Introducing Modernism

I absolutely love reading about, talking about, and learning about the turn of the century and the clashes between traditional and modern ideas.  I find it fascinating to think about how our current lives have been influenced by the changes that took place during that era.  This is probably one of the main reasons I love teaching English 11–almost our whole year is focused on Modernism.  

Unfortunately, my students rarely share my zeal for the topic.  Despite my obvious enthusiasm, their excitement is vastly different than mine (aka nonexistent).  

But I feel, as an English major and history minor, that understanding the role that history plays in influencing writers, artists, and musicians is vital to understanding the literature, art, and music itself.  So, how do I get my kids to feel the same way?  

We begin our unit on Tuesday with many changes from past attempts to teach Modernism.  First of all, I am starting The Great Gatsby way earlier than ever before.  Usually, we read several short stories before we begin Gatsby so kids can get a feel for Modernism; however, my awesome planning buddy, Hannah, and I decided this year to switch it up.  We both agree that the short stories (such as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, “Hills Like White Elephants”, and “Babylon Revisited”) are actually more difficult in many ways than Gatsby.  Plus, if we teach Gatsby first, we feel like we can walk kids through it to set the tone for the rest of the year when it comes to reading.

The Plan:

Part I:  On Tuesday my students and I will begin to discuss the historical period, focusing on traditional vs. modern ideas.  To do this, I will use an updated version of this handout.  I used to do this as a flipped classroom sort of exercise, but it’s never worked out as well as I would have liked, so this year students will have the chart, but we’ll do all the viewing and listening together.  I also have magazines from 1903, 1927, 1938, and the 1940’s that I might show to help solidify some of what we discuss.  

We will begin by checking out some famous art from the late 1800’s.  We will discuss the characteristics, colors, artist’s choices, similarities, etc. and then we will move on to look at art from the Modern period.  What differences do we see? What has changed?  

Next we will listen to and watch Swan Lake.  Noticing the costume choices, the types of movements, the sounds. Finally, we will listen to and watch Rite of Spring.  This is the kicker.  I like to share with them a snippet from this Radio Lab podcast about the riot that happened at the opening of this ballet (I got this idea from an awesome teacher at Vestavia Hills High School–Ben Davis).  They find it crazy that women passed out and old ladies beat each other with their canes.  It’s a great opportunity to discuss the changing times.  

This activity culminates in a short writing assignment.  I ask students to do two things:  “define” modernism based on what they’ve observed, and describe what it might have been like to live in the time when these changes were taking place.  This year I might assign them a role before they answer the last question (for example, if you were a teenage female what might it have been like? or if you were a sixty-year-old man or something like that).

Part II:  Once kids have a general idea of what the heck was happening at the time, they will be split up into groups to explore some of the big topics of the period: World War I, Women’s Rights, Technology, Mass Communication, Transportation, Psychology.  I haven’t finalized the list yet (I know, it’s like three days away so I need to get on that).  We are not going to do a lot of deep research, we will just do some quick research in groups.  They will create a collaborative Google Slide presentation to share with the class on Thursday.  This will also be our opportunity to practice using a form of Cornell Notes while students share.  

Part III: We will finish the intro to Modernism with an article that fills in some of the blanks from our research or a little bit of lecture from me (with lots of opportunities to talk).  We will then write.  I want students to reflect on how everything that happened during the period might have affected the writers of the time.  We always talk about how writers write about what they know, and I think after all of this historical context, they might at least begin to realize the importance of the period.  Lastly, I will have them reflect on how what happened then affects how we live now.  

Then the following week we will begin our intro to The Great Gatsby.

I’m anxious to see how my kids react and what they take away from this week.  I hope these ideas might be helpful to some of you!


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