Culture in Context: Diverse Voices and Iconic Novels

December 04, 2020

By Cara Shaw, Upper School Head Teacher

I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue professional development over the summer by taking a course funded by a grant from the MMFS Parents Association through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. After the springtime COVID quarantine, and cries for social justice after the murder of George Floyd, I saw a need to create a curriculum for the fall semester that would empower students to put their world in context. I wanted to help students develop critical thinking skills and employ primary sources to bring context to contemporary crises. The course I took, “Black Writers in American History,” featured Black novelists and essayists whose works have influenced both other writers and the course of American history. By taking this course, I had access to resources in the Gilder Lehrman repository to reference and share with students.

The course affirmed the structure I planned to use to bring context to iconic novels by incorporating texts from diverse authors. This gives students an opportunity to evaluate texts by American authors as artifacts that inform their contemporary communities. The curriculum designed for this year will focus on American culture in the 1920s, when the protagonists from both of our anchor novels are alive. The Great Gatsby takes place in metropolitan New York and A Lesson Before Dying is set in rural Louisiana.

Lectures by John Stauffer, Professor of English, American Studies, and African American Studies at Harvard University, confirm the importance of including diverse voices when examining an era of literary expression. Although this series focuses on Black American writers, it is important to incorporate texts from writers who share first-hand accounts of their experiences beyond what traditionally has been considered the history of the “Roaring Twenties.”

This year’s curriculum will include the writing of Kate Chopin, Zitkala-Sa, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Ernest J. Gaines, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alongside these texts, we will investigate articles, news reports, and other primary sources to give diverse experiences parity in understanding the American history represented in the 1920s. It is my hope that the investment that the Parents Association made will reap dividends in years to come.

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