High school students study how literature is affected by the times in which it was created and the impact that fiction can have on society. They choose a novel that highlights a social or political issue from the past (such as Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jane Eyre) and examine primary sources from the time in which it was written. They analyze the data to produce two digital products: a commentary written by a contemporary of the author and a modern discussion of the novel that takes into account its historical context.
View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Signs of the Times Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.
Before beginning this project, students need to have read most of a novel written in the past that addresses a social, political, or cultural issue. Read some suggested titles in Signs of the Times Suggested Novels. Although the entire class may read the same book, this activity works well when students choose a novel to read. Choosing their own books from a list of preapproved novels gives students more control of their own learning experience and enables differentiation. Students may read the novel individually, with a partner, or with a small group. Some possible groupings could be:
In place of the usual activities, such as quizzes and vocabulary exercises, when an entire class reads the same book, a variety of activities support students in one classroom reading different books, including:
Bring a collection of old yearbooks to class or ask students to bring their parents’ or grandparents’ yearbooks. Place students in small groups and ask them to browse through the books and make notes about things that they find strange, funny, or unusual, such as clothing, hairstyles, clubs, and comments. After 10 to 15 minutes, conduct a discussion about the Essential Question, What does the past tell us? Use the following suggested prompts to probe students to deeper thinking:
Point out that in order to understand something from the past, whether it is a style of clothing or a political point of view, it helps to try and see it as the people of that era saw it. Explain that they are going to do some research to learn about what the world was like during the time in which their novels were written and to think about what readers at that time might have thought about the ideas in the book. Emphasize that the books may have been very controversial when they were published, so different people will have had different opinions about the book. They will take on a persona that lived when the book was published and use primary and secondary sources to create that person’s opinion of the book. Share the student sample Web site, Orwell and Me*. Discuss the Signs of the Times Project Rubric and invite student suggestions for modification. Encourage students to refer to the project rubric as they work to ensure they produce high-quality work.
Introduce the research process that students will use to create two digital products demonstrating their learning. If students are working in groups, their products may be collected into one overall project, but each student must still create both products identifable as theirs. Ask students to create their own checklist to monitor their progress through the project. Provide hard copies of the Signs of the Times Research Project Plan or the online version to students who need it, but encourage them to adapt the checklist to meet their needs.
Identify a Question
Based on their analysis of the political, social, or cultural point of view of their novel, students develop a question to guide their research. Some sample research questions are:
Collect Data or Evidence
Explain that students will collect evidence that will help them understand the environment in which people originally read their novels. Review the definitions of primary and secondary sources, and ask students to find secondary sources with background information related to the topic of their questions. Then ask them to locate relevant primary sources. See the Resources section for links to sites with useful information.
As necessary, offer mini-lessons in information literacy skills that help students collect and organize their data, such as:
Provide instruction through mini-lessons in analyzing data from primary sources. The ARC Guide for Educators and Students* offers a variety of worksheets to help students analyze primary sources.
To support students while they analyze their data, provide additional instruction in relevant critical thinking skills, such as:
The most important part of research is making meaning of it all. Students collect and analyze data in order to draw conclusions and share their ideas with others. Schedule time for students to discuss their conclusions and get feedback from a small group.
Students draw from what they have discovered to take on the persona of a person living in the time in which the book was written and published. For example, a student might create the persona of a teen-ager living in the American South during the late 1860s or a doctor living in Britain during World War II. Emphasize that the book was probably met with a wide range of opinions and their job is to explore what one of those opinions might have been. Students use the results of their data analysis to hypothesize the person’s views of the ideas in their book to create their products.
Mini-lessons on relevant critical thinking skills can help students with the drawing conclusions phase of the project, such as:
Creating a Product or Presentation
In the final stage of the research process, students share their findings with others. Creating products or presentations that will be viewed and responded to by peers, family, and even the community, encourages students to produce high-quality work. When students have completed a draft of their products or presentations, ask them to use the Signs of the Times Project Peer Assessment form to get constructive feedback.
From the point of view of their hypothetical persona, students create a product, such as a blog or multimedia presentation, that summarizes the plot and theme of the novel and discusses the hypothetical person’s opinion about the theme of the book.
As students work on their products or presentations, provide instruction, as needed, in necessary skills, such as:
Setting up a time for students to explore and respond to each other’s projects gives students a sense of completion and pride in their work. If possible, post links to students’ work on school or class Web sites.
Conclude the project with a discussion of the Essential Question, What can the past tell us? Prompt students to deeper discussion as necessary with questions such as:
Ask students to reflect on their learning about the role of society in the creation of literature and their experience analyzing and drawing conclusions about primary sources.
English Language Learner
Grade Level: 10-12
Subjects: English, History
Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Analysis, Synthesis, Creativity
Key Learnings: Historical analysis, research, primary sources
Time Needed: 2 weeks, 45-50 minutes per class period