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Closer Readings

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Helen-sml.jpgBy Helen Aguera, Senior Program Officer, Division of Preservation and Access, NEH


The highly praised new film version of Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, has brought renewed attention to his story and to the subject of slavery and slave narratives, especially among educators. In this blog post, we suggest how teachers can leverage student interest in Northup into a research assignment introducing the historic digitalized newspapers in Chronicling America. In the process, teachers can develop resources that meet the Common Core English Language Arts Anchor Standards involving “Research to Build and Present Knowledge.”blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


A free-born African American, Northup was lured away from his home and family in upstate New York in 1841 with an offer of a job as a musician. Drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., he was shipped to New Orleans where he was sold into slavery.


Northup’s work was published in 1853 to great acclaim and reportedly its publisher sold more than 30,000 copies in three years. The vast collection of historical newspapers in the Chronicling America provides an array of first-hand evidence of the popular interest in, and influence of, Northup’s memoir. The publisher advertised it widely upon its debut and, decades later, book sellers continued to list this work with other important African American publications.


Newsprint articles and notices also shed light on the notoriety of the kidnapping, the legal case against Northup’s kidnappers, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, as well as on Northup’s anti-slavery lecturing activities.


With this in mind, here are some suggestions for introducing students to the Chronicling America database for research projects on Northup.


Name variations in Chronicling America

Tell students that different forms of the spelling of his last name were used by the press; therefore it is necessary to search using alternate spellings for best results (Northup, Northrup, and Northrop). For example, searching for the phrase “Solomon Northup” returns 23 pages.


Let students see that they can rearrange the page list by date. When they do so, they can see issues for the publication year of 1853 point to a variety of sources. For example, there are advertisements for Northup’s autobiography, such as the announcements from September 3–19 that appear on the front page of the Daily Evening Star, a Washington, D.C., newspaper. Students might want to compare these historic advertisements for the book with today’s adverts for the movie.


The September 3 issue of Ohio’s Anti-Slavery Bugle also has an advertisement with a lengthy description of Northup’s work and quotes from rave reviews, some of which compared Twelve Years a Slave to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students may be surprised to see how highly Stowe’s novel was regarded by abolitionists.


The Anti-Slavery Bugle also offers an eye-opening article from William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, entitled “The Taney Hunt against African Americans.” In that article, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooks Taney’s infamous opinion in the Dred Scott case that “colored men have no rights that a white man are bound to respect” is excoriated as an example of what happens when natural rights of individuals are violated or denied. Indeed, Solomon Northrup’s case is mentioned as one example of the “outrages daily committed against freedom, including the indignities heaped on the unoffending colored men in the United States.”


An alternate search using another spelling of the name “Solomon Northrup” yields 12 pages of results. Two issues of the Daily Dispatch, published in Virginia, make reference to developments in Northup’s legal case in 1854. A July 12 notice mentions the capture of Joseph Russell, and there is a brief description of the proceedings against Northup’s kidnappers in the July 14 issue. A page of a Tennessee newspaper of September 10, 1857, the Fayetteville Observer, notes an incident in Canada where Solomon Northup was not allowed to lecture.


Another variant search for “Solomon Northrop” results in 28 pages. Among these pages is a detailed account of Northup’s case published by the Vermont Watchman and State Journal on February 10, 1853.


A later issue of this newspaper (January 26, 1855) reports that Northup’s lecture on slavery delivered at Montpelier offered “an honest tale, without exaggeration.” (One would love to read a transcript of that lecture!)


Other Vermont newspapers from the 1850s also carry brief notices of Northup’s legal case. But the most surprising result is an article that appeared in Illinois’ Ottawa Free Trader (July 11, 1857). It mentions that the district attorney was in possession of new evidence that would prevent the conviction of kidnappers Merrill and Russell. The article states that it appeared “Northup had been an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but the purchaser was too sharp for him …”


Decades later, the National Tribune (Washington, D.C.) issue of October 11, 1894, published a letter to the editor from A. A. Gardner, who claimed to have heard Alexander Merrill say that Northup was an accomplice, although Gardner could not confirm the veracity of Merrill’s version.


More ways to search and find

If the advanced search tool is used to search other keywords related to Northup’s work, such as the phrase “twelve years a slave,” more references are revealed. For instance, among the 45 page returns are advertisements published in 1854 and 1856 for the slave narrative in the New York Tribune.



The complete text of Twelve Years a Slave is available at NEH-funded Documenting the American South website

laurel-new.jpgLaurel Sneed, the creator of Crafting Freedom (www.craftingfreedom.org), is an educator, researcher, and media producer/film-maker based in Durham, North Carolina.


Would you be interested in a teaching resource available online that is chock full of dramatic stories of courage and ingenuity that bring critical American themes to life? Crafting Freedom provides educators with an easy to use, Common Core-targeted resource on the African American experience during the era of slavery.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


The site resonates with themes like resistance to tyranny and oppression; transitioning from poverty and despair to comfort and prosperity; and persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. On this site you will find ready-to-use lesson plans, short, custom-designed videos, PDF slide shows, printable teacher support, and student handouts.


What more is in it for teachers?

The Crafting Freedom website was spawned from a popular NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop: “Crafting Freedom: African American Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Upper South” that started in 2004. Over many summers, the workshops brought top humanities scholars together with excellent teachers from around the nation. They explored the lives of several Antebellum African American figures—some well known, some not—and they served as a kind of incubator for creative instructional ideas and engaging humanities lesson plans.


We decided to capture the best of the teacher-generated instruction in a Web resource that addresses concerns that teachers expressed, such as:

  • The need for “YouTube” length videos;
  • The need for a Web resource on which most of the material resides;
  • The need for concise material that the novice as well as the veteran teacher can use;
  • Built-in teacher training for each of the lessons through the inclusion of “teacher tools” (support material) as well as classroom tested “recipes” or step-by-step lesson plans; and
  • For the more experienced teacher, “stand-alone” material that can readily be customized and “mixed and matched” with existing instructional elements.

EDSITEment and Crafting Freedom

Thanks to another generous NEH grant, fourteen Crafting Freedom lessons will be converted and uploaded to EDSITEMENT in 2014, and newly aligned to Common Core.This includes ten extant Crafting Freedom lessons as well as four new ones. Approximately one lesson will be uploaded each month. As a bonus, two of the new lessons are based on the life of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into plantation slavery. His riveting slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, has been made into a highly acclaimed new movie.


The Common Core standards and teaching with slave narratives

The purpose of slave narratives was to convert the reader to the antislavery cause by documenting through eyewitness accounts how slavery undermined the very foundations upon which the nation was built. They are not only very compelling and unforgettable primary sources but also represent a uniquely American literary tradition. Like jazz, a homegrown American musical form that has impacted many other forms of music, the slave narrative tradition has influenced many classic American works of literature such as: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man; and Toni Morrison's Beloved.


Slave narratives are also examples of primary source-based learning that is essential to meeting the Common Core standards. The form encourages students to focus on thinking skills, the examination of evidence, analysis, the identification of points of view and perspective, as well as argument. The widespread adoption of Common Core provides an unprecedented opportunity to infuse more slave narratives into the teaching of history, language arts, and other subject areas.


According to Dr. William L. Andrews, the scholar-consultant to the Crafting Freedom project and a nationally know expert on slave narratives:


Some of the most important revisionist scholarship in the historical study of American slavery in the last forty years has marshaled the slave narratives as key testimony. Slave narratives and their fictional descendants have played a major role in national debates about slavery, freedom, and American identity that have challenged the conscience and the historical consciousness of the United States ever since its founding.


Solomon Northup’s slave narrative especially illustrates how slavery ripped families apart and made a mockery of marriage vows, parental love, and parental obligations to their offspring. In one of the lessons on Northrup’s narrative—to be available on EDSITEment in early 2014—students read a segment of Northrup's narrative and analyze how it illustrates slavery’s undermined of the values and principals inherent in the social institution of marriage.


Crafting Freedom lessons and the slave narratives they teach have universal appeal because they reinforce the African American theme of “Making a way where there is no way.” This is a theme that not only Americans but people throughout the world who yearn to pursue life, liberty, and happiness against all odds can relate to and celebrate.



Capture.PNG“… Magi, his most famous story, is the American answer to A Christmas Carol, only supplanted in the last generation by It’s A Wonderful Life, a film whose debt to O. Henry is apparent.”—Drew Johnson, “O. Henry’s Afterlife: Thoughts and Ephemera”


December is the perfect time of year to introduce your students to “The Gift of the Magi.” This classic short story with its message of what giving and receiving truly means is a universal theme permeating holiday literature. William Sydney Porter was a beloved early 20th century author who wrote under the pen name, O. Henry and became known as the “Master of the Short Story.” “The Gift of the Magi” remains his most popular work.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


This delightful chestnut rolled out each Christmas now also appears on the list of Common Core State Standard English Language Arts exemplar texts for grades 9–10 (Appendix B.) In addition to its tried-and-true entertainment value, the longstanding seasonal favorite can be aligned with this Anchor Standard for Reading: 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.


Close reading

EDSITEment has developed a new student interactive Launchpad: “A Gift of the Magi”: A Common Core exemplar” with excerpts from the original text to guide English Language Arts students through an independent close reading of the story. The resource includes selected websites they can use to glean necessary background information on references within the text and a series of optional writing activities. “The Gift of the Magi,” is also available as an electronic text via the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for Liberal Arts.


In this Christmas tale the main character, Della, longs to buy a special gift for her husband, Jim, but is hampered by her meager savings of less than two dollars. With love trumping vanity, Della sells her glorious, waist-long hair for twenty dollars so that she can buy Jim’s present: a chain for his prized heirloom watch. O. Henry, famous for his “surprise” endings, concludes with a finale rich in situational irony sure to confound your students.


Writing activities

After unlocking the central themes and ideas in the text, students can try their hand at three expository and creative writing activities that directly align with the following CCSS Writing Standards:


  • Write a persuasive essay that discusses which partner makes the greater sacrifice in this story: Della selling her hair or Jim selling his watch? (Or, if they are equal sacrifices, make an argument for one position or the other using evidence from the text.) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
  • Choose one of several themes in “The Gift of the Magi” that are expressed in dichotomies and write an explanatory essay using evidence from the text to show how the author makes a case for the prevalence of one side of a theme over the other. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
  • Consider why O. Henry told the story from a female perspective, then compose an alternate story from Jim’s point of view.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3


Gift-giving traditions

EDSITEment’s popular feature The Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas expands the gift-giving theme O. Henry encapsulates in his ironic tale. The annual ritual of exchanging presents is certainly a holiday tradition in many families, and almost everyone can relate to the difficulty of finding that special gift for a loved one. The practice of gift-giving reverberates through holiday narratives of world literature and through the secular and religious customs of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.


Additional resources

Ohioana Authors (supported by the Ohio Humanities Council) provides Ohio connections to O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”

Early Multi-National Influences in the United States



The Magi (detail) c. 526. Ravenna, San Apollinare Nuovo. Courtesy Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons

Capture.PNG.jpgDespite all the attention the Common Core English Language Standards have been getting in the media, some of the most interesting and salutary parts of the standards have been neglected. While the national conversation has focused on the use and abuse of “informational texts” in English Language Arts classrooms, the rationale for the “Literacy in History/Social Studies” standards have been largely ignored.


In the rationale for the Core, the authors stress that one of the attributes of a literate person in the 21st century should be the ability to: “reflexively demonstrate cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”


On Veterans Day, the Manhattan Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Institute cosponsored a panel entitled “Civic Education and the Common Core.” The blog-logo-banner-smler.jpgorganizers argued that over the past decade, the teaching of U.S. History and Government have been neglected, as manifest in the low National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for history and a raft of surveys of historical knowledge among high school and college graduates.


Lesley Herrmann, Executive Director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, prefaced her remarks by talking about the mission of the organization, which is to promote the study and love of American history thorough lectures, exhibitions, teacher seminars, prizes, and fellowships. A few years ago, NEH funded Gilder Lehrman’s affiliate school program to make it free to all K–12 schools, with teacher registration.


Lesley spoke about a new professional development program at GLI that trains educators to deliver rigorous instruction for the development of reading, writing, and analytical skills, which are emphasized by the Common Core through the use of historical texts and primary source documents. It is called the Teaching Literacy through History Initiative.


Lesley also gave three reasons why GLI is aligning all of its work to these standards. Firstly, the entire core teaches transferrable skills. Once students learn how to read one text, they will have gained skills to grapple with other complex texts. She emphasized that these skills are also not simply the purview just the gifted and talented; those in APUSH; or those benefitting from certain private school curricula. Any student can learn to read complex, challenging texts and make inferences from those new skills, as evidenced by the experience of Tim Bailey, a longtime teacher and the director of the GLI’s CCSS program. One day, a low-income student in Tim’s 8th grade history class who had grappled with primary sources all year, came up to him and asked: Can I use this technique on my science homework?


The second reason, Lesley offered for GLI’s support for CCSS is its interdisciplinary quality. Although the Core was created for English and math classes, GLI is dedicated to bringing history into Common Core. As an example, she noted the important role a novel (in this instance, The Red Badge of Courage) can play in a Social Studies or American History classroom. How about, she suggested, teaching the novel alongside letters from soldiers on the battlefield? Why not ask students to compare fiction and reality? GLI also encourages English teachers to work in tandem with history teachers and art teachers with history teachers in the analysis of Winslow Homer’s Civil War Sharpshooter, as well as Civil War songs and photographs.


Finally, Leslie noted that CCSS makes possible unfiltered experience of historical sources. When students read the Gettysburg Address, or the Adams–Jefferson letters, they learn to analyze and evaluate the actual words of writers, which help to eliminate the bias of teachers and textbooks.


Tim Bailey, the director of the GLI’s CCSS program mentioned above was also on hand to give a firsthand account of his experiences teaching primary sources to his 8th grade students in Salt Lake City.


Tim has taught at Title 1 schools for most of his career and has a very good sense of where “at risk” students begin. He argued that while close reading of 18th-century documents is a huge challenge, it is the most worthwhile challenge humanities’ teachers face in our time. He noted that his students need the kind of analytical skills CCSS advocates. By learning to unlock texts for themselves with these techniques he teaches them—and plenty of hard work—the program helps underprivileged students develop the academic self-confidence and habits of self-discipline that college requires.


The final speaker, Stephanie Stanford, formerly of the Gates Foundation and now working for the College Board, reached back to the founding of the nation to remind the audience that education was a profound concern of the founders of our republican experiment in self-government.

She quoted three statements by Thomas Jefferson that could serve as principles for educational reform:


  • “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
  • “The object of primary education [is] …to understand [the citizen’s] duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.”
  • “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training”


Stephanie argued that these principles underlie and justify the vast amounts of economic resources that the local, state, and federal governments spend on education, as well as the way Americans think about education’s importance.


She also re-emphasized Tim Bailey’s theme of equity by noting that attracting more Black and Latino students into Advanced Placement courses has been a critical goal of the College Board for some time. Recent studies show that the scores of minority have greatly improved, and that successful completion of AP courses is an important determinant of college and career success.


Further Resources

Gilder Lehrman, Affiliate School Program

Capture.PNGAs the north winds of late November begin to roar, EDSITEment heralds three lions of American literature whose birthdays are celebrated this week. Stave off the winter cold with close readings of their classic tales while meeting the requirements of the Common Core.These authors and their novels top the list of CCSS Grade 6–8 exemplars under the category “Stories”: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Appendix B.)



EDSITEment and the National Endowment for the Humanities have developed resources to support Common Core teaching applications for each of these blog-logo-banner-smler.jpgliterary masters and their masterworks and offer teacher opportunities to apply the following Anchor Reading standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.


Louisa May Alcott

"Little Woman," a feature article from Humanities magazine, offers a fresh perspective on the beloved author of that old chestnut, Little Women. Teachers as well as students may be surprised to learn there were many sides to Louisa May Alcott. She was quite the “devilish dutiful daughterwho acted the part of an irrepressible tomboy in her youth. Louisa May “never liked girls or [had] many” girlfriends other than her three siblings. As a young writer, she could hardly imagine how much their family experiences would resonate with the world at large.



A host of teaching resources for this author are available on the website of the NEH-funded documentary, The Woman behind Little Women, which offers secondary lesson plans and other background materials on Louisa May’s life and work. Further engage students with Louisa's intellectual world by accessing EDSITEment’s interactive introduction to Thoreau’s Circle, in which students can draw interconnections among members of this small group of American literati. Students can chart the influence of Henry David Thoreau on Louisa May and uncover events that brought her fiction to life! CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.3 Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories).


Madeleine L’Engle

In her Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech, Madeleine L’Engle pinpoints her connection to Alcott, “in boarding school I grabbed Invincible Louisa the moment it came into the library because Louisa May Alcott had the same birthday I have, and the same ambitions.” EDSITEment’s lesson on L’Engle’s Newbery Award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, examines a young heroine, Meg Murry, who undergoes a series of coming-of-age trials. The lesson invites students to re-experience her archetypal journey through space and time in the form of a board game where, as in the novel itself, Meg's progress is either thwarted or advanced by aspects of her emotional responses to situations. By tracking the heroine's changing sense of self, students render the physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges she experiences through her mythic rite of passage into elements of the game they design themselves! CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.


Mark Twain

Twain opens his classic tale, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a tongue-in-cheek warning:PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot!” Never mind. Critics have spent 130 years examining every literary device within this “Great American Novel” since its publication in 1885. EDSITEment offers students their own opportunity to flout Twain’s admonition with Critical Ways of Seeing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Context. In this lesson, students compare and contrast the ideas presented in two published critiques of the novel. They examine two critical voices from two different eras and juxtapose their own 21st-century reading of the novel against them. Contemporary events and social mores in effect during the critics’ lives are used to determine the influence of cultural context on their reviews. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.9 Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

EDSITEment provides students with a different means of delving further into this great American bard by investigating Mark Twain and American Literary Humor. This lesson offers a close reading of his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and an opportunity to trace its literary predecessors. They discover how Twain masterfully combined the vibrant, storytelling tradition rooted in folk tale, fable, and gossip with the calculated literary devices of satire, irony, and wit. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.6 Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.


Literary legends are big game to be tracked anew by each generation of readers of American literature. EDSITEment resources offer teachers a way to evaluate their texts in light of the new Standards and provide vehicles to safari students through traditional close readings of their timeless tales.


Additional Resources



From "The North Wind and the Sun," in The Æsop for Children, by Æsop, illustrated by Milo Winter. Wikimedia Commons.

Kandi.jpgYou begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. … to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace. … to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.—Anne Lamott


When content area teachers hear that their already full curriculum load will now include ELA standards in writing, many express doubt about their ability to tackle the challenge. When looking at the new Common Core State Standards for writing along with the new requirements to incorporate history, social studies, science and technical subjects, as well as nonfiction literature, such angst is understandable.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


Basically what this means is that teachers of all disciplines as well as ELA teachers will need to teach writing frequently. Although the standards include some examples of performance tasks in writing, there essentially are no road maps. So how do teachers get there?


Tips to adapt current curriculum

One way to include more writing in the curriculum is to examine multiple choice tests and look for questions that can be developed into open-ended questions. Develop short answer questions. Ask the student to explain, analyze, compare, conclude, and synthesize using questions that are more cognitively demanding. These short writing activities prepare students for more complex writing later.


For vocational classes, teachers might begin with process writing. For instance, if students will be building a book shelf, have them write out the steps that will be required to create and assemble the shelves. This type of writing requires students to evaluate and organize the information and to determine what details are important to include. Once the book shelf is completed, instruct students to write a reflective piece about the building process: what worked, what didn't, and what steps to remember in order be successful in future projects. To add elements of argument, let students compose an advertisement for the shelf modeled on real advertisements for book shelves or other wood projects. Have them analyze persuasive techniques such as loaded language or emotional appeal, then write out their own advertisement. Here too, we see short writing that could develop into larger pieces such as research papers.


Practice reading and writing together

Reading and writing coexist. As students break down a complex texts, they are simultaneously moving into the writing process. Read and write the lessons you teach. Begin the process with a quick read of the text, then create the writing task that will go with the text. Read a short story and ask students to write about how the author uses conflict to reveal the theme. This provides a purpose for the reading. As students read the text, they will look for examples of conflict. They might write out quotes that show conflict on sticky notes, or get into groups and write out conflict quotes and explanations on a large poster. Have them look at their examples and determine a theme. Such short writings will become a piece of a larger essay.


Teachers model as writers

Teachers provide samples of their own writing for the lessons they assign in order to gain a better understanding of the writing process. They become aware of the challenges students face firsthand. Through writing a response, they can determine if the writing task is clear and discover strategies to help students with their structure and organization. For teachers who may not be confident in teaching writing, this process hones writing skills. Writing is challenging! Model for students the time it requires and a willingness to take risks.


Revise, revise, revise!

Most teachers observe the classic writing format: read the writing task; brainstorm ideas; write an outline; compose a first draft; then type a final draft (which is usually just another version of the rough draft with spell check). However, in reality that final draft is typically when students should just be getting started. Authentic writers and journalist revise numerous times. For years I would get frustrated at my students for making the same mistakes in writing. After that "final draft," I provided no opportunity for revision.


Now, when my students have the opportunity to revise, they begin to see patterns in their writing. Do they continuously shift tense? Is structure an issue? I provide writing comments on these early drafts without grading the piece. In this way, students don't give up. Small writing groups are a good way to make revisions; students exchange papers and discuss their work. By reading their drafts out loud, most students can immediately spot problems that exist.


Adding more writing to content area curricula does not have to be daunting. As CCSS has teachers incorporating writing into their current curriculum, teachers can simultaneously provide students more cognitively complex lessons. This is not only good for teachers, it is what matters to students in school and beyond.



Kandi Maxwell teaches English at Modoc High School in Alturas, California. A teacher-writing consultant for the Northern California Writing Project, she has presented at teacher training workshops throughout Northern California. Kandi has worked in Indian Education for the past 15 years and is currently the vice-chair of the parent board for Resources for Indian Student Education. Her essays have been published in The Teacher’s Voice and California English.

180px-Lion_06584.jpgThere is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

—Chinua Achebe


A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 9–10 (Appendix B), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart deals with the clash of cultures and the violent transitions brought about by British colonialism in Nigeria at the end of the 19th century.


Published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence, Achebe’s novel recounts the life of the village hero Okonkwo and describes the arrival of white missionaries in Nigeria during the late 1800s and their impact on traditional Igbo society. Achebe tried to achieve a “new” English that would capture and preserve the African experience of an Igbo village. Things Fall Apart made Achebe “the father of African literature.” Over the last decade, his novel has become a staple on high school reading lists worldwide.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


EDSITEment offers a new World Literature lesson, A “New English” in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Common Core Exemplar. This lesson provides an opportunity to see how Achebe integrates elements from the Igbo oral tradition into his narrative: figurative language that draws on every-day village life; the ubiquitous proverbs of African conversation; and the folktales that both entertain and instruct. Students will undertake a close reading of passages in Things Fall Apart to evaluate the impact of Achebe’s linguistic and literary techniques on the narrative. This expands their cultural understanding and broadens their base of world literature.


Achebe’s New English

With a childhood in the Igbo town of Ogidi and an education in English at the University of Ibadan, Achebe was conversant with both Igbo and English language and culture. In a famous essay called “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe pointed out the difference between ethnic language and national language, which originated in the artificial drawing of national boundaries by the colonizing powers without regard to ethnic fault lines. Thus, the people of Nigeria speak numerous ethnic languages—Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani, and 500 additional languages. Achebe states that if he were to write for the people of Nigeria, he had to write in the one language they all understood: English.


Upon the author’s death in March 2013, NPR complied a number of interviews and broadcasts that had been conducted over the years to feature Achebe and speak to the legacy of Things Fall Apart.


Applications for the Common Core

A “New English” in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Common Core Exemplar offers an application for the Reading Literature 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.


Lesson activities guide students in an examination of the elements of Igbo oral tradition as they appear in Things Fall Apart. Activity 1 launches students into an interpretation of Igbo words and phrases Achebe molds into literary devices. They see firsthand how Achebe shaped the English of his novel to the African experience. Worksheet 1 provides a vehicle for students to identify the author’s figurative language and record the meaning of each Igbo simile. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.


Students move on to an examination of Igbo proverbs that Achebe peppers over his narrative to evoke a sense of time and place; set tone; convey mood; and provide local color. 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).


Finally students observe how Achebe plants several Igbo folktales at strategic points in the narrative. A close reading of these traditional African stories offers the American student a unique perspective into the Igbo people’s values and culture. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.


The summative assessment has students consider how successful Achebe was in his stated intention to use the “English language to carry the weight of the African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Lincoln Gettysburg.jpgWhen Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.


The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a  curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience.


Common Core

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Address, teachers and students have an additional reason to dive into the work for its literary and historical importance. The CCSS lists the Address as one of its “exemplar texts” illustrating the kind of complexity, range, and quality Grade 9–10 students need to master.


By guiding students through an analysis of the key ideas and themes that animate the Gettysburg Address and the structure and craft with which Lincoln developed them over the course of three paragraphs, the learning activities will strengthen the higher-order thinking skills students need to meet the Common Core Standards.


What the lesson contains

The elements of the lesson plan includes the following:


The open-ended question guiding this lesson is “How did Lincoln see the Civil War as an opportunity for the nation to bring forth a “new birth of freedom” (or liberty for all), and why was this necessary for the survival of American self-government?”


Active student learning: understanding the implications of the Address

In order to answer this, students need to:

  • Explain why Lincoln thought July 4, 1776, was the birthday of the United States
  • Articulate the connection Lincoln made between emancipation and preserving the Union
  • Describe the "unfinished task" that Lincoln presented to the American people at Gettysburg


In the Background to the Teacher section of the lesson, teachers will find a brief account of Lincoln’s thought written by Lucas Morel, a distinguished student of his political thought.


The student activities begin with a first reading of the Address, along with an editorial in the Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper long critical of Lincoln, published a few days after the Address.


The editorial raises this question: How can Lincoln say that our forefathers dedicated this nation to "the proposition that all men are created equal" when the Constitution assumes the inequality of men by permitting and safeguarding slavery?


By grappling with this question, students will be primed for the next stage of the activity, in which they read impromptu remarks Lincoln made a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg. In those remarks Lincoln is already thinking of the “great theme” that will constitute the Address:


How long ago is it?—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” [Cheers.] That was the birthday of the United States of America.


Now the students return to the Address for a second reading, followed by a series of text-dependent questions. These questions allow students to see for themselves Lincoln’s argument that American constitutional democracy rests on the equality of human beings; that the “great rebellion” against this principle must be put down; and that the “unfinished task” before the American people is to finally make good on the promise of the Declaration by extending “the new birth of freedom” to black people. Students are then expected to weigh the merits of Lincoln’s argument and whether the criticism in Chicago editorial is legitimate and justified.


With this lesson, teachers can challenge their students to understand and appreciate at a very high level one of the greatest “informational” texts in the English language.


Additional Resources



"Lincoln's address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, November 19, 1863," Library of Congress.

http://www.floridamemory.com/fpc/reference/rc10403.jpgI belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads. —Zora Neale Hurston


A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 11 – College and Career Readiness (Appendix B) Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is more than simply the coming-of-age story of a woman finding herself and extending her horizons.


A careful record of place and time, this novel brings to life the culture of the first African American-controlled town in Florida and the settlement of black migrant workers in the rich agricultural “muck” around Lake Okeechobee in the early decades of the 20th century. A trained anthropologist and ethnographer, Hurston imbued her characters’ dialogue and descriptive passages with firsthand knowledge of the folk life and folk language of this region.


EDSITEment’s new multicultural literature lesson, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative Language for the Common Core, provides students with an opportunity to observe how Hurston creates a unique literary voice by combining folklore, folk language, and traditional literary techniques. Students will examine the role that folk groups play in their own lives and in the novel. They will undertake a close reading of passages in Their Eyes Were Watching God that reveal Hurston’s literary techniques and determine their impact on the novel. blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


The Novel

Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) with its tale of Janie’s three marriages is the pre-eminent novel written by a woman who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The protagonist of this early feminist “manifesto” liberates herself from the expectations of society and particularly from the men in her life. At the same time, the novel celebrates and preserves a particular time, place, and way of life with the accuracy of an anthropologist.


The National Endowment for the Arts The Big Read selected Their Eyes Were Watching God for “the syncopated beauty of Hurston's prose, her remarkable gift for comedy, [and] the sheer visceral terror of the book's climax,” that “transcend any label that critics have tried to put on this remarkable work.”


Applications for the Common Core

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative Language offers an application for the Reading Literature 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 introduces students to the specialized vocabulary of folklore and has them apply it to Hurston’s fictional writing in the novel. They go on to analyze the impact of Hurston’s choices regarding how she integrated folk groups and folk genre into her narrative. This is followed by Activity 2, in which students identify examples of Hurston’s “eye dialect”—a technique used by writers to simulate speech as it is actually spoken rather than in its polished, abstract, “correct” form.


Worksheet 3 aids students in their task of analyzing the impact of specific word choices on Hurston’s meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings and language that is powerful. 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.


Regardless of whether Zora Neale Hurston was using dialect or Standard English, she clearly employed many figures of speech in her writing. The lesson concludes with Activity 3, in which students complete a close reading of several passages from the novel to uncover some of these figurative elements.


Overall, the lesson provides a series of steps in which students can evaluate the effectiveness of these elements in creating Hurston’s unique “voice.” CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings: (a) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5a Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text and (b) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5b Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.


Additional resources

Further background and resources to place Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work in context can be found at the University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gap. More comprehensive biographical material is available on her official website, Zora Neale Hurston.



State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Monarch_In_May.jpgA novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart. —Julia Alvarez


A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 9–10 (Appendix B), In the Time of Butterflies is complex coming-of-age novel perfect for a high school English Language Arts course or literature circle selection. With its unique structure of time frames and alternating voices, this novel provides a context for students to examine the struggles of women to secure their human, civil, and economic rights in countries around the world today.


EDSITEment’s new World Literature lesson, Courage In the Time of the Butterflies: A Common Core Exemplar, conducts students through a careful analysis of multiple characters demonstrations of different types of courage. Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies”—was the name used by the people of the Dominican Republic to describe the Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated by the dictator Rafael Trujillo for trying to lead a democratic revolution. It also offers a close reading of an informational text, a recent speech delivered by a daughter of one of the sisters to help students better understand the historical legacy of these extraordinary women.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


The Novel

Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) tells this story in historical fiction through the voices of the four Mirabal sisters. Based on Alvarez’s personal knowledge of the political situation in the Dominican Republic and her family’s own participation in the resistance movement, the novel conveys authenticity. It is also grounded in extensive research. Alvarez interviewed the surviving sister Dedé and other family members to create unforgettable characters and bridge the gap between biography and fiction.


In the Time of the Butterflies concludes with a postscript in which the author asks herself: What gave the Mirabals that special courage? Alvarez notes this is the question that drove her to write the novel. Her stated intention was to immerse her readers “in an epoch of the life of the Dominican Republic that can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination.” As they enter the turbulent world of these courageous sisters, your high school students will let you know how successful Alvarez was in accomplishing that goal.


(The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts has selected In the Time of Butterflies for its “homage to the bravery and sacrifice of the Mirabal family and a literary work of high grace.”)


Applications for the Common Core

Courage In the Time of the Butterflies offers an application for the Reading Literature 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 has students generate an extended definition of “courage” a central theme in this text, followed by Activity 2, where the development of the sisters’ courage is tracked over the course of the text in order for them to acertain how it emerges in the actions of the sisters throughout the novel. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.


Students unearth the complex motivations of each sister’s character and consider their changing relationships as the story evolves. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.


The lesson concludes in Activity 3 with a speech given by Minerva Mirabal’s daughter Minou on the subject of violence against women. It provides a unique first-hand perspective and special insight into their lives and legacy. This informational text broadens students’ scope and reinforces their understanding of the types of courage they have examined in Alvarez’s characters. A close reading of the speech is followed by a discussion on its relevance to contemporary women in the United States and around the world. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.


Extending the lesson offers additional activities to commemorate the United Nation’s annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th.


Additional Resources

Julia Alvarez (Official website with biographical information, articles, photos, and interviews) contains a film interview of Julia Alvarez on writing In the Time of the Butterflies.


PBS documentary, Latino Americans [Part IV. The New Latinos (1946–1965)] features an interview with Julia Alvarez. In her writing, Alvarez explores the hybrid identity taking shape in a new generation of Latinos, who are now demanding their place in America.



Photo of a monarch butterfly by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

"What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!”

These words mark the frontispiece of  the 1899 edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a Halloween classic that has entertained people for over a hundred years.  Do students know Washington Irving was a beloved and influential American writer during the nineteenth century?  Irving penned one of the most popular and long-lived ghost stories in American literature as evidenced in its countless film, television and popular culture adaptations. So what is it about this author's spooky tale that continues to capture the imagination of readers and viewers today?


EDSITEment’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow explores the artistry that made Irving our nation's first literary master and ponders the mystery that now haunts every All Hallows Eve -- What happened to Ichabod Crane? 

Ichabods chase crop.jpgWashington Irving’s story about a gullible and self-centered schoolteacher was first published as part of a collection know as The Sketchbook in 1820.  The Library of Congress has named "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" one of the Books That Shaped America citing “Irving’s vivid imagery involving the wild supernatural pursuit by the Headless Horseman has sustained interest in this popular folktale through many printed editions, as well as film, stage, and musical adaptations. The bold cover art of the 1899 edition is the work of Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944), the preeminent designer of decorated cloth publishers’ bindings between 1890 and 1913.”


In our contemporary culture, place and story - literature and image often merge within motion pictures and television programs. Irving's village in Sleepy Hollow New York was one of the film sites for Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollows, a recent film interpretation. Students may be surprised to see how Burton's version chose to characterize the teacher, Ichabod Crane, and his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, differently from Irving's original conception.  And this fall there is a new incarnation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in a TV show that is quite unlike any other version of the terrifying tale. With its modern day setting in Sleepy Hollow New York, the plot twists Crane into a Revolutionary soldier who wakes up in 2013 along with the Horseman (one of the four from the Apocalypse.) The two adversaries continue their centuries old battle in contemporary America, though each episode includes historical flashbacks to life in 1776!


The New York Times Learning Network articles “Rediscovering a Giant” and  Sleepy Hollow Capitalizing on Legend” transport students back to the village where Washington Irving set his tale over 200 years ago (it has since changed its name from North Tarrytown) to rediscover this 19th-century literary "Giant"! Sometime after Washington Irving wrote his story, another little town, Milford CT, earned the nickname "Sleepy Hollow." Exactly why is something of a mystery, but students will uncover interesting connections between the story and the town in Connecticut's Sleepy Hollow in the state encyclopedia, Connecticut History.


Jack-o'-Lantern_2003-10-31.jpgStudents who want to know how Halloween was celebrated in America in the late 19th century through turn of century may peer back in time through historic newspapers of the day.  See Chronicling America's topical essay on Halloween. One article from 1907 Los Angeles Herald, "Hallowe'en--A Holiday Tradition," highlights well-known, holiday customs still practiced nowadays like mischievous pranks and Jack-O-Lanterns.  It also includes obscure, old-fashioned rituals, like divinations to forecast the matrimonial futures of lovers. 


Originating as a blend of mythology and Christian superstitions, Halloween is celebrated on October 31st every year on the eve of All Saints’ Day (November 1) otherwise known as All Hallows Eve.  It is believed that on this night the veil between the worlds is permeable and spirits of the dead (like Irving's terrifying Headless Horseman) can cross over to the land of the living to pay a visit...or to haunt! Delve into the ancient Celtic roots and learn the Latin American traditions of this holiday in EDSITEment's feature Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.


By the way, Halloween is not the only red letter calendar day to benefit from Washington Irving's fertile imagination....we also have him to thank for a certain jolly character who lands on rooftops and makes his way into many homes on Christmas eve....Yes, it was Washington Irving who penned "dreams one night that the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children..." and conjured up the image that has come to exemplify our modern day Santa Claus!  But that is another story....maybe a subject for next month's post?



Faulkner.jpgIn his classic introduction to The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley writes, "Faulkner's novels have the quality of being lived, absorbed, remembered rather than merely observed. And they have what is rare in the novels of our time, a warmth of family affection, brother for brother and sister, the father for his children—a love so warm and proud that it tries to shut out the rest of the world." That familial glow is one we can all bask in as we strive to fulfill the rigors of the Common Core.


As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, originally published in 1930, is a fascinating exploration of the many voices found in a Southern family and community. This novel is an English Language Arts text exemplar for CCSS Grades 11 – CCR. (See Appendix B.)blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


EDSITEment offers a Curriculum Unit As I Lay Dying: Form of a Funeral to unpack this masterpiece of fiction from the American South. Faulkner's ability to shift narrative voice in this novel results in a rich tapestry of often competing perspectives, where information is doled out in small bits, left to the reader to piece together in an understanding of the larger (yet not complete) family portrait of the Bundrens.


How does Faulkner's form for the novel—a series of competing voices and perspectives presented as a multiple-voice narrative—work for or against the novel's title? This guiding question aligns with grade standard 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.


The Nobel Prize speech

Teachers looking for an informational text to accompany their reading will find one in Lesson 5: Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Concluding the Novel. In his Nobel Prize speech Faulkner said that "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself […] alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." In this brief speech (only 553 words) he spoke of that conflict: of "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." His assessment of mankind's future is surprisingly optimistic: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail."


Activity 1 has students compare the central themes of hope and loss found in both Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech and As I Lay Dying. Consider Faulkner’s final portrait of the Bundren family:

  • Are they as rotten as Addie's corpse, full of despair and dissolution? Or are they a tribute to the vigor and resolve of a Southern family, who successfully complete an overwhelming task?
  • Does Faulkner truly resolve this issue?
  • Is the sense of hope more evident in his Nobel Prize speech than in As I Lay Dying?
  • Beyond the title, what else might be "dying" in this novel? The South? The authority of the narrator? The institution of the family? Faulkner's artistic depth allows for all of these possibilities.


What kind of promise does Faulkner offer after death? Is the novel simply pessimistic, or is there some hope throughout? Is that redemption reflected in the Nobel Prize speech? CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.


Sense of place

Faulkner wrote about a time and a place he knew well. Lesson 1: Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Images of Faulkner and the South can be used to examine social and economic conditions in the rural South to allow students to "place" Faulkner's novel historically and sociologically. Faulkner's life is presented, briefly, so that parallels can be drawn between his life and the life depicted in the text. Students can explore how the small Mississippi town where Faulkner grew up supplied models for many colorful characters like the Bundren family. 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).


NEH Humanities magazine feature, “Faulkner at 100,” discusses Faulkner’s view of love as “an active response to something that we choose.” The conflicting impulses he fielded to both escape and indict his home state were trumped only by his abiding affection for it. His Mississippi is all embracing—his characters in spite of (and perhaps because of) their shortcomings are his own folk. Thanks to Faulkner’s genius, they also become ours.


Additional Resources


Courtesy of Gary Bridgman, southsideartgallery.com




Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle brings four outstanding films on the long civil rights movement—The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name,The Loving Story, and Freedom Riders—to teachers across America with a rich collection of resources designed especially for the contemporary classroom.In whole and in part, the films address issues of race and rights, and invite students to confront the complicated history of race relations both from the perspectives of individuals and from those who saw themselves as part of a
persecuted and disenfranchised community.
In addition, the films document the efforts of individuals to bring about equality for all races through discussion of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.


  • The extensive “For Teachers” section is enriched with background materials written by an award-winning classroom teacher that guide educators on how to integrate the films into the contemporary classroom, where multimedia and primary source materials play a major role.
  • A dozen captioned film clips, clip overview essays, and over a score of targeted questions are designed to stimulate and guide classroom discussions
  • . A collection of background essays, lesson plans, and annotated documents—including speeches, images, and letters-are made exclusively available from the archives of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and EDSITEment, the NEH’s award-winning K-12 website in order to help teachers delve deeper into their history and social studies curriculums and support them in fulfilling the need for complex nonfiction texts required by the new college and career-ready standards.
  • The website complies fully with special-needs accessibility and is scalable to every platform and device—from wide screen to smartphone—and is thus fully adaptable to a wide variety of classroom configurations and requirements.

MAKovacs-for-blog.jpgMary Anne Kovacs holds an M.A. from the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College (Vermont). She has taught grades 9–12, including AP English, in both urban and suburban schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mary Anne has authored many curriculum units, marketed both nationally and internationally.

“The arts have a central and essential role in achieving the finest aspects of the common core…”

—David Coleman


The students whom we try to prepare for college and career experiences arrive at the classroom door with their own goals. While English teachers are riveted on textual support, themes, and structure, students are focused on concerns ranging from family issues to the demands of part-time jobs, athletics, and social networking. It is important to create bridges to connect our goals with theirs.blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


Anchor Standard for Reading 7

Visual Art is a powerful tool for building bridges between these conflicting agendas. This is articulated in 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.


What exactly does this Anchor Reading Standard 7 mandate? In the language of the ELA Standards, the first step comes in kindergarten, as children “describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear.” Making such connections between visual images and text continues throughout elementary and middle school years. In grades 9–10, the connection is reformulated as: “Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums … determining which details are emphasized in each account.” In essence, students’ sophistication continues as they evolve to see and “to read” visual media as texts in their own right.


Value of mixed media for ELA

The value of art works can be demonstrated through a task faced by many secondary level literature teachers: distinguishing between Romanticism and Realism. Mixed media sheds lights on questions such as: How does Wordsworth’s world view and literary style contrast with those of Matthew Arnold? Why does the early Whitman sound so different from Stephen Crane?


Start with John Constable’s Hampstead Heath and ask for a show of hands whether students think the painting is essentially Romantic. Emphasize the wilderness, the dramatic sky, and the country workers. To contrast, have students view Edward Hopper’s New York Street Corner, with its urban setting, anonymous crowd, and hazy city in the background. Then show Asher Brown Durand’s The Catskills, emphasizing the presentation of majestic nature untouched by technology. Finally, use George Bellows’s Stag at Starkey’s and point out its clearly urban setting and vivid depiction of a boxing match. (Search Tip: Just use the key words: artist’s name + title of painting.)


After such a media-rich explanation, students will have little trouble recognizing patterns of idealism, love for nature, and spontaneity that characterize Romanticism in works from centuries ago to the present day.


Art as entry points into individual authors

The arts can also prove invaluable with close readings of individual writers and literary works.


Before reading a single word by William Blake, discuss the incredibly intricate illustrations he included as integral parts of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The illustrations give students a window into the contrasts the poet saw between innocence and experience as facets of life. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.


Before studying Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, have students examine Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Looking at the Moon, a painting that inspired the playwright’s presentation of the characters, Didi and Gogo. Note the near darkness and the barren landscape. Where do students think the two men have been? Where are they going? What is the subject of their conversation? CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.


Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus accompanies a study of mythology to precede reading and discussion of W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Though it usually takes a while for viewers to notice, upon close examination they will observe the tiny legs in the lower right section depicting Icarus’s plunge into the sea because of his failed wings. 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.


These are just a few ways visual arts can contribute to the teaching of language arts by creating bridges with students’ natural interests. Reading Standard 7 invites teachers to engage students in reading more than just printed words. It encourages young people to make tangible connections that lead to vibrant learning.


Visual Literacy Resources

scene.PNGOn September 17 every U.S. educational institution that receives federal grant money is required by law to teach about the United States Constitution. EDSITEment was one of the first federal agencies to establish a Constitution Day feature and over the years it has evolved into a robust minisite of many lessons, vetted websites, games, and videos.


We offer a Common Core ready worksheet to help students do a close reading of the document and an essay outline worksheet for them to define and defender their own understanding of the significance of “the Supreme Law of the Land.”blog-logo-banner-smler.jpg


1. The Bill of Rights

For teachers who wish to focus on the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the original Constitution, we recommend the historical overview Retouching the Canvas the Creation of the Bill of Rights and the interactive map of the state ratification debates. If your focus is the First Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and assembly, try these lessons.


2. The Constitutional Convention

The original Constitution, the one that was signed by the framers in September 1787 and sent to the states for ratification, is well worth exploring on its own terms. EDSITEment has lessons on the road to the convention, and the illuminating debates during the convention over representation and the establishment of the office of the presidency.


In addition there are the illuminating debates  between the supporters of the Constitution, the Federalists, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, over the size, scope and powers of the proposed new government. The issues raised in these debates recur throughout our history and continue to be vital to our public discourse.


3. Constitution USA Videos

How do you respond to a question about how an 18th-century document can still be relevant in 21st? The NEH-supported documentary series Constitution USA with Peter Segal explains. This four-hour online series introduces students to some of today’s major debates—free speech in the digital age, same-sex marriage, voting rights, separation of church and state, presidential power in the post-9/11 world, to name just a few—and shows how they turn on interpretation of provisions of the document.


4. Slavery

As much as we honor the framers and their work we must not ignore the dissenters who have also made the Constitution what it is today. This year as NEH launches Created Equal we thought it would be most interesting to face head-on the most controversial part of the original Constitution, the provisions having to do with slavery, and show how these provisions became the subject of heated debate in the decades before the Civil War. To begin with, there is Slavery and the Founding, which offers a survey of a range of views of the founders about the evils of slavery and the difficulties of emancipation. This can be paired with Slavery Opponents and Defenders, which includes a student activity centering on one of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s representative speeches in which he denounced the Constitution for its compromises with the slavery.


5. Anti-Slavery Interpretations

Garrison’s esteemed abolitionist colleague, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, dissented. In his most important speech What to the Slave is the 4th of July? Douglass held that” there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.”


At the beginning of that same speech, Douglass linked the “eternal principles” of the Declaration with the proper interpretation of the Constitution. This idea that the principle “all men are created equal” should inform interpretation was one that Abraham Lincoln insisted upon during the decade before the Civil War. In a little-known “fragment” written on the Constitution in early 1861, Lincoln said:


The assertion of that principle [all men are created equal], at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.”


6. The Reconstruction Amendments

The advocacy of abolitionists like Douglass and Garrison along with President Lincoln and the Congress contributed to the end of slavery during and following the Civil War. Together, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), as well as the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and declared that American citizenship and the right to vote could not be restricted on the basis of race.


7. The Fourteenth Amendment: A New Constitution?

While these Reconstruction amendments were not much protection for black people in the 19th and early 20th century, they laid the groundwork for a constitutional revolution establishing new notions of citizenship, equal protection, due process, and personal liberty, altering the relationship between the federal government and the states. In many ways, it is this “Second Constitution” that governs the nation we live in today, and it is the Fourteenth Amendment that underlies many landmark Supreme Court decisions that have reshaped the contours of American society.



Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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