Teaching Founding Ideals in American Literature

founding ideals

Since I teach American Literature, every day in my classroom provides instruction for the founding ideals of our country and reflects the fact that we have not always lived up to those principles. United States history teaches us that the desire for American rights is also the desire for human rights and has been an on-going journey for many people in our country.

John McCain, Rhetorical AnalysisSeminal United States documents and other classic texts communicate essential American themes.  John McCain's recent "Farewell Letter to America" makes teaching about equality, freedom, and diversity especially relevant. Recently, I've created a FREE Rhetorical Analysis lesson for teaching his letter. (Make sure to check for another freebie at the end of this post, too.)

1. Start with music. 

Music reveals a lot about what is going on in the country at a particular time and also about the sentiments of the people. Song lyrics are much like poetry, so as students listen to and read lyrics, they can highlight words and lines that exemplify attitudes about America.
I use classic American songs from different genres and time periods and have often used the following: 

Star Spangled
Music, Videos, Poetry
Banner by Francis Scott Key, Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, This Land is Your Land Woody Guthrie, The Times They Are a Changin’ by Bob Dylan, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue by Toby Keith, and American Idiot by Green Day. 
After practicing with these songs in class, I ask students to bring their own song selections, which demonstrate themes about America. Frequently, I incorporate this lesson with others lessons for poetry and art as an introductory unit to American Literature.

This year I hope to add Childish Gambino's song and video, "This is America." I know it will create lively discussion and the lyrics will be excellent for text analysis.  
Childish Gambino

2. Connect current issues to literature.

American literature is rife with stories and texts about the struggle for equality. One of my favorite lessons uses an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom with an article and video of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai. My students always admire her bravery and are amazed that she is a teen like them. We watch her addressing the United Nations in 2013. Then through analysis of Douglass’s and Yousafzai’s messages, students note the connection between education, equality, and freedom.
Novel Peace Prize

3. Use powerful speeches. 

Teach rhetorical literacy and let students learn history through the words of important American leaders. One of my favorites is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”. She uses biblical allusions and rhetorical appeals such as ethos, logos, and pathos to fight for women’s rights. Here’s a three-minute video performance  of the speech by Kerry Washington.
Memorial for 9/11
Students have designed memorials to honor the first responders and innocent victims of 9/11.
Another significant speech is Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address."  It provides an excellent example of parallelism, and I use it to inspire students to write their own speeches. After reading Lincoln’s message to honor the soldiers who fought in The Battle of Gettysburg, I encourage students to honor veterans and other heroes by designing their own memorials and dedication speeches.
The Gettysburg Address
One former student designed her memorial and wrote her speech to honor Trayvon Martin.
Last year I added Lyndon B. Johnson's Speech to Congress on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  To help students gain a stronger understanding of the argument in the speech, I created this free rhetorical analysis graphic organizer to accompany our reading of it.
TpT freebie, rhetorical analysis

American Rhetoric.com is a website with many more resources for significant speeches.

Are you interested in more great lessons for American Literature?  Then you might want to check out my "Beyond the Worksheet" American Literature Curriculum Bundle.  It has over 20 weeks of instructional materials and a thematic pacing guide!

Do you have more ideas for teaching the founding ideals of our democracy?  How have you collaborated with other content area teachers to infuse these principles into your instruction?  Please share in the comments.

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