From Add-on to Integration: Weaving C3WP into a Literature Curriculum
If you have but little time for reading, spend none of it on works of fiction.
“Novels and Novel-Reading”. Crane, Rev. J. T. (from Popular Amusements. Cincinnati: Walden & Stowe, 1869)
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the value of literature since Crane wrote those words in the 19th century. We now understand that not only does fiction not make your mind flabby, reading literature has beneficial mental, emotional, psychological, and physical effects including expanding vocabulary, increasing the ability to empathize, lowering blood pressure, and helping us get a better night’s sleep. Far from being an escape from reality, literature actually deepens our understanding of reality.
With all of these benefits, it’s no wonder many reading and English teachers focus on literature almost exclusively. In fact, when the South Mississippi Writing Project (SMWP) received a grant in 2013 to work with English teachers in grades 7-10 to improve the teaching of source-based argument writing in the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program a few of the teachers were concerned about making time and space to engage their students in the exploration of informational texts. One teacher insisted, “I became an English teacher because I want to teach students to love literature.” A worthy cause, indeed, and one with which I can definitely connect. In my own 20 years of classroom teaching, I saw the expansion of students’ understanding of perspectives different from their own when we engaged in the study of literature. Likewise, the discussions about literature in my English classes as a high school and college student were formative experiences in my own life, helping make sense of some of the fundamental issues of human existence.
I wondered how I could help the teachers view argument as an integrated part of their curriculum rather than an add-on that they had to find time to fit into their existing curriculum. I wanted to help them fully integrate argument topics as a central component of their English classes in ways that not only enhanced the literature but enhanced the source-based argument units as well.
To help teachers see the complementary potential of literature and C3WP, I invited them to explore Rudine Sims Bishop’s description of literature as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors”. Bishop asserts that books are sometimes mirrors that help us to understand ourselves and to see ourselves as part of the larger human experience and other times windows into experiences and worlds different from our own, allowing us to walk through a sliding glass door into those worlds. This view of literature shares many points of intersection with the C3WP’s focus on multiple perspectives and a range of viewpoints on issues in the world.
After exploring Bishop’s metaphor, the teachers made lists of current issues, “ripped from the headlines” so to speak, that aligned with the literature they were teaching. These are some of the lists that emerged from this exercise.
8th Grade: The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton
- Should teens be tried as adults?
- Foster Care or Family Preservation
- Are all gangs bad?
10th grade: Night, Elie Wiesel
- Should we use medical data from Josef Mengele’s research?
- Should Nazi guards be held responsible for their actions since they were following orders?
- Should states enact Bystander Laws?
7th Grade: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
- The SNAP Program
- Panhandling Laws
After the list-making process, teachers chose one of the issues and developed a text set with the help of a SMWP Thinking Partner. Using the C3WP’s resource Creating a Text Set, teachers curated a set of texts from a range of positions and perspectives on their chosen issue. Teachers then made instructional decisions about whether to teach the argument topic before the literature, after the literature, or at the same time as the literature. When teachers chose to teach argument at the same time as the literature, they used the C3WP Writing into the Day instructional resource. When teaching the argument before or after the literature, most teachers chose the C3WP Making the Case in an Op-Ed or Focus on Purpose and Audience instructional resource.
Teachers found that this complementary approach to teaching literature and “real-world” argument topics not only deepened students’ understanding of the literature, it also helped them connect more with the argument topic.
Catherine Williams, a 10th grade English teacher at West Marion High School in Foxworth, Mississippi, writes:
Connecting real-world argument topics to literary themes gives students a more concrete idea of how literature teaches about the human condition, and it gives them a sort of anchor for navigating abstract concepts. This approach also deepened student understanding of and appreciation of real-world topics. Too often in the past, I would try to get students involved in current events in a very sporadic way and had little success. By creating connections across genres, students become engaged with the current topics because they have already felt a connection to characters and events in a story.
Brooke McWilliams, a 7th grade English teacher at Purvis Middle School in Purvis, Mississippi, writes:
When I offered connections between argument topics and themes in the literature we were reading, I saw my students begin to have a greater appreciation of the literature and connect the characters and conflict to their own experiences or experiences of those in real-life reports. When connecting the real-world issues of “Who should be held responsible for teens’ crimes?” and “Should teens be tried as adults?” with the theme and plot of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, students’ analysis of the text and characters’ actions became far more layered and multiple perspectives rose to the surface leading to more meaningful classroom discussions than I had previously witnessed.
Helping teachers link argument topics to literature enabled them to see C3WP as an integrated part of their curriculum rather than something they had to try to find time to get around to doing. More importantly, it helped students to gain a deeper understanding of the world.
To learn more about the process used to help teachers select argument topics to complement their literature, see Integrating C3WP in a Literary Curriculum.
Robin Atwood is the Director of the South Mississippi Writing Project and served as a member of the National Writing Project’s C3WP i3 Leadership Team.
This blog post is part of a series of post titled From Here to There: Reflections of a Professional Developer in the National Writing Project’s College, Career, Community Writer’s Program