High School Literature and Composition

Monday, September 13

Today we talked about the rise of Realism and Naturalism in American Literature, which was a direct result of the Civil War and sustained our literature until World War I. The flowery language and lofty idealism from the Romantic Era was fading out, and writers sought to instead depict life as it really was – the good, the bad, and the ugly. They relied on emerging sciences, like psychology, biology, and sociology, to help discern and explain why humans did the things they did. Realism and Naturalism depicted ordinary people and settings, and the outcomes of these stories and poems greatly depended on the writer’s point of view on humanity.

You’ll also find the writing style of these works to be more to the point and less poetic. In a sense, folks were exhausted and had no time for pondering the meaning of life anymore, at least not in the way the Romantics did.

Homework Due by September 19

Read “The Most Remarkable Woman of This Age” and “I Will Fight No More Forever”, which are on the same PDF. Before you read “I Will Fight No More Forever,” read this short piece on Chief Joseph so you have some context.

Then read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, “The Lowest Animal“, “The Story of an Hour“, “To Build a Fire“, “The Mystery of Heroism“, and two Spirituals. If you need to look up the songs on YouTube, please do. The Spirituals should be familiar to you, but in case they aren’t, it might help to hear them rather than just reading the lyrics.

As you read everything this week, it might be helpful to note anything that resonates with you. You’ll write a Response Essay next week, so taking notes now might help your future self. Part of your homework this week is to come to class next Monday prepared to tell me what you’re writing about in your essay. So, if nothing from Realism or Naturalism interests you, go back to the Romantics or the Foundational Period. Here are a few ideas to help get you brainstorming:

  • Dark Romanticism and its tendency toward the supernatural (and what that says about human nature)
  • Women’s voices and points of view in early American literature
  • the paradox of American ideals (freedom and liberty) and 250 years of slavery
  • the paradox of the Second Great Awakening (spread of Christianity) and its impact on enslaved people
  • the pros and cons of Westward Expansion
  • a closer look at a specific writer (Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Chief Joseph, Jonathan Edwards, etc…)

When you’ve finished reading everything for this week, answer the following response questions substantively:

  1. After reading the article about Harriet Tubman, tell me a few things you learned about her that were interesting to you. Also, what do you think about reading personal narratives and news stories about slavery, as opposed to reading facts about it in history book? 
  2. In “An Occurrence at Owl Bridge,” the Civil War serves as a backdrop. Bierce’s main intent is to examine the psychology of someone in a life-or-death situation. What does this story imply about human psychology in the face of death? 
  3. Explain why Mark Twain calls man is alone in his distinction of a “Cruel Animal.” Use lines from the story to support your answer.  
  4. In “I Will Fight No More Forever,” does Chief Joseph’s speech appeal to logic, emotion, or both? Explain your response.
  5. What emotions is Louise Mallard experiencing as she gazes out the window and thinks about her future in “Story of an Hour”?
  6. What aspects of Realist writing are apparent in this story by Kate Chopin? Remember, realism often focuses on social issues and the accurate portrayal of human behavior. 
  7. After reading the lyrics of the Spirituals and listening to the songs online, pull out the symbolism. Which words have double meanings? 
  8. Summarize the plot of “To Build a Fire” by listing its string of major causes and effects. Start by identifying the man’s mission, then examine why he builds two fires and what results from those events. Be sure to include what happened to the man and the dog at the end of the story. 
  9. How do the man and dog differ in the ways they approach the intense cold? What point do you think London is trying to make? 
  10. In “The Mystery of Heroism,” Stephen Crane uses the desire for water, as well as the desire for heroism, as a parallel motive for Fred Collins. How might Fred’s low rank as a private be the perfect rank for this parallel? Also, what situational irony occurs at the end of the story? What is its significance? 

Come prepared to talk about these works in class next time we meet.

Monday, August 30

Today I quickly recapped the major shifts going on in America from our earliest foundational days to the birth of American Romanticism. It’s in this era – the 1800s – when we start to see the popular works we associate with American Literature. What you’re reading for homework is quintessential American Romanticism. You’ve already read some Dark Romantic works, which fits squarely into the Supernatural theme some Romantic writers explored.

Now it’s time to switch gears and read about what could be achieved in Nature (the Wilderness) and what it meant to live the American Experience (which looked different depending on who you were). Unlike the Dark Romantic writers, these folks had a more optimistic view of humans.

Homework Due by September 13

Finish reading the excerpts from Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden. (I wish our outdoor experience could’ve been better today – Thoreau would’ve been disappointed by the car noise!) Then read a couple of poems by Walt Whitman, an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”, and an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slaveall here in this PDF.

A quick note about Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass: When you take account for the years they lived and experiences they had, you may be wondering why we’re reading them in a unit about American Romanticism. Though we’re bookmarking this era as ending in 1860, there is a lot of carry-over going on here. These writers bridge the gap between American Romanticism and the shift to Realism and Naturalism, which cover the Civil War leading up to World War I. These dates aren’t hard and fast. Instead, they overlap. These folks have a foot in both literary periods. (Remember, Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t die until 1882, so he was still writing and giving lectures well past the end of the Civil War.) We’ll talk more about this when we meet on Sept. 13, but I wanted to give you a heads-up if you were looking at the subject matter and wondering about the timeline.

Answer the following questions either in your same Google Doc or a new one. Do your best to answer substantively:

  1. You can sense a feeling of acceptance and contentment running through the voices in “I Hear America Singing”. Considering the long hours and low pay of laborers in the 19th Century, do you think Walt Whitman is romanticizing or idealizing the lives of these workers? Or, are the songs simply spun in a positive tone? Explain your answer. 
  2. “O Captain, My Captain!” is a poem about the end of the Civil War and loss of President Abraham Lincoln, which means the poem is fraught with juxtaposition (good positioned next to bad). Pull some lines from the poem to show where feelings of victory and loss are best juxtaposed.
  3. In “Hospital Sketches”, Louisa May Alcott recounts an experience she had serving as a wartime nurse when a large group of patients arrived at the same time. What is the overall tone of the excerpt? What do you think she was feeling compared to what the soldiers were feeling? What mood is Alcott trying to evoke in the reader? 
  4. In the beginning of Ch. 11 of Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography, he is critical of the underground railroad. Explain what his criticisms are, then tell me what you think about it. 
  5. Name two things that gave Frederick Douglass hesitation when he considered escaping slavery. Describe the impact those two things had on him. 
  6. After reading the excerpt from Walden, in your own words, summarize what Thoreau meant when he wrote that he wants to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” 
  7. What do you think he meant by “We are determined to be starved before we are hungry”? 
  8. In Emerson’s Nature, do you agree with what he wrote – “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun.” Why or why not? Defend your answer. 
  9. Edit and share the observations you made in the margins from Nature and Walden. Share what stuck out to you the most. 

Monday, August 23

Since we can’t be together in class today, I’ve recorded a 37-minute audio lecture that recaps a bit of the Foundational Literary Period and introduces American Romanticism. Do your best to take notes as I talk, but we’ll cover a good chunk of Romanticism in person next week too.

I will grade your first week’s homework this afternoon, so look for my comments later.

A few notes to recap:

What defines American Literature? 

  • Lack of collective ancient history
  • Centered around the invention of a country
  • Diverse cultures of people who came willingly and unwillingly
  • Indigenous people (whose stories existed well before 1607)
  • Various religions or absence of religion
  • Pursuit of liberty
  • Everyone in attendance at the dinner table (i.e., not a melting pot) 

When we talk about the Foundational Literary period of American Literature, we’re talking about several specific big influences from the 1500s and 1600s, each with its own cultures: 

  • Existing oral stories told and passed down in native tribes across North America
  • European literature from early colonists 
  • Slave narratives and anti-slavery writings 
  • Religious belief systems (which is always problematic)
  • Political belief systems (also always problematic)

Homework Due by Sunday, August 29

Listen to the audio lecture and takes notes as you can about the major conflicts going on at the time and the main topics American Romantic writers wrote about. (The lecture will open in a separate browser.) I mention in the lecture that I’d link a few things if you were interested to know more: Click here to read how Washington Irving gets the credit for nicknaming New York City “Gotham“. Click here to read or listen to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”.

Read the following stories and poem by Dark Romantic writers Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawethorne, and Edgar Allan Poe: “The Devil and Tom Walker“, “Mr. Heidegger’s Experiment“, “The Raven“, and “The Purloined Letter“.

In either a new document or the same one from last week, answer the following questions substantively:

  1. “The Devil and Tom Walker” opens in Puritan New England in 1727. The Salem Witch Trials had taken place in 1692, only 35 years earlier. Identify five details describing the setting that suggest something sinister and supernatural. 
  2. Washington Irving’s characters in this story are one-dimensional people who represent one or two character traits. In fact, Mrs. Tom Walker is the stereotype of the nagging wife, still a source of comedy today. What character traits are represented by Tom Walker? Why do you think Mrs. Walker met such a nasty end? 
  3. What is the story behind the painting in Dr. Heidegger’s study? What does the painting and its story suggest about Dr. Heidegger’s motivations for his experiments? 
  4. What does Heidegger prove with his experiment? What has he learned? 
  5. How does the significance of the word “nevermore” change each time it’s spoken? Though the speaker says his beloved will be nameless, he uses her name in lines 28-29, 82-83, and 94-95. How does the raven’s answer to the speaker’s queries keep reminding you of her? 
  6. Explain why the epitaph in “The Purloined Letter” – Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness – fits the story perfectly.  Give two examples from the story to support your answer. 

Share your document with me by Sunday night.

Monday, August 16

It was great to meet you all today. I hope we all have a great academic year together, healthy and happy and in-person. 🙂

Today probably felt like an American History lesson, but the reality is that we cannot read early American literature without knowing how our diverse dinner party guests came together at the same table. As a young country, we lack ancient history. Instead, we’re a menagerie of cultures, religions, goals, ideas, and desires. It would be inaccurate and inauthentic to look at one body of work from one race or culture and call it American literature.

Here’s some of what I hope you took away from today:

  • The five major American literary periods – Foundational, Romanticism, Realism/Naturalism, Modernism, Postmodernism – are closely aligned with big events (mainly wars).
  • American literature is defined by the cultures of people who settled here willingly and unwillingly, and their religions, allegiances, goals, and points of view are all worth analyzing.
  • American literature is rooted in several main conflicts: Indigenous people vs. colonists, colonists vs. the land they’re trying to survive upon, colonists vs. their home countries, colonists vs. enslaved people, and colonists vs. themselves
  • The Foundational Literary Period (1607-1800) is primarily made up of personal narratives, autobiographies, argumentative essays, goal-oriented work, diary entries, etc. There was little fiction being written at this time. People were busy trying to build a country, stake a claim, and survive.

Endeavor to take notes each week, a task that will be rewarded at the end of the semester with an open-notes test. 🙂

Homework due by Sunday, August 22

Click to read “The Sun Still Rises in the Same Sky,” “The Sky Tree,” “Coyote Finishes His Work,” an excerpt from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” an excerpt from Ch. 2 in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and the poem “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House”. You’re welcome to print off these pages or read them straight on the screen, whatever works best for you.

Then, create a new Google Document and answer the following response questions substantively. (If you’re unclear about what substantively means, click here.) Share your Google Doc with me (jennie@jenniecreates.com) no later than Sunday evening. (If you don’t know how to share a Google Doc, click here.)

  1. Identify three comparisons Bruchac makes between American Indian and Western views of the world. 
  2. In “The Sky Tree”, would the people who told this myth feel hostile or supportive toward the natural world? Support your answer with textual evidence. 
  3. In “Coyote Finishes His Work”, Old Man says that when he returns, earth “will require a change.” What do you think that means? 
  4. What images and figures of speech might have helped Jonathan Edward’s listeners feel the peril of their sinful condition? (If you’re unfamiliar with imagery or figures of speech, read about them here.)  
  5. If you had the chance to respond to Edwards, what would you say? 
  6. Olaudah Equiano was “handled and tossed up” by some of the crew as soon as he was taken aboard. Why? What would have happened to him if the crew had found him unsatisfactory? 
  7. Is this your first interaction with a first-person account of someone who was enslaved? If not, what other works have you read connected to this topic? Share some of the thoughts you had while reading about Equiano’s experience.
  8. In “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House,” Bradstreet first narrates an incident and then moves on to draw conclusions from it. What do you think is the turning point of the poem? 
  9. Bradstreet speaks of another “House” in an extended metaphor at the end of the poem. What is this house, who is its architect, and how is it better than the house she’s lost? 
  10. Of everything you’ve read this week, what’s stuck with you the most, and why? 

Be in touch if you have any questions!

Click here to view/print weekly assignments


Welcome to English class! I hope you’ll find this page easy to navigate. I’ll post class recaps here each week by Tuesday morning so those who are absent can easily see what was missed.

There are four primary elements to this class:

  1. Assigned reading: You will have something to read almost weekly, so it’s imperative you keep up. Since everything overlaps, falling behind on reading leads to falling behind on everything else. 
  2. Reading Quizzes and Response questions: I’ll post weekly quizzes and response questions related to the books. The quizzes are self-explanatory, but the response questions take a little more work. Your answers need to be substantive, meaning they need to have some substance to them. Short answers won’t be given as much credit as longer, more thoughtful answers. (We’ll go over this more in class.) Response questions need to be turned in by Sunday evenings to receive full credit.
  3. Academic papers: You’ll write two academic papers this year, which must follow MLA format, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with it sooner than later. We’ll go over some key formatting issues early in the semester. Please get a copy of the 8th Edition of the MLA Handbook
  4. Tests: You’ll take several tests this year, and all of them will be open notes (not open book or open cell phone). Do yourself a favor and take diligent notes in class. You will be rewarded with easy tests 🙂 

Students must have a gmail account, either their own or access to a parent’s account, so that homework and academic papers can be submitted via Google Docs. This allows for easy submission and feedback.

Books are listed in the order we’ll read them: 

Fall 2021
*Short stories, essays, poems, and speeches will be provided here to print or read on the screen. (There will be a lot of them, so hold on tight!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Spring 2022
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, a novelization
Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare)

Please get a copy of the 8th Edition of the MLA Handbook. We’ll use them in class throughout both semesters.

See you Monday, August 16!