Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Those Who Do Not Know History Are Doomed to Fail English, Part II

Okay, y'all, last month's column wore me out.  So I turned off the interweb, rested my mouse-clickin' hand, and took a nap with Julie Andrews' wonderful memoir, Home, on my chest. Now, as I promised, I'm back with more resources to help teachers get their students to grasp literature through historical context.

Last column, I made the point that our students aren't born knowing the contexts of many of the works we struggle so valiantly to teach them, but that better awareness of what the world they're reading about might have been like goes a long way toward improving their interest in, and understanding of, the work.  Thus empowered, we took a whirlwind, Zelig-like tour through Arthurian/Ancient England and Ireland, the Puritans in America and the Cold War. This month, we're going to jump around the millennia some more, starting with ancient Greece and Rome, moving forward to the Civil War, and finishing up with the Vietnam Era. Marty McFly, eat your heart out.

The Unexamined Context Isn't Worth a Try

As you can see by what I wrote above, ancient Greece and Rome tend to get lumped together, but for English teachers, it's far more likely you'll want to help your students understand what life was like in Greece. The majority of ancient Western literature still read today is from Greece, not Rome. Don't feel bad for the Romans: remember, they got several cool television series and a Russell Crowe film for their debauched efforts. But it's the Greek writers — Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, and Euripides, Homer — who we more often revere and read today.

Many translations of ancient Greek literature are in the public domain, and some can be found at MIT's Classics Archive. Take the time to find a good translation, especially for the plays. Teachers might be hesitant to explore literature that is so, well, old, with students who are so, well, young.  But it's been my experience that this concern melts away in the face of the blood, sweat and yelling women that comprise Greek literature. Once they fight a war with Homer, sympathize with Antigone, a girl their age who wants to bury her dead brother's rotting corpse, or find themselves suddenly happy that their mom isn't Medea, well, you may have made some classics fans.

The Greeks lived in a world that is simultaneously similar yet radically different from ours. It's difficult for students to grasp that the same group of people could value education, rational thought and the arts, while subjugating everyone who was the least bit different. A good overview of the similarities and differences is found at the History for Kids site. Another wonderful source for an overview of the culture, lifestyle and history of the Greeks is here. Note that this page has a nice section of information about the Olympics, which might capture the interest of students who are excited about the 2008 Games.

Since we cannot afford to jet the entire class over to the Mediterranean for a walk amongst the ruins of ancient Greece, an online look at the art, architecture and culture is helpful, although be forewarned that classical nudity might provoke snickers. The University of Pennsylvania has a virtual tour as well as dozens of great photographs of its Greek collection. This site, too, is helpful.

As all of the Greek writers made numerous references to their religion's gods and goddesses, an overview of Greek mythology may be in order. I like this introduction, where the tone is appropriate. Those deities were a lusty bunch, but this site phrases things carefully, like this entry on Aphrodite: "Though married, she looked other places for affections..." Yeah, I bet she did.

Focusing in on specific writers, there are more helpful online sources. Despite my BFA and MA in theatre, I tend to get confused about the different time periods in Greek theatre. You may not need to get as detailed as the article found here, but it's helpful and clear. Of course, plays are best watched to be understood. If your local theatre isn't producing the three-part Oedipal cycle (Really? They went with Oklahoma!?), you can find some wonderful resources on YouTube. The entirety of an excellent 1984 version of Sophocles' Antigone, starring Juliet Stevenson (or, as one of the commentators put it on the site, "The mom from Bend It Like Beckham!!") begins at this link (Do shield your students from those comments, though, as some of them do not share my affection for the play.) Even more brilliant and sure to be a bigger hit with your students is Oedipus (With Vegetables). Watch this one before screening it to your kids, though. Two words: vegetable sex.

If you're reading the Greek philosophers with your class (and God bless you, if so, for I have never gotten much past the fire metaphor), two great sites are this one on Plato and this one on Socrates. And let's not forget Homer and his amazing Odyssey and Illiad. Check out MythWeb for super-clear, easy-to-understand explanations of these classics. Thinkquest has a compendium of Homer facts and information too.

As I mentioned, Ancient Rome was more into killing for entertainment than literature, but here are a few sources for context. History for Kids, as well as this teacher's page, are helpful and safe in content. I also really like the time-line feature here. But best of all is this site from TeacherNet. You probably won't need to look up anything else after clicking around here.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of a Million Context Websites

Dude, I'm so into the Civil War. What can I say? I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg National Park, so from a very young age, I've been able to rattle off facts about Pickett's Charge, Abraham Lincoln and Matthew Brady. This made me very, very popular as a teenager.

Some of our country's most stirring speeches grew out of this conflict, from President Lincoln's brief, brilliant Gettysburg Address, to Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. This time period was a great epoch for American public speaking...and for poetry, as Walt Whitman wrote some of his most stirring works, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's lines inspired a nation.

For an overall contextual understanding of the times, I'm in love with www.civilwar.com. There is a clickable map here that's a great resource. Just roll your mouse over it to see where battles were fought. There's also information about people, places, battles... it's a compendium. Before I show you sources for information about famous writers, don't forget that reading the letters of ordinary soldiers and others can be just as engaging. In fact, your students may be stunned at the eloquence (and vocabulary) displayed by the average soldier. Read letters at civilwarletters.com (but ignore the "Lesson Plan" button that goes nowhere) or love letters (delightfully chaste) here.

In a similar vein, CivilWarHome.com has all sorts of eyewitness information about Gettysburg, in particular. And if you'd like to focus on the Gettysburg Address (and my father would like me to let you know that back in his day, they had to memorize and recite it), the Library of Congress has a very interesting site, which includes the only known photograph of President Lincoln at Gettysburg.

If you're intrigued by Sojourner Truth, you might want to check out this guide which provides an engrossing history of the "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Even a cursory read will reveal to your students that the press has been, um, "refining" what really happened for a very long time. Whether they like the contemporary account of her speech, or prefer the better-known-but-likely-fabricated version found in most textbooks, they'll find Turner's words to be thought-provoking.

As is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Confession time: this is actually my favorite hymn, and for many years, I've intended to march down the aisle to it at my wedding (with a phalanx of bridesmaids ahead of me, of course).  But my favoritism aside, the story of this poem (for that's what it was first) and the meaning it carried for many during the Civil War is fascinating. Read an article about it at The Atlantic's site. Or explore the awesomeness that was Harriet Beecher Stowe at About.com.

As for Whitman, go to this site of poems and songs about the Civil War, and you'll find the text of his "O Captain! My Captain!" Contrary to popular belief, Whitman did not write this about his beloved teacher, Robin Williams, but about President Lincoln. Whitman wrote many other poems about the Civil War and the fallen leaders of it. Learn more here and read his poems here. Remember, though, that Whitman's sexuality is discussed at these sites.

Finally, a brief shout-out to Civil War fiction. There are the classics, like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which uses the War as a motif and theme from the very first paragraph. There's the modern classic, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, generally agreed to be the best Civil War novel. And there's Russell Bank's post-modern classic, Cloudsplitter, a tremendous book about yet another Civil War-era character, John Brown. (Bonus: an interesting interview about Brown with another author, Stephen B. Oates.)

Read, Baby, Read: Perspectives on Vietnam in the ELA Classroom

Here's my caveat. The Vietnam War is still a contentious, difficult subject for many Americans. You may have strong feelings about it, and your students may too. American literature continues to deal with such feelings. I feel that we've ended the first round of literature on the Vietnam War, including Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Kurt Vonnegut's classic Slaughterhouse Five (written about World War II, but during the Vietnam War). These works, extremely worthy as they are, make for difficult reading. As teachers, we also have to consider the language used and violence depicted. So, approach with caution. However, just because history is relatively recent doesn't mean we can assume students understand the context of these works. Thus, a brief guide to helping students learn about this era.

Some resources for images, timelines and information about the Vietnam War are here, here, and here. Keep in mind, though, that each has a slightly different prism through which they're viewing the conflict.

We all know that a computer and a PowerPoint presentation can entice students into learning. I found a montage of Vietnam photos on YouTube that's worth a look. I also like the specificity and solemnity of VietVet's page on women in the War. Your students may not realize how large a role women played in this conflict.

Tim O'Brien is a Vietnam vet who has written extensively about the war. His work can be explored at what seems to be his official website. The entire text of his short story "The Things They Carried" is available there, along with a book club guide, an index, and more.  I also like the depth of resources about this work available here. Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is the focus at this page on VonnegutWeb. The site itself needs to be updated, as it doesn't note Vonnegut's recent death. By the way, both of these authors seem to have been nutty enough to give John Brown a run for his money!

In my classroom, I do not use either of these works, but we do spend some time learning about the extensive protests against the war and the literature created out of this movement. (This is a reflection of my personal views, yes, but also of the strong social justice mission of the founders of my school.) Here is a good overview of the Vietnam War protests. I also love this site, which lists many more links as well as suggests lesson plans. I usually focus in on protest songs. Here is an About.com article about this art form (please note that this list is not exclusive to Vietnam protest songs). I always tell my students that protest songs are still being written today, and when they express skepticism, I play the "clean" version of (and give out the edited lyric sheet to) Eminem's "Mosh." It works out well: I'm thrilled to show them I'm right; they're thrilled that I have Eminem on my iPod.

And Then We Came to the End

Well, folks, I think I may need to give up this time travel work. I'm not cut out for all of this gallivanting around — traveling from Homer's hangouts to Kurt Vonnegut's POW camp (with a stop-off at Alcott's house) ain't easy for a homebody like me. Nor, in general, is teaching. So, as I close out this column at the end of my (and, hopefully, your) school year, may I wish you many days of relaxation this summer. Enjoy your surroundings, with book and cool drink in hand. It's truly been my pleasure to spend this academic year with you, and I'll be back soon, with an exciting new series of columns!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 23rd 2008, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Victoria H.
Thank you so very much. You just made next year's planning for American Literature a time saver. I want to give you hugs!!
Monday June 23rd 2008, 11:29 PM
Comment by: Bill C.
Shannon, perhaps you or one of the readers may want to listen to the 30-minute SoundPrint program, AFTER SORROW, for potential inclusion as part of a unit on the Vietnamese War. It was produced in 1990 by Lady Borton, who had served in Vietnam during the war, and was the first American allowed back for an extended period after the war. It explores the war and its effects on women on both sides of the conflict. I found it riveting and extremely moving. It is available for listening online at:

Tuesday June 24th 2008, 7:47 PM
Comment by: Debbie S. (Sarasota, FL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
This is a wonderfully comprehensive exploration of how literature and history are a perfect match. High school English teachers can be valuable literacy partners with their social studies colleagues. You've really shown how beautifully that partnership can work.
Friday June 27th 2008, 11:07 PM
Comment by: Matthew H.
I find it incredible that in two sentences you dismiss the greatness of Roman literature, “the majority of ancient Western literature still read today is from Greece, not Rome.” Please tell me how you came to this conclusion. Is there a study published in an academic journal? The other statement “Ancient Rome was more into killing for entertainment than literature.” Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis is just as educational and entertaining as Homer, and there are other great Roman writers as Livy, Cicero, Suetonius, and Tacitus. You should read Seneca the Younger’s Letters deploring the violence and slaughter of the games because not everyone in Rome was blood thirsty.
Saturday June 28th 2008, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
My perspective is always from that of an average high school teacher. In that limited perspective, literature from Ancient Greece is much more commonly read than literature from Ancient Rome. My perspective is also always that of a Little Miss Smartie Pants, who cannot walk away from a wise-crack that might amuse. It's those conditions that let to the perfect storm of the "conclusion" published above. Although I think it's very funny that your letter which seeks to dismiss the idea that Roman culture was overwhelmingly violent, is in turn, the most violently sarcastic comment I've gotten on VT, I have to agree that, for teachers who have the time and inclination, exploring the writers you mention will be deeply rewarding. I saw a production of "Metamorphoses" ( http://www.talkinbroadway.com/world/Metamorphoses.html and the book of the play is available online) on Broadway, which was based on Ovid's "Metamorphosis" and written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. It was beautifully staged and is well worth time in the classroom. I think it is a bit more accessible for teenagers than some straight-up Tacitus. Please, anyone else who teaches Roman literature in their ELA classroom, share with us your resources for doing so.

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