Setting when teaching the novel

When I teach literature I'm always looking for ways to connect the stories to students. And with some books context is very important.  With Shakespeare, it can be understanding what's going on through something as simple as an illustrated timeline

With other books, it is recognizing that the setting is a character unto itself.  Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry require an understanding of the times: the segregation, the depression and the tension.  I struggled a bit with how to provide the necessary historical context in an engaging way until I looked across the curriculum. 

In social studies we often begin a unit with a short collaborative newspaper project to help students orient to the period we are about to study.  This is not a deep exploration, but instead a quick look at major figures, events, and issues.  It replaces an introductory lecture.  Students love playing reporter and working under a deadline, and they get an introduction to a period without any lecture. It's a win-win.

So when I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought great I'll have my students do a newspaper on the Great Depression.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized that the depression was too broad for this book.  The racism and economic issues within the South are a key part of getting the novel, particularly in reference to Atticus and the trial.  So I created a custom newspaper project for the To Kill A Mockingbird setting with article topics that include Governor Benjamin Meek Miller, James Agee and Walker Evans, and the Alabama Sharecroppers' Union.


On the day students create the newspaper (needs a 90 minute period), I tell them that today they are reporters.  They are on a tight deadline to get the a newspaper out.  Fortunately, the facts have been gathered.  I divide students into groups and provide informational text, directions for newspaper requirements and graphic organizers for putting their articles together.  The rest is up to them.  

While they work, I check in on them in my role as editor.  When the newspapers are complete, I hang them around the room.  Students read each other's articles and cartoons, learning about other aspects that they didn't write about.  I leave the newspapers up as reference points.

The first time I did this, it definitely didn't all work perfectly.  I've gotten better. But even the first time I found that with that extra bit of context, students were much more capable of absorbing nuances in the book related to setting than in previous reads, where they essentially knew little or nothing about Alabama in the depression.  How do you incorporate setting study in your novel work?

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