Teachers at Work

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Those Who Do Not Know History Are Doomed to Fail English

On a test given on The Crucible during my first year of teaching high school English, I asked my juniors to name the time period of the play. Now, I'm sure I mentioned this several times while we read it, and — call me crazy — but I'm also fairly certain Miller specified that his play is set in the 1600's, what with his bonnets and "Goodys" and the fact that the Salem Witch Hunt took place in that century. I assumed that this was enough information to answer the question correctly.

O, foolish young teacher! Among the responses I received: "The Civil War," "American times," "Long ago," "the Colonial Era," and, my favorite, "the Early Twentieth Century."

I brought this up with them later and asked what had happened. The response was a general shrugging of the shoulders. "But," I insisted, "you yelled out 'Pilgrims! Pilgrims! Hide the turkey!' when I screened the movie in class." "Well," a girl responded, "It's not like I know when the pilgrims lived. I just know they had funny hats."

From that moment on, I decided to teach literary works with at least of modicum of historical context. This makes perfect sense, of course. We cannot expect our students to comprehend the intricacies of literature without knowing the worlds wherein the works were created and compass.

But as well-educated adults, who, while not trained historians, have no doubt shown some interest in the historical paths humanity has trod, we too often forget that our students aren't born knowing the contexts of many of the works we struggle so valiantly to teach them. Some students lack even a basic grasp of history, for reasons too numerous to list. A simple awareness of what the world they're reading about might have been like can go a long way towards improving their interest and understanding. Luckily, there are many resources available, a good chunk of them online, to help.

It would be impossible to list every resource for every time period used in literature, so I'm going to focus on six of them: Ancient/Arthurian England; Ancient Greece and Rome; the Puritans in America; the Cold War; the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam years. That's still quite a list, so I'll be presenting three in this column, and the other half in next month's column.

Helping Your Students Experience "One Brief Shining Moment"

Ancient and Arthurian England is a particular passion of mine (I've got a thing for stone circles), so let's start there. Say you're teaching T.H. White's three-part novel about King Arthur, The Once and Future King (including the famous first book, The Sword in the Stone). Or maybe your class is reading Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or Alfred Lord Tennyson's epic poems (also about Arthur) Idylls of the King. Or you're tackling Beowulf. With any of those, you're going to want to give your students some basic knowledge about pre-Christian and early Christian Era England. This is a murky world, consisting of equal parts legend and reality. The dragons and King Arthur? Not real. The stone circles, pagans, white chalk horses carved into the sides of mountains, and castles galore? Real. When you've got a reality that seems as unlikely as the fiction, it's time for some help interpreting.

Let's start with Beowulf. The recent movie (starring Angelina Jolie's computerized booty) has revived interest in this epic poem. Along with everyone on the planet that's ever tried to read another version, I prefer the Irish poet Seamus Heany's 2001 translation, but I've provided a copyright-free link for you for an earlier translation above. I'm not always wild about Wikipedia, but I think the entry on this work is great. Be sure to check out the sections showing how the poem is structured around both battles and funerals. Ask your students what this repetition might suggest about the context of the times in which the poem was created.

To understand Beowulf, your students will need to understand the world it was born into. The poem dates from the 11th century in its current forms, but earlier forms reach way back to the Ancient Celtic/Druid world. I love this site on prehistoric Britain. Take care that your students understand that while people in 11th-century England lived among these monuments, they were created long before their lifespan. For a look at their daily life, Britain Express provides a look at Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Camelot, with all of its weirdly adult business, wasn't my favorite musical as a child (that honor goes to Godspell, which was weird but not especially adult), but the legend of King Arthur enchanted me. I hope middle grade teachers in particular will consider teaching The Sword and the Stone. It's so Harry Potter-esque but predates Potter and is plenty enthralling on its own terms. The story of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere and the Round Table still fascinates, and I love the entry on Arthur at Britannia History. There is a timeline that is particularly helpful for — yep — context, and there are tons of other links too. Another site, King Arthur & The Knights of the Round Table, is terrific. In particular there are wonderful pictures that correlate with the legend of King Arthur, which would serve as great writing prompts. I love encourage my students to study visual art and garner clues about the older ways of life they depict. There's also a cool "Arthurian Period" map at this site, and a question-and-answer section that is helpful.

Let's Learn More about Pilgrims Than Their Hats!

Jump ahead several centuries with me, and across an ocean. Now we're in Puritan America, the setting employed not just by The Crucible, but also in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories and novels. For the record, I teach "Young Goodman Brown" and, when I can gird myself to do so, The Scarlet Letter (my personal least favorite American classic novel), the poems of Anne Bradstreet or John Edwards' still-terrifying sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

If your students can comprehend something of what drove the Puritans to come to the New World, as well as grasp an understanding of the challenging life they faced once here, they will have a better context for understanding all of the works above. Unfortunately, most students know the Puritans, if at all, via the story of the first Thanksgiving shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. It's become popular to debunk this insipid, "Corn for everyone!" story, as this site does. (As an aside, may I say how happy it makes me that there is a "pilgrims.net"?) This seems like a good place to start tearing down your students' elementary school assumptions about the pilgrims. (And if you really want to talk about how history changes because of who's doing the telling, explore Dr. Jeremy Bang's "The Truth About Thanksgiving is that the Debunkers are Wrong").

Moving away from Thanksgiving, Infoplease has a nice entry on the Puritans. I'm also nuts about the "If You?" books, published by Scholastic: If You were at the First Thanksgiving and If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 are the ones to look for here. Sadly for our Hawthorne fans, there is no If You Feel Guilty about Your Ancestor Condemning People to Death for Witchcraft. The Mayflower History site is a tremendous resource as well, particularly the page on crime and punishment (Hester Prynne got off easy). I especially love this page which provides the texts of actual letters and works written by the Puritans. Some of them are very moving, some are just factual, and all are glimpses back in time. These sources are top-notch for helping your students understand the world these characters lived in. To wrap up the Puritans, I'll point you to this page, which contains both a short essay and an extremely in-depth explanation about what Puritanism really was. It's dense, but it's very focused and clear.

As for The Crucible, your students will be transfixed to learn that Salem is a real place, and that the witch hunts of the 1600's actually happened, with plenty of historical records for proof. Should a trip to Massachusetts not be in your budget, the Salem Witch Museum provides a helpful online tour of some of the major sites involved. There are also a few interesting photos at Salem's main site. Be sure to have your students click on the photo of the graveyard. This will lead them to more photos of Salem's touching memorial to the victims of the hysteria. SalemWeb also provides a list of books related to the witch hunt, with links to Amazon.com. I can also recommend a DVD: In Search of History - Salem Witch Trials from The History Channel. Replete with both excellent history and cheesy reenactments, this is always a big hit with the girls.

An alternate way to study The Crucible is through the lens of Arthur Miller's life at the time when he wrote. Since this work manages to bridge Puritan times to the Cold War, let's travel there.

The Cold War: Does All that Angst about Terror Seem Familiar?

Miller wrote The Crucible in direct response to being called to testify (i.e., name friends and colleagues as Communists) in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, run by Senator Joseph McCarthy. This great site thoroughly explains who McCarthy was and what HUAC did, as well as how Miller responded. Or read Miller's own words about his motivations and actions.

HUAC and McCarthy gained power because of the fearful anti-Communist tone of the early Cold War years. I think the Cold War is a particularly difficult time period for students to comprehend. Partly it's the title — there was no actual war, and it didn't take place in a freezer — and partly it's the relatively lengthy span of time the war lasted. Plus, since the war came to a close within a time period that many teachers remember, we sometimes forget our students have little to no personal experience with that time. A wonderful introduction to the Cold War is found at this site. I also find that a visit to the page "How to Survive Nuclear War" or even Googling on the keywords "Fallout Shelters" will help students understand the deep fears that average Americans lived with during this period.

Once your students begin to grasp this, reading Nevil Shute's post-nuclear war novel On the Beach still has resonance today. I feel compelled to admit that this novel gave me nightmares in high school and I still remember significant portions of it perfectly; that's some powerful writing. Wikipedia's summation is well done. Likewise, some of Ray Bradbury's short stories perfectly mirror those Cold War tensions. I love "There Will Come Soft Rains" (read a short explanation here) because I get to teach about the poet Sara Teasdale too, since her poem of the same title is featured in the story. Bradbury dealt with nuclear war themes in his works again and again. This site will tell you more.

Next Stop: Athens. Pack Your Platonic Ideals.

Whew! We've jumped through several millennia of historical contexts this column! I feel more worn out than my students did at the end of that Crucible test. Give me a month to rest up, and I'll be back with a column on helping your students learn historical contexts for Ancient Greece and Rome, the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War.

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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:

Saturday June 7th 2008, 3:46 AM
Comment by: Rhea D.
Wow! I as the teacher must become more of a student of history and literature. Great references and connections. Thank you.

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