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Closer Readings

66 Posts authored by: EDSITEment NEH

ESDN-wcs_nyaquarium_2016-pc-697.jpgFranky Abbott is an ACLS Public Fellow working on outreach, education, and content-related projects for DPLA. She has worked at a variety of academic institutions on digital programs and projects and as a 1012 grade English teacher and college-level instructor. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University.


The Digital Public Library of America is a free online library that provides access to books, photographs, maps, audiovisual materials, and more from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States. At its one-year anniversary this week, DPLA includes 7 million items from more than 1,100 U.S. based partners. It is a one-stop shop where teachers and students can easily find primary sources and other materials from a wide range of institutions, from small historical societies to large national archives.  All items have been curated and vetted by cultural heritage professionals. No registration or subscription is required.



DPLA aims to expand the realm of openly available materials and make these riches more easily discovered and more widely usable in three ways:

  • A portal for discovery. DPLA delivers digital resources to students, teachers, scholars, and the public, wherever they may be in America. Browse partner content using a map, timeline, virtual bookshelf, and exhibitions. Search using facets to refine results by date, location, type, language, subject, and more.
  • A platform opening our cultural heritage. With an application programming interface (API) and maximally open data, DPLA can be used by software developers, researchers, and student coders to create novel environments for learning, tools for discovery, and engaging apps. Its growing app library includes apps for visual exploration and serendipitous discovery, apps that integrate DPLA content into library systems and other online resources, and mobile apps that show resources related to the user’s geographic location.
  • An advocate for a strong public option in the twenty-first century. For most of our nation’s history, the ability to access materials for free through public libraries has been a central part of our culture, producing generations of avid readers and a knowledgeable, engaged citizenry. DPLA works, along with like-minded organizations, to ensure that this critical, open intellectual landscape remains vibrant and broad. DPLA seeks to multiply openly accessible materials to strengthen the public option that libraries represent in their communities.

Uses in the Classroom

DPLA offers teachers movement toward educational goals that align with Common Core State Standards: helping students build digital literacy and 21st-century skills and teaching students to work critically with primary sources. It represents the kind of online resource that students will increasingly navigate as they grow as researchers. As such, it helps refine their critical searching skills, helps them to better assess the relevance of resources and to develop an understanding of how to interpret contextual record information and build citations. A search for “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” for example, will yield more than 2,277 results from 100 institutions in a variety of formats: text, image, sound, and moving image. Students can use a faceted search to focus on specific aspects of MLK’s life and work. For example, they can use the map feature to identify items related to MLK’s birthplace—Atlanta, Georgia—and the timeline to highlight items from 1968, the year of his assassination.DPLA provides tutorials and help with searching, browsing, and the creation of accounts in order to save and share lists, both privately and publicly. These activities help students to focus search results and research questions for a particular research topic. A search activity can be completed alone or within a larger project to align with Common Core Anchor Standards for English Language Arts in Writing such as: 7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation and 8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Primary Sources

Use DPLA to tap an abundance of primary sources. You can find online exhibitions that tell the story of a significant topic or event by pairing readings with relevant primary sources. Here is a sampling of popular topics in history/social studies and science:

Research and reading activities incorporate these exhibitions and align with Common Core State Anchor Standards for English Language Arts Literacy in Reading such as 7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively as well as words and 9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Exhibitions offer a curated approach, but DPLA content can offer a wealth of other primary source possibilities for teachers and students searching and browsing the collection. A small fraction of the available examples that could help meet similar CCSS objectives include:


Opportunities for Educator Involvement

DPLA’s easy-to-install search widget can be used to add a DPLA search box to any course, library, or other school website.


For educators engaging students in coding activities, DPLA offers instructions and support for work with the DPLA API for app building.


The DPLA Community Reps program recruits representatives from the public to work with the project in their local communities. The first class of reps—100 reps from 36 states and 2 international countries—includes a strong cohort of teachers, school librarians, media specialists, and curriculum developers who believe in DPLA’s open mission and its value as a resource. These reps use the project with classes of students and share it with colleagues, and then provide the organization with use cases and feedback. This supports DPLA’s plans to develop future education partnerships and design new education resources.


DPLA is now accepting applications for a second class of community reps and we’re specifically looking to grow our group of educators. The deadline is April 30, 2014.



Aquarium, Battery Park, New York City [Postcard], ca. 1931. From the New York Aquarium Postcards collection of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives. Via Empire State Digital Network. http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16124coll7/id/83

http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/vansweevelt/lookingglass/4.jpgInaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together lovers of poetry from around the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Along the way, the Academy has enlisted a variety of government agencies and officials, educational leaders, publishers, sponsors, poets, and arts organizations to help.


EDSITEment has been involved in this annual effort since the project’s inception in 1997. Over the years, EDSITEment has created features with a variety of themes highlighting the best open source resources to teach poetry in the classroom.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


New Poetry Resource for the Common Core

This year EDSITEment has created a new feature: National Poetry Month Exemplars: Poetry for the Common Core.


The poetry selections within this new feature represent Common Core State Standards Exemplars (ELA: Appendix B.) You’ll find examples of classic and contemporary poets and poems that can be integrated into your English Language Arts classroom to meet the new grade level standards of elementary, middle, and high school levels of college and career readiness. For each of the twenty-three poems or poetic forms included, there is a link to the poem and a host of open-source multimedia resources to teach it.


These multimedia resources include EDSITEment lessons as well as EDSITEment-reviewed websites that discuss the poem, its context, and the poet. Media incorporated in these resources include audio clips, video, primary source documents, and photographs, along with other useful tools such as student-driven interactives. The resources relate to each poem and offer unique ways to build the content and skills for understanding poetry with English Language Arts classes. It is part of EDSITEment’s continuing commitment to support the success of teachers and students in meeting the Common Core State Standards initiative.


EDSITEment also offers a literary glossary of terms cross-referenced with EDSITEment lessons. The glossary serves as a convenient tool for poetic devices and forms as students work through the close readings of the poems and lesson activities.


New Poet-to-Poet Project

This year, the American Academy of Poets is offering students a new way to engage with memorable poetry. For National Poetry Month, the Academy is introducing their Poet-to-Poet Project, a multimedia educational opportunity that invites young people in grades 3–12 to write poems in response to those shared by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.


For students to participate in Poet-to-Poet, have them watch the videos linked below, which show the Chancellors reading and discussing their poems. Then, have students write an original poem as a response. Email the poem to the American Academy of Poets at poet2poet@poets.org by the April 30, 2014 deadline. Please have students include their name and the name of the Chancellor poet who inspired their poem. The Academy will consider all student poems for publication on Poets.org in May 2014.


Teachers interested in using Poet-to-Poet in the classroom can tap into a series of activities developed by the Academy to align with the Common Core. EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation also offers Common Core State Standards Text Exemplars: Poems to integrate into your English Language Arts classroom.


Previous Annual National Poetry Month Resources from EDSITEment



Anne Vansweevelt, The Jabberwocky, 2005. Acrylic paint on canvas laid on panel. Courtesy of Victorian Web.

Photograph of a low stone wall on farmland in Derry, N.H. once owned by poet Robert Frost. Some believe this area inspired Frost to write his poem, "Mending Wall." Source: AP, May 29, 2011. Courtesy NBC Learn K-12The Robert Frost Farm website hosts a Teachers' Resources page with EDSITEment and READWRITETHINK lessons on the poet.


               SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall,

               That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

               And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

               And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.


for-frost.jpgRobert Frost opens one of his most famous poems, “Mending Wall,” by remarking on gaps in a traditional New England stone wall used to separate the property of two neighbors. He surmises this wall has been compromised by “SOMETHING” — a supernatural force (perhaps “elves” as he suggests later in the poem). Whatever force is responsible, it clearly doesn’t appreciate the fact that this wall exists. The actual cause for this breach in the wall is not “hunters” but a natural phenomenon. The ground underneath the wall has expanded due to winter cold causing its stones to lift and become dislodged. Frost observes the resulting gaps caused by this expansion are so wide that two people can move through them side by side. Frost goes on to clarify his meaning.


The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.



Thus, Frost enlists his neighbor (and the readers) in the annual spring task to “walk the line” and re-set this wall. Good neighbor that he is, Frost is careful to keep the boundary between them as they do.


The Common Core State Standards suggests using “Mending Wall” as an exemplar to teach poetry in Grades 11–College and Career Readiness [p.161 in Appendix B: Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949. (1914)].

EDSITEment’s lesson, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall": A Marriage of Poetic Form and Content, guides students through a close reading, line-by-line, analysis of the poem to arrive at an understanding of why Frost chooses and places certain words within the poem to shape its meaning.


Close Reading of the Poem


By performing a close reading, students can begin to comprehend Frost’s masterful integration of form and content. Moreover, a close analysis into how Frost structures “Mending Wall” also speaks directly to the following Common Core Anchor Standard:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Activity 1 of this lesson directly addresses form by having students carefully examine the rhythm and meter of the first four lines (see the poem’s opening lines, above) and note the rhythmic changes in line four. From a content perspective, students will observe how this same line introduces “the gaps” in the wall. The form of the line, which projects a rhythmically, more unruly line that those preceding it, itself has breaks (gaps) in rhythm. Here is the first glimpse of Frost's marriage of form and content in this poem.


The rest of the lesson is based on this fundamental technique of observation, which gives students the tools to discern how formal change, repetition, and word relationships affect the meaning and significance of content. With the help of the worksheet, "Frost's Form and Content" in Activity 2, students can move on to an analysis of Frost’s figurative language, word relationships, and word meaning, which encourages discussion of the broader themes through group work. The following questions help unpack these themes:


  • How do we describe the speaker and his tone? How do we describe the neighbor? How do they compare?
  • What is the meaning and significance of the word "mending" in both the poem's title and in the action carried throughout the poem? (Notice how the word can be used as both an adjective and an action.)
  • In what way(s) does Frost directly and indirectly use this word? Does anything else in the poem need mending?
  • In what ways do "walls" become metaphorical and/or symbolic in the poem?
  • Why does the neighbor think that "good fences make good neighbors"? Why does Frost choose to close the poem on this note?

Deeper Analysis of the Craft and Structure


Once the first level of understanding has been demonstrated, students are ready to make the descent into the subterranean meanings within the poem. This level of reading addresses the more subtle figurative and metaphorical levels of language noted in the following Common Core Standard:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)


Activity 3 encourages students to focus on the poem's form in relation to themes they have identified and discussed. A teacher's version of the worksheet contains a helpful analysis of selected lines. Frost employs the word “gaps” and the word “walls” by playing with form to convey the multiple meanings of these antonyms and to get their figurative and connotative meanings across. The following questions (with suggested responses in brackets) are designed to encourage students’ understanding.


  • What “gaps” are coming up in this poem?
    [The breach in the physical space between the neighbors on either side of the wall; the emotional emptiness within their neighborly relationship.]
  • Can such emotional gaps be deeper even than the one under repair? How does Frost make these all too human gaps evident?
    [The superficial conversation exchanged by the neighbors in the poem. The neighbor doesn't understand the nuances of the speaker's comments and the speaker doesn't understand his neighbor's attachment to provincial clichés.]
  • What “walls” are being built in this poem?
    [The repetition of the word “walls” literally creates them within the poem and underline the physical walls that exist between neighbors; the “father’s saying” becomes a figurative wall — the neighbor’s belief in it without questioning perpetuates it.]
  • What is being “walled in” and “walled out” here? Does Frost think human beings should love “walls” and try to keep them up or like nature is it better to have walls come down?
    [As Frost tells us there are “no cows” to keep contained, each neighbor’s property—one containing pine trees and one containing apple trees—are being walled in; two different personalities are being walled out.]
  • Ask students to frame ultimate questions around the gaps and walls that surface in this poem?
    [Why can’t the gaps that divide human personalities be fixed as easily as natural (or supernatural) forces break down a wall? How can a broken wall between two properties be built up with effort, but an authentic relationship between two neighbors cannot be willed?]


For a culminating activity, have students to explain how Frost shoots the old cliché in the foot to arrive at a fresh understanding of this truth: Good fences do not (necessarily) good neighbors make!


Additional EDSITEment resources for teaching “Mending Wall”



EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation cites “Mending Wall” as the leading poem responsible for establishing Frost as “a major force in modern poetry.”


Mary Downs and Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, NEH Program Officers, Division of Preservation and Access


Last week’s blog post introduced Chronicling America, a deep repository of historic American newspapers covering the years 1836–1922. Students can use newspapers available through Chronicling America to expose the rich texture of the women’s rights movement and its many milestones, meetings, and debates right from the beginning and in a way that few other resources can. As an added bonus, they will be working with the kind of complex informational texts that the Common Core English Language Standards recommends. In what follows, we'll be suggesting articles written from a variety of points of view that make arguments based on appeals to evidence.


Seneca Falls Convention

Let’s begin with the coverage of early women’s rights advocates, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who planned a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women’s role in society in July 1848.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


Convention attendees boldly prepared a “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled on the Declaration of Independence, delineating the “civil, social, political, and religious rights” of women. After some debate, delegates decided to also include in the declaration women’s suffrage the right to vote. Some observers at the time were quite dismissive of the convention. A write-up in the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania Jeffersonian Republican reported that:


The women of Seneca Falls had a convention at which they put forth a “declaration of independence” asserting that men and women were created equal. This being a leap year, the women have a perfect right to make “declarations” of any descriptions without impunity.


Despite such mocking, the organizers held similar meetings over the next two years in Rochester, New York, and in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Many years later, a New York newspaper article reporting on the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, pointed to the foundation for women’s rights laid at Seneca Falls.


The West advances the right to vote

Yet, it was not in the East but in the West where women first gained voting rights. Contemporary observers attributed the early adoption of women’s suffrage in the western states to various factors, including the unconventional personalities of those who settled there, the need to attract women to an area populated primarily by men, or simply a ploy to solidify power by expanding the voter base.


In 1890, Wyoming was the first state to grant women full suffrage, followed in quick succession by Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. In Utah, the Evening Dispatch proclaimed that women’s suffrage “went into the constitution with a whoop.”


Soon newspapers were debating the effects. An 1894 article in the Kansas Agitator entitled “Wyoming Leads in Morals,” suggested that, because women in Wyoming had the right to vote, the state had a smaller ratio of criminals in the population than the “supposedly most civilized” northeastern states.” According to the article, Wyoming’s improvement from its roots as “the most barbarous and murderous [place] on the continent” stemmed from the civilizing influence of women’s participation in public affairs. “The air of liberty,” stated the article, “breeds purity.”


The Reform Movement

In the West as in the East, the mouthpiece for hashing out issues involving women’s rights was found in the local press, in which women took an active role. For example, until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1878, married women in Oregon had no property rights, and any wages women earned legally belonged to their husbands.


Abigail Scott Duniway, known as “Oregon’s Mother of Equal Suffrage,” published The New Northwest in Portland from 1871 to 1887. Like many suffragists, Duniway advocated reforms beyond women’s enfranchisement, including temperance, wage equality, the right of women to own property, and the rights of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. The New Northwest was “a journal for the people…not a women’s rights, but a human rights organ, devoted to whatever policy may be necessary to secure the greatest good for the greatest number.” One of its earliest battles was for economic rights for women. In 1912, when Oregon became the seventh state to grant women suffrage, the state’s governor asked Duniway to draft and sign the equal suffrage proclamation.



From the beginning, women’s suffrage was closely connected with the movement for temperance and intertwined in the public discussion of women’s rights. For some observers, this connection was natural. Alice Stone Blackwell, a prominent journal editor, defended suffrage on many grounds, observing that it would increase the amount of “dry” territory in the United States and reduce the “power of the saloon in politics.” On the other hand, a critical article in the Ogden [Utah] Standard asked, “Is Woman’s Suffrage Throwing John Barleycorn?”  and sought to separate the demand for suffrage from the prohibition of alcohol, pointing out that the earliest states to adopt woman suffrage, Wyoming and Utah, had not become dry decades after women got the right to vote there.


The Antis

As the women’s rights movement gained momentum, so did opposition. The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, founded in 1897, asked “Why force women to vote?




National American Woman Suffrage Association Parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

NHD-logo.jpg National History Day,held every year in June at the University of Maryland College Park, is a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in a serious academic competition in the humanities. Last year 600,000 students took part, along with 25,000 teachers. In the age of the Common Core State Standards, this exemplary program should be on the radar of every teacher, student, and parent.


Tens of thousands of volunteers—lawyers, journalists, archivists, historians, curators, educators, and others from many walks of life—serve as judges at the program’s local, state, and national contests. National History Day participants come from all fifty states, Washington, D.C., Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Defense Department schools overseas, and international schools in China, South Korea, and Indonesia.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


The research process

Every fall, students start research on historical topics of their own choosing within a broad theme—this year it is “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Next year the theme will be “Leadership & Legacy in World History.” Students must make choices about the topic and their research. They must find, analyze, and present a variety of complex informational texts, especially primary sources. This “allows them to take ownership of learning; it makes learning an exciting endeavor,” says the director of National History Day, Cathy Gorn. Some students start in sixth grade and participate every year, she adds. “We had one who said, ‘history is not my favorite subject, but I love History Day.’”


The different ways to present

Students also have to decide how to best present their findings. National History Day “started from the science-fair model, with the choice of doing a paper or an exhibit,” says Gorn. “We added documentaries, live performances, and, more recently, websites.” The variety helps students see that “history works in all kinds of fields, from Ken Burns [type] documentaries to museums.” With the inclusion of a website option, “there was a big jump in participation, because teachers got other kids interested. And, lo and behold, they produced the websites, and they learned history, too.”


How NEH supports NHD

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been a supporter of National History Day since the program began in 1965. NEH grants were instrumental in helping National History Day grow from a pilot start-up project in Ohio into a national (and growing international) program.


Recently, NEH sponsored a series, “Advice from Experts.” Teacher and students asked real questions and heard advice from experts in the fields of documentary filmmaking, websites, exhibitions, performance, and research papers in the format of engaging one-hour Google Hangouts that are archived on EDSITEment’s Chronicling America portal.


The EDSITEment connection

Last year for the first time, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded prizes to students who incorporated research using Chronicling America (a free online database of five million pages of historic U.S. newspapers dating from 1836 to 1922,and digitized through a partnership between NEH and the Library of Congress) into their projects. To accompany the new prize category, EDSITEment, NEH’s educational website, also created a set of online resources around Chronicling America to assist students and educators in using the newspapers in historical research.

Two $1,000 Chronicling America awards were made last year. The junior individual documentary award went to Richard Hernasy for “Unexpected Verdict: The Trial of John Peter Zenger.” The senior individual documentary winner was Joanna Slusarewicz for “It's a Jungle Out There: Upton Sinclair Turns the Tables on the Chicago Meatpackers and the Food Industry.”

Churchill.jpgI must say Winston’s speech echoes the sentiments of all. None but he could have said it.

—Pierson Dixon, British Foreign Officer


Last year we highlighted how the writings of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) could profitably engage students in the study of informational texts through their well-crafted language and arguments. “Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” the speech Churchill delivered as he took office as Prime Minister during the dark days of World War II, is listed as an informational text illustrating the kind of  complexity, quality, and range expected in student reading.


Yet Churchill’s most famous and influential speech was given after the war, after his party was defeated in the election of 1945, at a small college in the American heartland that became, for one day, the center of the world. Churchill delivered “The Sinews of Peace”—commonly remembered for its description of the “iron curtain” that had descended on Europe—in the presence of President Harry Truman on March 5, 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Almost 70 years later, it is still worth study for its own sake and for what it tells us about the origins of the Cold War.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


Important agreements regarding the postwar world had been reached by the American, Soviet Union, and Britain leaders at Yalta and Potsdam, but the Soviets wasted no time in violating them. For an overview of the European situation as seen by American policy makers, see the background sections of  two EDSITEment lessons, Victory and the New Order in Europe and The Sources of Discord.


Churchill intended to visit the United State early in 1946 for a holiday, but he also yearned for a chance to make a political impact, perhaps by addressing Congress. When no such offer came, he seized on an invitation to speak at Westminster College because President Truman promised to go there with him (hence so would the world’s press).


Some historians have argued that the Cold War started with this speech. Other have pointed out that Churchill  said little more than President Truman and his key advisors already thought but dared not say just yet: That the proper means of responding to an international bully like Stalin was a credible threat of force. In fact, diplomat George F Kennan had already said this in his “Long Telegram” from Moscow to the State Department a month before Churchill’s speech.


Because of his great reputation, Churchill’s speech became a key moment in the start of the Cold War. Only a man who had warned throughout the 1930s of the danger that the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany posed to peace, could tell the world:


Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. …


This can only be achieved by reaching now, in 1946, a good understanding on all points with Russia under the general authority of the United Nations Organisation and by the maintenance of that good understanding through many peaceful years, by the world instrument, supported by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections. There is the solution which I respectfully offer to you in this Address to which I have given the title “The Sinews of Peace.”


As private citizen Churchill could go out on a limb, denouncing Russian aggression and calling for an Anglo-American alliance to confront Stalin. At first, much but by no means all American and British reaction was hostile to this “warmongering” but as events moved on it came to seem necessary and Churchill as both brave and prophetic.


The wide support that the speech ultimately garnered paved the way for Truman’s own tough policy of “containment” and  the Marshall plan for rebuilding war-ruined Europe.


The theme of Anglo-American cooperation carrying into peacetime the "special partnership" that had worked so well in the war was a theme to which Churchill returned again and again in the last ten years of his political life. This was the one great issue that he cared about above all others: the need for the English-speaking people with their common heritage of language, literature, law, and constitutional government to stand together as defenders of freedom. As he said in the “Sinews” speech:


[W]e must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.


For teachers who want to do a careful reading of the main points of the speech, we suggest the lesson plan on the Churchill Centre website,developed during an NEH Summer Institute on Winston Churchill.


We also recommend the following EDSITEment lesson plans which cover some of the key stages in the Cold


Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I'd never known about it. In fact, the majority of the people who I spoke to about the story had no idea about it. I was like, How did I not know about this book?
— Interview with filmmaker Steve McQueen

Title-Page-from-1856-edition-altered02.jpgOn Sunday night, March 2, the world will see whether the most painfully honest film ever made about American slavery wins the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Whatever happens, the critical and commercial success of this cinematic portrait of America’s “peculiar institution” has shed a brilliant spotlight on one of the ugliest periods in our history. Yet the “rediscovery” of a classic informational text and of the literary and civic tradition to which it belongs should be cause for rejoicing.

If across the nation, middle school students are asking teachers about the meaning of the word "abolitionist", and high school students are searching for information about the Fugitive Slave law, that is good news. As in the case of Lincoln, Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the movie industry has fired up the imagination and whetted the appetite of young people for serious lessons in political history and civic responsibility, which they surely need.

blog-logo-banner-sml.jpgWe asked a distinguished expert in the field of 19th-century American literature to write about this and the result is “Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition,” newly published on EDSITEment. In his feature article, William L. Andrews begins with a bold claim:


Human bondage, the right to own another person as one would own a horse or  a table was one of the five defining institutions of the United States from its  colonial beginnings to the abolition of slavery in 1865.


Chattel slavery and American life


Andrews argues that the American way of life as it was constituted in the 19th century consisted of four distinctive institutions:


  • representative democracy
  • protestant Christianity
  • capitalism
  • marriage and the family


Taken together, the interplay of forces on this list was vital to the harmonious growth of the American republic. Andrews, however, notes a fifth and key institution that worked in antagonism to the health of these institutions:  chattel slavery.


Why was that so? Andrews’ answer:  Slavery was so powerful that it threatened to corrupt the nation’s dedication to the other four defining institutions.


From their beginnings, slave narratives were meant to change white people’s attitudes by appealing to their Christian moral conscience as well as their sense of civic responsibility. The mission of the “vigorous and uncompromising” antislavery movement that emerged in America in the 1830’s was to highlight the harsh realities of slavery as it really was. Antislavery adherents believed that these accurate eye-witness accounts of former slaves would touch the minds and hearts of Northerners who were either ignorant or indifferent.


Andrews takes us through the key narratives in this tradition:


  • Olaudah Equiano (the first great 18th-century witness to the slave trade and the dreaded Middle Passage)
  • Moses Roper
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Northup, and
  • Harriet Jacobs


The last three especially “testified to a strong sense of obligation to use their talents and hard-earned experience to witness publicly against the institution that still remained, when they penned their autobiographies, the law of the land.”


Twelve Years a Slave in English and Social Studies classrooms… and more

Andrews also shows how Northup’s book can be used by an English teacher to illuminate the two most widely read American novels written by 19th century white writers: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. The long chains of influence that stretch from this narrative to the fiction of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ernest Gaines, as well as the nonfiction of Malcom X and Maya Angelou can also be traced, demonstrating Northup’s relevance throughout the history of American letters.

Social Studies teachers can point to the frontispiece of Twelve Years, where Solomon Northup identifies himself as a citizen of New York and to his opening sentence where he gives thanks for  ‘the blessings of liberty” he has enjoyed. The central teaching of the book and of its contribution to literary tradition is civic responsibility in the broadest sense. No one, least of all an American, should take these “blessings” for granted.



Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition

Solomon Northup and Twelve Years a Slave: How to Analyze a Slave Narrative (PDF PowerPoint Presentation for teachers and students)

Lesson 1.Twelve Years a Slave: Analyzing the Slave Narrative Tradition (to come)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fa/OldTraceSunken.jpg/320px-OldTraceSunken.jpgOne place understood helps us understand all places betterӉۥEudora Welty


The author

Eudora Welty was a Mississippi author who lived and wrote of life in the rural American South in her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi, in the early to mid-20th century. In her lifetime, Welty was awarded many honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Book Award, and the National Medal of Arts. In praise of Welty, Katherine Anne Porter once wrote: “There is no blurring at the edges, but evidences of an active and disciplined imagination working firmly in a strong line of continuity, the waking faculty of daylight reason recollecting and recording the crazy logic of the dream.”blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


The story

Welty’s home in Jackson was close by the Natchez Trace which she used as the setting for her story “A Worn Path.” (1941) The “Ole Trace,” as this ancient trail is referred to by locals, runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi and served as a main artery for the transport of people, goods, and services through that region. Welty’s inspiration for the story came as she sat with a painter friend out on the Trace and observed an elderly women walking laboriously down the trail. That vision led her to wonder where the woman might be coming from and going to. During the early 1940s when “A Worn Path” was written, Welty worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration. Undoubtedly, her experiences in the WPA contributed to themes in the story.


Eudora Welty and “A Worn Path” fall squarely within the 9–10 grade band of exemplary texts though they are not explicitly listed in the CCSS Appendix. “A Worn Path” often appears on English teachers’ syllabi as a related text to follow a study of Homer’s Odyssey, a CCSS 9–10 grade exemplar for Poetry. The passage the main character undertakes in “A Worn Path” can indeed be viewed as a pilgrimage and a 20th-century manifestation of the hero’s journey archetype.


The lesson

EDSITEment lesson Character in Place: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” for the Common Core serves as an application for the following Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. It invites students to describe and analyze Welty’s use of characterization and setting to communicate the struggle and reward of that journey for the heroic main character—poor, black, and elderly—during the Great Depression.


The story’s protagonist, Phoenix Jackson, is an aged, impoverished, rural African American woman in pursuit of medicine for her grandson. In the course of a single day, Welty’s character, Phoenix, encounters multiple obstacles in the form of various white people whose treatment of her ranges from patronizing to insensitive. As such, her story depicts the Depression in the United States from the vantage point of a victim insufficiently represented in art—though a victim who, like the mythological phoenix her name evokes, resists annihilation, Phoenix transcends the abuse she experiences.


Common Core applications

Activity 1 enlists Worksheet 1. Characterization to prepare students for a class-wide discussion of characterization in the story. Follow up questions focus on descriptions of the main character and other characters as well as instances of figurative language and how those literary devices advance the story. Students are encouraged to present evidence from the text when formulating their answers. Activity 2 uses Worksheet 2. Setting to prepare students for a class-wide discussion of setting in the story by focusing on and fleshing out Welty’s detailed descriptions of place. Follow up questions focus on the impact of setting on meaning. Students consider how setting affects their appreciation and understanding of the story CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Activity 3 presents students with basic ways of combining text and imagery through a creative writing and drawing activity that has them render a new plot event into their own graphic panel. Students consider how imagery and text communicate together and separately. They see firsthand how meaning becomes more complex and multi-layered as words and pictures rely on each other. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

“A Worn Path” is marked by intense and dramatic imagery that illuminates one character’s difficult and triumphant journey through a single day. Through this CCSS application students understanding moves into creative extension and the story becomes their own.

Capture.PNGPatricia Tuohy, Head, Exhibition Program, National Library of Medicine. Patricia holds a B.F.A. in painting and an M.A. in art history. Engaged in developing exhibitions for over 25 years, she has led the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine since its inception in 1996.


The best exhibitions encourage curiosity—even about those we think we know well—and entice us to discover more about their subjects. George Washington—our venerated first president, strategic Revolutionary War general, loving family man, and Virginia plantation owner—is a towering figure in the history of America. Yet the public knows little about the decisions Washington made concerning the health and safety of those around him—his family, the staff of Mount Vernon, the enslaved people working his plantation, and the troops who served during the blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg

Revolutionary War. The National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the National Institutes of Health, invites teachers and students to join in a discovery of George Washington and Medicine!

The Exhibition

“Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine online exhibition was developed by the National Library of Medicine in collaboration with George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens. Use the exhibition website with students to look at different aspects of Washington’s life and his decisions about health and medicine:



  • “At the Battlefront” explores the implications of Washington’s decisions on the health of his troops;
  • “On the Plantation” looks at Washington’s role in providing for the health of everyone who lived and worked at Mount Vernon;
  • “Home and Hardship” examines life in Colonial America and Washington’s efforts to keep his family healthy and secure;
  • “In Sickness and In Health” looks closely at the health challenges Martha and George Washington faced in their lifetimes;
  • “At Journey’s End” tells of the limits of Colonial medicine as the first president succumbs to illness.


Adapted to the online environment, the project website captures the stories of the exhibition and features a host of primary sources that invite visitors into Washington’s world. For example:


  • The Family Physician, and the House Apothecary is a popular book of treatments that the Washington household would have consulted;
  • A letter from Washington to Lt. Col. Grier orders transport of recruits for inoculation against smallpox—a then innovative and risky treatment;
  • The 1799 list of slaves at Mount Vernon who were the individuals about whom Washington expressed concern be given “every necessary care and attention”;
  • And, the dentures owned by George Washington and his toothbrush.



These and other digital artifacts give students insight into treatments available to Washington (and men of his standing) and those he influenced. In doing so, it shines a light on the sometimes harsh realities of 18th-century life in the American colonies.


Relevant exhibition applications for middle school CCSS English Language Arts Standards include » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8 Standards CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Exhibition lesson plans

Exhibitions also offer a unique window of opportunity for audiences to look, to think, to feel, and to participate, and for educators, in particular, to offer their students deep and rich resources for study. The National Library of Medicine’s “Every Necessary Care and Attention”: George Washington and Medicine invites students to examine, to compare, to synthesize, to clarify attitudes and values, and thus expand their knowledge about our country’s first president and the society and times in which he lived.


Capture.PNGTeachers will find education resources, including the following two lessons plans with activities, to further students’ understanding of primary and secondary sources and 18th-century Colonial America’s experiences of health care and medical treatment.


George Washington: Primary Sources (Grades 5–8)

  • Analyze two paintings featured in the exhibition as primary sources;
  • Examine a Colonial-era book about home remedies in the exhibition and complete a close reading of a specific paragraph;
  • Synthesize the exhibition text as a secondary source and discuss how Washington kept those around him safe and healthy.


George Washington: Then and Now (Grades 7–9)

  • Examine George Washington’s dentures and a Traveling Dental Kit featured in the exhibition, which reflect Washington’s status in society and oral health care during the Colonial era;
  • Share findings, then research a health topic addressed in the exhibition and write how it is understood and treated today.


In the spirit of the Common Core, these lessons engage students as investigators into the social and cultural history of Washington’s life and times. As they discover how science and medicine shape and are shaped by society and culture, they afford further applications of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.


Additional NLM resources for teachers

National Library of Medicine Exhibition Program resources bring together best practices of museum education with humanities-based lesson plans to embrace the possibilities of Common Core State Standards. Exhibitions consider audiences’ existing knowledge while providing teacher’s new opportunities to scaffold and encourage discovery learning. The Program emphasizes object-based learning and encourages teachers and students to view the images, artifacts, and interactives that comprise the online exhibitions as primary sources for further exploration.


Educators may tap these resources at the Exhibition Program Education Services Online Resources page.



top: George Washington and Family, oil on canvas, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, 1858–1860. Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

center and bottom: Dentures owned by George Washington, c.1790–1799. Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.—Frederick Douglass


For Black History Month 2014, EDSITEment offers a revised and updated version of our Guide to Teaching Resources.


The Guide is a comprehensive collection of EDSITEment's free NEH-supported websites and lessons on African American history and literature. These resources bridge the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


EDSITEment staff has also been working to help teachers meet the demands of the new Common Core ELA standards, particularly the central requirement of giving students practice with complex informational texts and academic vocabulary. And because one can read images, video, and film as a text, we’ve included these as well.


Mastering such texts and their academic vocabulary is not only rewarding in itself, it promises dividends for later academic and career success. With this in mind, we’ve come up with some suggestions about how teachers might use recent NEH-funded projects for all these purposes.


Here are some highlights from the new EDSITEment listing:


  • Scores of enslaved African Americans maintained Montpelier, the estate of our fourth president, James Madison. This short video hosted by the Foundation’s archaeological team reveals how the people who made this great estate run actually lived and worked. Students can witness history coming to light through the excavation of the slave quarters and the Madison household.
  • Students may not appreciate the diversity of opinion that obtained among nineteenth century free African Americans. A new lesson, contrasting the views of David Walker and John Day can help them see that black opinion was not monolithic. Walker, an abolitionist, argued in his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World  that the principles of the Declaration of Independence justified resistance to slavery and emancipation. John Day, a Baptist missionary (and one of the founding fathers of the modern African nation of Liberia), maintained that free blacks could never expect to live on equal terms with whites in the United States and needed to found their own nation in Africa.
  • As you prepare to teach the Civil War, your students can learn more about how much a small group of devoted abolitionists accomplished against seemingly insurmountable odds. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Grimké sisters fought for thirty years to end slavery in America. The entire PBS film The Abolitionists is now available as a streaming video on NEH’s Created Equal website. The site has a robust teaching section with questions for active viewing, background essays, lessons plans, and primary sources.
  • Students will be interested to know that the story of Solomon Northup as recounted in 12 Years a Slave was first filmed by the distinguished African America photojournalist Gordon Parks over 30 years ago as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. This important event in cultural history is recounted by Chad Williams in Humanities magazine with a ten-minute clip accessible on the NEH website. (The complete film is available through Amazon Instant Video.) Note: two lessons on the text of Solomon Northup memoir are coming soon to EDSITEment.
  • For targeted, primary-source research and analysis, introduce your class to a vast database of historic African American newspapers via Chronicling America. Currently, 42 different titles of newspapers covering the years 1865–1922 are available from the District of Columbia to Washington State. Students searching these sources will discover how events from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the First World War and the Great Migration were reported from diverse regional perspectives.
  • In the long civil rights struggle, the strategy of nonviolent protest  was vividly demonstrated and effectively used  by the Freedom Riders. These courageous, college-age men and women challenged segregation in the Deep South in the early sixties, pushing the Kennedy Administration to enforce the law prohibiting segregation in interstate travel. Your class can gain in-depth knowledge of this struggle through the award-winning documentary Freedom Riders now available online and accompanied by teaching resources as part of Created Equal.
  • Also included in Created Equal, The Loving Story tells the fascinating story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a quiet interracial Virginia couple who were arrested by state officials for the crime of living as man and wife. Two ACLU lawyers took their case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The landmark ruling in their favor appealed to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and led to the overturning of miscegenation laws in fifteen states. It has been cited in our time as a precedent by advocates of same sex marriage.
  • The story of Eugene Allen, an African American man who worked as maître-d’ for eight presidents for over 30 years, focuses yet another lens on civil rights history. Watch the 20-minute video interview with Will Haywood, the journalist who was author of the book about Allen that inspired the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.


For the full listing of resources, go to Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources and NEH’s Created Equal.

http://edsitement.neh.gov/sites/edsitement.neh.gov/files/imagecache/thumb/images/content/hopper-house-sml.jpgThe arts have a central and essential role in achieving the finest aspects of the common core…


The great news is that the standards call on so many things the arts do well. The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards.

—David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, Americans for the Arts


EDSITEment has heard and answered this clarion call for the visual arts to be integrated into English Language Arts via College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


Our newest CCSS lesson application, House by the Railroad: Painting and Poem for the Common Core, invites a comparative close reading of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” to explore how form affects content in both painting and poem.


These two views tell the story of a particular time and place in American history: the tail end of the industrial revolution in the United States, when the traffic of industry aggressively reconfigured the American landscape. Even as that traffic brought work and culture to some parts of the country, it ravished others and compelled their abandonment. What for some was progress was for others decline. Both works address additional subjects, including the role and impact of the artist.


The Painter

The American landscape painter, Edward Hopper’s (1882–1967) approach is consistent with his classification as a realist painter of modern American life in the early to mid-20th century. His subjects include street corners, theaters, and gas stations—wherever common Americans lived out their lives—as well as land- and seascapes. Desolation is a common theme identified by critics, but so are intimacy and human sensuality. On the Picturing America website, go to the English language Resource Book (Image 16a) for basic biographical and contextual information about Hopper and House by the Railroad.


The Poet

Edward Hirsch (b. 1950) is a contemporary poet known for his advocacy of poetry who writes in a range of genres and addresses many themes, making him difficult to classify; he has published free verse and formal odes; and his primary preoccupations include emotional life, history, politics, and most recently, “the divine.” Biographical information is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website (where you can also access his brief essay “How to Read a Poem”). His “House by the Railroad” poem belongs to the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, which the Academy of American Poets defines as poetry that “confronts” art.


Common Core Applications

Activity 1 engages students in detailed description of a painting to facilitate supported artistic analysis. Using the Worksheet 1: Basic Elements of Art handout and the Worksheet 2: Looking Closely graphic organizer to begin looking closely at the artist’s use of his medium. Students should build or add to their list in the first column of the graphic organizer and then, in the third column, note everything they can about line, form, space, color, shape, and contrast, eventually sharing out their observations with the rest of the class. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.


Activity 2 uses the Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizer to capture a detailed description of the poem, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" (1925). Figurative and connotative meanings are carefully considered in order to uncover the cumulative impact of Hirsch’s specific word choices on meaning and tone in the poem. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).


Guiding questions in Activity 3 form the basis for a cumulative discussion on how the painter and poet treat their subjects differently. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.


Such a media-rich lesson connecting visual images to poetic ones will imprint students and stay with them long after the signal to move on to another subject. More information on the American painter Edward Hopper can be found at the MoMA website. Additional background on Edward Hirsch and his poetry can also be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation website.



16-A Edward Hopper (1882–1967), House by the Railroad, 1925. Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 in. (61 x 73.7 cm.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously (3.1930). Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a8/Old_North_Cemetery%2C_Portsmouth_NH.jpg/320px-Old_North_Cemetery%2C_Portsmouth_NH.jpg“Indeed the play's success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.”

—Donald Margulies, (Foreword) Our Town.


The play

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town explores the evolving relationship between two young people, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, and traces the circle of their life together as they transition from neighbors to friends, then to lovers, and finally to marriage and parenthood. This simple story of a love affair dramatizes the particular events in a small New England town at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it transcends that specific place and time, presenting the audience with a universal experience and posing eternal questions about the meaning of life and death, love and marriage.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


From the very beginning Our Town developed into a favorite production in schools and in amateur and professional theatres around the world. Since its first performance at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey almost a century ago, on January 22, 1938, the play has enjoyed wide acclaim. Often referred to as a quintessential work of American theater, it earned Thornton Wilder the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. Our Town continues to be an especially moving theatrical experience for audiences despite the most minimal of sets and only a handful of props. Indeed, the play begins with the Stage Manager on an empty stage, dragging a few chairs and tables into their places while the theater audience is still taking their seats!


EDSITEment’s Dramatic and Theatrical Aspects in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: A Common Core Exemplar maintains that the power of this play emanates from this very simplicity. This lesson focuses on various theatrical elements, including the play's allusions to spectacle without distracting production details and its elegant characterization and character development. It also focuses on the essential human conflicts and contrasts that animate the stage.


The play’s flexibility allows for it to be frequently and creatively staged. Productions of Our Town continue to garner as many enthusiastic reviews today as its first production did. Critics originally noted Wilder’s choices of “a liberatingly severe aesthetic to map the topography of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire,” and such qualities such as “a cosmic dimension, where joy and sorrow are equal modes from the vantage point of the stars.” A review of a recent performance executed by actors with hearing impairments expresses the play’s ability to “reach into the universal soul.”


Common Core Applications

Our Town appears on the CCSS list of exemplary texts for Grades 11 – College and Career Readiness (Appendix B.) The following applications from EDSITEment’s lesson ground the lesson activities in Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Activity 1 takes the unusual tact of having students explore the impact of Wilder’s stage directions through an analysis of the sights and sounds on the play’s moods. Using a Sights and Sounds graphic organizer, teachers can lead the whole class through a close reading of Act 1 before students divided into small groups move onto an independent analysis of the rest of the play. This application relates to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Activity 2 tracks the main characteristics of key characters in the play including their physical and biographical elements and their beliefs, motivations, emotions, and behaviors, as well as their impact on the play. Using the Role Call graphic organizer, each group is assigned responsibility for different characters. This application relates to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Creative writing activity

A culminating creative writing activity assesses students’ understanding by having them write additional scenes for the play using themes and moods consistent with Wilder’s dramatic elements. Students are expected to incorporate the theatrical aspects they have covered in their three group work lesson activities: allusions to spectacle (what the audience is asked to see and hear); characterization; and conflict development and resolution. In the spirit of the Common Core, they are also required to explain and defend their choices with evidence from the play. This assessment applies to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3d. Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

It is important to encourage students to become active observers. This lesson helps to develop their understanding of a playwright’s subtle use of dramatic and theatrical devices to shape his drama. Engaging deeply and thoughtfully with a high quality literary text exemplar such as Our Town is a natural outgrowth of the Common Core State Standards’ drive to generate literate students in the 21st century.



Old North Cemetery, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Courtesy of John Phelan via Wikipedia.

IMG_0158-red.jpgLast year, one of our most popular blog posts was about how to teach Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. We are repeating it again this year in advance of the Martin Luther King holiday. We hope that Dr. King's profound reflections on the relationship between law and justice will resonate once again with all teachers and their students.

Martin Luther King's most well-known writing is his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." He began writing the lengthy essay while jailed over Easter weekend in 1963. He eventually arranged its publication as part of a public relations strategy to bring national attention to the struggle for civil rights in the South.


blog-logo-banner-smler.jpgThe Letter has become a modern classic. It has been called the most important written document of the civil rights era and has been compared to Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" and John Kennedy’s First Inaugural in its literary and historical significance. It is recommended reading for Grades 9 and 10 on the Common Core English Language Arts State Standards, where it is listed as an exemplary text for teaching the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9 Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts.


EDSITEment’s lesson Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance centers on the reasoning and rhetoric embodied in the Letter. It highlights King’s powerful argument for using civil disobedience and contains primary source documents including audio and images, student worksheets, background information for teachers, and suggested activities. The lesson helps balance the Common Core alignment with student engagement and provides rich contextualization to help prep for the lesson and pose significant questions for students, and guide students’ own questions as they arise.


The context of the Letter

The Background of the lesson answers fundamental questions for understanding the context of the Letter:

Birmingham was Alabama's largest city, but its 40 percent black population suffered stark inequities in education, employment, and income. In 1961, when Freedom Riders were mobbed in the city bus terminal, Birmingham drew unwelcome national attention. Moreover, recent years saw so many bombings in its black neighborhoods that went unsolved that the city earned the nickname ‘Bombingham.’

In 1962, Birmingham even closed public parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and golf courses to avoid federal court orders to desegregate. Nevertheless, the fight to hold onto segregationist practices began to wear on some whites; the question remained, how best to address the concerns of local black citizens?

King wrote his Letter in response to a public statement by eight white clergymen appealing to the local black population to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights. The clergymen counseled "law and order and common sense," not demonstrations that "incite to hatred and violence," as the most prudent means to promote justice.


The lesson itself offers a carefully-edited version of the 7,000 word Letter that retains all of the original language and argument in a structure conducive to classroom time constraints. Well-crafted, text-based  questions direct student attention toward close analysis of King’s major arguments:


  • Does King consider himself an "outsider" by staging
    a civil rights protest in Birmingham? List the three reasons he gives in response to this criticism.
  • If King admits that breaking laws in order to change them is
    "a legitimate concern," how does he still justify civil disobedience?
  • List two reasons for his defense of civil disobedience, and explain how King
    thought a law can be disobeyed without leading to anarchy
  • How does King's appeal to "eternal and natural law"
    help him examine and judge human laws?
  • Why is King hopeful about the prospects for equal rights for
    black Americans despite his imprisonment and the injustices around him? Give
    specific examples and reasons he mentions to support your answer.


The challenge: differentiating instruction

Common Core’s big challenge for teachers of this complex and challenging text is keeping the level of classroom discourse high while differentiating instruction so that all students will approach the Letter with eager and interested eyes. The good news is: the standards encourage a variety of reading groupings—students can read alone, with others, in pairs, or have passages they read on their own be reread aloud by you. Speaking and listening skills are also valued. A seminal text as complex as King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” demands a slower-paced close reading “seminar like” experience, but the gains in student’s insight and intellectual self confidence are considerable.


EDSITEment’s lesson includes a whole-class activity that asks students to apply their knowledge of King’s letter and that of his critics' arguments to a critical classroom debate about the merits of nonviolent resistance vs a “law and order” approach to social change. One team represents King's nonviolent resistance and the other team represents the white clergymen and Reverend Joseph H. Jackson's "law and order" positions. The students are given participation points for listening, helping to develop team arguments, and questioning/dialoguing with the opposing side thus meeting the anchor requirement of the Common Core ELA standards having to do with speaking and listening.


The "Great Conversation"

From here, you might want to create a comparative exercise by directing students to several of the other seminal voices in the “Great Conversation” about law and justice. In Socrates and the Law: Argument in a Athenian Jail, the founder of Western political philosophy explores the conflicting claims of law and conscience. In  Henry David Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience, the Massachusetts gadfly argues  that there are occasions when demands of  the moral conscience trump the obligation to obey the law.

Coupled with the wide range of supplemental resources also available on EDSITEment, such as the Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the American Constitutionalism website, these tools can be used to guide students to making that cognitive leaps from reading what is explicitly stated to making meaningful inferences, synthesizing information, and applying critical understanding to other conversations in literature, philosophy, history, and human rights. All of this will ensure that students’ broader discussions about humanities subjects are diligently informed by the arguments made in individual humanities texts.


EDSITEment also offers a variety of engaging AND rigorous resources on Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights,and the Letter itself to help you explore this text.



I Have a Dream: Celebrating the Life and Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. (This feature brings together all of NEH-funded and EDSITEment-developed resources on King.)

Capture.PNGThe “Four Freedoms” in historical context

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union Address to both houses of Congress. At a time when Western Europe lay under Nazi domination and the United States had not yet entered the war, FDR boldly presented a “post-war” vision in which the American ideals of individual liberties were extended throughout the world. Alerting Congress and the nation to the necessity of war, Roosevelt made one of the most famous political formulations of the 20th century, announcing:


In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.


The tone set by FDR in his “Four Freedoms” speech has been much imitated by his successors and by his counterparts in other countries—so much so that students today are so accustomed to hearing freedom invoked rhetorically as a matter of course that the word sometimes signifies little more than something to feel vaguely good about.


We should be wary of any such “easy going” attitudes. When it comes to important issues we need to articulate definitions of terms and engage in meaningful debate. Roosevelt's declaration raises many of the broad questions underlying any discussion of, and theory of, freedom.


Engaging students with the concept of “freedom”

The EDSITEment lesson FDR’s “Four Freedoms” Speech: Freedom by the Fireside examines some of the substantial meanings, contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the rhetorical use of “freedom.” The objective is to encourage students to glimpse the broad range of hopes and aspirations that are expressed in the call of—and for—freedom and at the same time introduce students to some of the rudiments of political theory embedded within FDR’s vision.


Through this lesson students will become familiar with the substance, context, subtext, and significance of the most famous portion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Address. They will understand the influence of political rhetoric and oratory on the ongoing process of refining our definitions of “freedom.” They will be also be able to locate FDR, the United States Constitution, and their own attitudes within the context of these debates.


Finally, they will be able to explain, on a very rudimentary level, longstanding theoretical debates over the scope and meaning of freedom including the important distinction first drawn by the renowned political philosopher Isaiah Berlin between negative (“freedom from”) liberty and positive (“freedom to”) liberty. Using Berlin’s distinction, the first two freedoms in FDR’s speech would appear to be considered negative liberties, ones that the government promises not to infringe. The second two would seem to be considered positive liberties, ones which the government promises to provide.


Theorists have long argued about which dimension of freedom should be honored by governments. Proponents of “negative liberty” contend that governments should avoid interfering with the private decisions of its citizens. “Freedom from” can therefore be understood as the ideal of non-coercion. Proponents of "positive liberty" suggest that governments should intervene to make it possible for their citizens to achieve certain ends. "Freedom to" can thus be understood as the ideal of empowerment.


The final activity asks directs students to discuss this question: Are the liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution most readily understood as “negative” or “positive” liberties—or some combination?


The lesson aligns with several Common Core Standards for English Language Arts Reading Informational Texts Grade 8 under Craft and Structure:


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.5 Analyze in detail the structure of a specific paragraph in a text, including the role of particular sentences in developing and refining a key concept.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.


In a related lesson, Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech—Know it When You See It, students examine the role that artist Norman Rockwell played in visualizing the Four Freedoms’ speech. The speech so inspired the well-known illustrator that he either initiated or was chosen to create the series of paintings on the “Four Freedoms” in order to help disseminate FDR’s appeal and aid the war effort. Images of his paintings were circulated in the popular Saturday Evening Post and embodied the abstract concepts of freedom in four scenes of recognizable personalities and everyday American life. This lesson for grades 6–8, focuses on the “first freedom” FDR mentioned, freedom of speech, and on student identification of specific freedoms outlined in the First Amendment.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” – Rudyard Kipling


The Author

Indiangreymongoosesargeant-crpd.jpgBorn in Bombay India on December 30, 1865, Rudyard Kipling became one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through his work as a journalist and a poet, Kipling was heralded worldwide as "the voice of the British Empire." But it was his fiction, where he blended the best of both skills, that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 in recognition of “the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas, and remarkable talent for narration which characterizes [his] creations." For background on the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, visit EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web.


blog-logo-banner-smler.jpgKipling’s “How the Camel Got His Hump” appears on the ELA Common Core Exemplar text list for Grades 2–3 under Read Aloud Stories. Though his classic narratives have often been pigeonholed as elementary, if approached with an open mind, Kipling’s timeless truths transcend the artificial barriers of age as well as race and culture.




Turn the corner to the New Year by entering the world that Kipling brought alive in his classic tale, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." This famous short story from a collection of fables published as The Jungle Book (1894) issues moral lessons through the guise of animal characters. Kipling invested nearly everything he knew or "heard or dreamed about the Indian jungle" in this collection of stories.


Kipling’s ability to mix scientific and historical fact with imaginative characters to create a believable and entertaining story can be tapped for CCSS application: English Language Arts Standards » Anchor Standards » College and Career Readiness CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. While the following EDSITEment Lesson activities are indicated for elementary school level students, they can be easily adapted for older grades.


[Note: The Illustrated E-text of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" at the University of Virginia is available through EDSITEment-reviewed Center for Liberal Arts.]


Lesson 1: Mixing Fact and Fiction


Encourage students to use interactive materials to learn how Kipling effectively infuses personification into
his animal characters by mixing fact and fiction.


In Activity three, students are asked to separate the facts from the fiction in Kipling's story. First, they read an encyclopedia article on mongooses. Then they look back through the text to find the examples Kipling included of actual mongoose characteristics and behavior, and record two or more in the appropriate box on the Fact or Personification? Chart. They repeat the exercise for the characters of cobra and tailor-bird. This exercise can be done in a large group, individually, or in small groups with a large-group presentation at the end. It speaks to the following applications: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.


Lesson 2: Mixing Words and Pictures


Lead students through a close reading of the illustrated version of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" to examine how Kipling and visual artists mix observation with imagination. Then, students can follow similar principles to create a work of their own.


In Activity one, introduce students to the EDSITEment-reviewed "Art Safari" from the Museum of Modern Art saying they will be taking a closer look at how artists create "stories" in their works. This site encourages learning about art by looking and sharing interpretations. A series of questions guides them to create stories based on four different artworks. Younger children can be prompted to talk about what they see, and type in their replies; older children can interact with the program on their own.


The questions proposed in the activity help students develop observational skills by asking them to describe what they see. None of the questions assume knowledge about the history of art. Instead, they draw upon children's natural curiosity and often evoke surprising and insightful responses. Following each discussion, children can create their own artwork on the computer, or they can carry out projects by painting, drawing, or making a sculpture. When finished, have the class return to “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” to discuss original illustrations from the text. This speaks to the following application: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting).


Kipling on “Fiction”


Closer Readings’ bloggers have spent this past year teasing out distinctions between fictional and nonfictional texts as required by the Common Core. It is only fitting then to close the year with a line from a speech Kipling gave to the Royal Literary Society in June 1926 entitled “Fiction.” In this speech, he looks at the relationship between fiction and truth and maps out the connection between fiction and other disciplines---a theme we will return to next week as we open the blog forum for 2014:


For Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till someone had told a story. So it is the oldest of the arts, the mother of history, biography, philosophy dogmatic..., and, of course, of politics.


About the image: Indian grey mongoose and cobra, as illustrated by Louis Sargent, courtesy Wikipedia

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