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American "Isms"

Try using this comprehensive group project after your students spend time sampling short pieces from the historical literary eras, or "Isms," of American literature. The sky's the limit when students strive to create dynamic presentations about a literary movement such as Puritanism, Rationalism, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Naturalism and Realism, and Modernism.

Grade Level(s)

Curriculum Area
English/Language Arts (American Literature)

Time Required
5-7 class period

Standards Connections
Materials/Resources Needed
Teacher Preperation
Introducing the Lesson
Student Activities
Wrap-Up and Evaluation
Extension Activity

Standards Connections
  • National Standards:
    • Standards for the English Language Arts (NCTE/IRA)/Standard 2: Reading Literature, Standard 7: Conducting Research, and Standard 8: Using Technological and Informational Resources
  • State Standards:
    • Maryland School Performance Program
      1. 2.12.3 Comparison of Literary Text. Students will compare and contrast the major periods, themes, styles, and movements of American and World literature and describe how works by members of different cultures relate to each other.
      2. 3.12.2 Research. Students use clear research questions and coherent research methodology to elicit and present evidence from primary and secondary sources using available library, electronic, and human resources.
    • See www.explorasource.com for more state standards connections.
  • District Standards (fill in your own)
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Students will:
  • Read examples of several American literary movements.
  • Define a major American literary movement and identify several of its authors.
  • Analyze a sample piece from an "Ism" and explain how the work demonstrates its tenets.
  • Explain the historical and cultural landscape of the time period in which the literary movement took place.
  • Create a visual and oral presentation that summarizes the literary movement.
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Materials/Resources Needed
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Teacher Preparation
  1. Review the Electronic Handouts and Evaluation Rubrics and revise or adapt for your class as needed.
  2. If you need to obtain electronic copies of the literature suggested in this unit (see Activity 1 below), try downloading them in eBook format. Visit http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks/ to search for eBooks.
  3. Divide students into seven cooperative groups that will focus on different American literary movements, such as:
      a. Puritanism
      b. Rationalism
      c. Romanticism
      d. Transcendentalism
      e. Naturalism and Realism
      f. Modernism
      g. Post-Modernism
  4. Gather art supplies for students to use when they are creating the visual presentation of their "Ism."
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Introducing the Lesson

  1. Have the students brainstorm as many works of American literature as they can. As they do so, write down the titles on the overhead projector, board, or computer, grouping them roughly into literary movements as you do so.
  2. Once the brainstorm is complete, label each group of titles with the name of the appropriate literary movement. If students did not name any titles from a particular movement, you may need to list some examples for them.
  3. Consider allowing students to choose the literary movement they will research based on this brainstorm instead of placing them into groups.
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Student Activities

Activity 1: Overview
Grouping: Whole class
Materials: Sample literature from each "Ism"
  1. In order for students to have an overview of each "Ism," spend a few days reading and discussing short works that exemplify each movement. Consider using the following examples:
      a. Puritanism: Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
      b. Rationalism: The Declaration of Independence
      c. Romanticism: Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"
      d. Transcendentalism: selected works from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau
      e. Naturalism and Realism: Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"
      f. Modernism: William Carlos William's "The Use of Force"
      g. Post-Modernism: selected poems by Anne Sexton, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, and Barbara Kingsolver

Activity 2: Project Planning
Grouping: Seven cooperative groups
Materials: Assignment Tickets
  1. Distribute the Assignment Tickets either by beaming or emailing the Pocket Word files to everyone. Go over the scope of the project and your expectations.
  2. This open-ended project provides students with the chance to practice their organizational and project planning skills. In their groups, have students devise their plan of action by using the Calendar and Tasks functions on their handheld computers.
      a. Suggest that each student in the group create several tasks to outline his or her contribution to the group's final project. Students can name the tasks, prioritize them, set start and due dates, program reminders, create project categories, and add notes about the tasks. You may want to require that each student includes his or her initials in the subject field and beams one task to you for evaluation.
      b. Suggest that each group plan the project's milestones using their Calendars. Students can categorize the milestones, plan start and end dates, set reminders, create categories, and include notes for each. You may want to require that each student include his or her initials in the subject field and beams one calendar event to you for evaluation.
      c. Meet with each group to assess its schedule. Consider having the groups write up their overall project plans in Pocket Word to turn in to you.

Activity 3: Research
Grouping: Seven cooperative groups
Materials: Assignment Tickets
  1. Assign each group its "Ism" and distribute the four Assignment Tickets via beaming or email if you have not already done so.
  2. Students will use the filtered search tool on the Mindsurf Networks' website as well as print resources in order to research the following:
      a.The Concepts:Students search through several sources and incorporate what they find into a clear explanation of their "Ism" in paragraph form.
      b.The Writers:Students prepare a list of the major writers of the movement, including birth and death dates and an image of each person. They then write a detailed biography of one author and analyze the author's contributions to the literary movement.
      c.The Literature:Students provide two excerpts from short works that exemplify the movement. They also analyze the excerpts and explain why they represent the movement.
      d.The Landscape:Students write a brief explanation of the historical and cultural landscape of the time. What was going on in American history when the literary movement flourished? They can include additional artwork, photography, and documentary audio recordings with their project.
  3. Students should take notes in each Assignment Ticket using Pocket Word. Allow several class periods for students to complete their research.

Activity 4: Presentation Prep
Grouping: Seven cooperative groups
Materials: Research findings from Activity 3
  1. Once students have completed their research, they should begin preparing for their five-minute group presentations to the class.
  2. The following are suggestions for the visual component of the project:
      a. A full-sized poster
      b. A book cover (Students create a mock book cover for a real or imaginative novel from the time period. It should contain a front and back cover and include inside flaps. The cover should be artistically designed and contain a written summary, "about the author" section, and book reviews from the time period.)
      c. A website (See an example at http://www.geocities.com/transcend_english/)
      d. A ceiling tile decoration (Take down and have students decorate a ceiling tile. The tiles are the perfect size and material for some sort of collage, painting, or mobile. This tile decoration really adds tremendous vitality and color to the classroom, especially for that drab ceiling!)
  3. The following are suggestions for the oral presentation:
      a. During their presentations, groups can use their visual aids in addition to presentation notes on the handheld computers.
      b. Groups can beam or email each other a summary of the central beliefs of their "Ism. "
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Wrap-Up Activity and Evaluation
Grouping: Individual
Materials: Evaluation Rubrics
  1. After all group presentations, students should fill out the Evaluation Rubrics to assess their group work as well as their group's presentation. The rubrics automatically calculate the total points as students evaluate each criterion. Collect the rubric by having students either beam or email it to you.
  2. Create a test for the class that is based on the information each group presented as a way to review the aspects of all seven literary movements.
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Extension Activity
Grouping: Whole class or small groups
Materials: Copies of The Declaration of Independence
  1. Ask students to investigate the "voiceless" or "marginalized" writers and artists of the time period. For instance, the group covering the Rationalists may want to consider what The Declaration of Independence meant for women, Native Americans, or African Americans.
  2. Have students search The Declaration of Independence in order to find the ten most frequently used words. Students can research various documents written since then to discover the profound effect this document has had on famous politicians and writers.

*Lesson plan provided by Lin Storey, 11th grade English teacher, River Hill High School in Howard County, Maryland.
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