesh beautifully without any effort from us - students think it's magic but it's just that the course trajectories tend to work together.

    She likes to ask students to employ history as part of their analysis. So she teaches Rip Van Winkle in light of the temperance movement and Young Goodman Brown in terms of the Puritan anxiety about salvation. Likewise, Huckleberry Finn is useful to me, as is Cuckoo's Nest, because they reflect their times.

    I think the answer to a student question is that without the context you can't really understand what about that work made it so important in its time and such a reflection of that time for us to understand.
     
  5. dgpiaffeteach

    dgpiaffeteach Aficionado

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    Sep 4, 2011

    I just got done teaching Beowulf and we did a lot of analysis on what aspects of the story reflect Anglo-Saxon values. We talk a lot about the similarities and differences between their values and our values. I only give the historical background that is necessary to understand the text. Sometimes it's not as relevant so I won't say much about it. It's the same as sometimes I give them a very detailed author bio and sometimes I just give them the highlights. They get a quiz over the reading they do on different time periods but other than that it's not tested separately. One of their essay questions on the test is about the Anglo-Saxon values and how it applies to the story though.

    I am doing a Holocaust unit with the 10th grade history teacher. We're reading All But My Life.
     
  6. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Sep 4, 2011

    Blessings on you all for helping your students connect those dots.
     
  7. Ms.History

    Ms.History Rookie

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    Sep 6, 2011

    Communicate with your History department. There is nothing more frustrating than preparing a history lesson on the Salem Witch Trials, and then having students tell you they just learned the entire history of the Salem Witch Trials in English class that morning.
     
  8. dgpiaffeteach

    dgpiaffeteach Aficionado

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    Sep 6, 2011

    Ms.History, on the opposite end is when the history teacher won't cooperate with you. I'm trying to set something up with him for a Holocaust unit and he just has no interest in working with me. I was really hoping he would since the Holocaust is a pretty big unit to teach but oh well. I'm hoping he'll come around before then! He's a great teacher but this is a new job for him and he has the added duty of Dean of Students so I think he's just trying to get settled still.

    ETA: I also wanted to say that on the other end is the social studies teacher that I'm working with pretty much every day. He's awesome and we've already planned out some joint units! I love when it works!
     
  9. INteacher

    INteacher Aficionado

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    Sep 6, 2011

    But I know what my students learn in their American Lit class about the Salem is not what I will be teaching my students about Salem, the Puritans, and the witch trials in my History classes. While we, English and History, are teaching the same event, we certainly don't teach them for the same reasons.
     
  10. Varulfr

    Varulfr New Member

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    Sep 6, 2011

    As a historian I think working with the English dept. could be quite wonderful if done well.

    History is the study of people, the answering of two questions: "What do people do?" and "Why do people do the things they do?".

    I look at literature as a tool to answer those questions. Perhaps an English teacher looking at history for giving the "this is why we do this" bit might be helpful.

    Why do we learn about Victorian era literature? Because the things human beings create give you a snapshot of how their minds work, and if we want to know how our OWN minds work, and how we have changed over a hundred and fifty years, then we have to look at what people have created before us.

    I encourage you to track down the elusive history folk. Maybe get a "Critical Friends Group" going where you meet every few weeks or whatever to improve upon a single lesson brought in by a teacher. The different eyes gazing upon the lesson might be able to give you various ways to tackle it.
     
  11. KatherineParr

    KatherineParr Comrade

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    Sep 7, 2011

    Yes. I thought this, too. What they learn in English is quite different from what I teach in history.
     

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