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Dedicated to Teachers

Using Technology With Primary Texts

In Teaching Literature In The Context Of Literacy Instruction, coauthors Jocelyn Chadwick and John Grassie explore how the familiar literature we love can be taught in a way that not only engages students but does so within the context of literacy instruction, reflecting the needs of today’s classrooms. They address complex questions secondary English teachers wrangle with daily: Where does literature live within the Common Core’s mandates? How can we embrace informational texts in our literature classrooms? And most importantly, how can we help students recognize that canonical works are relevant to them?

In this post, Jocelyn Chadwick discusses how use of technology can lead to a richer understanding of literature study.

by Jocelyn Chadwick

Remember field trips? Years ago, John and I visited Harper’s Ferry and Antietam. Soldiers, Lincoln, the Massachusetts’ 54th, the Gettysburg Address, Henry “Box” Brown, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Elijah P. Lovejoy, Matthew Brady—all of these images flooded my mind in an amazing panorama. I lamented to John how so many students would never, ever, have the opportunity to embark on a field trip to experience first-hand these images, these places, in order to have memories. As children, John and I both shared these experiences, for there was a time when schools and teachers and states could support such important, instructional endeavors. These first-hand experiences blended and integrated with core content instruction—humanities—and put the content we learned into perspective: visual, aural, tactile, emotional, psychological. Even in the 80s these blendings and meldings were prevalent. They are less so now. Students have borne the brunt, unfortunately. So, what has happened, and more importantly, what can we as ELA teachers do?

All too often, encouraging students’ interest in assigned texts is a struggle for teachers in many ELA classrooms.

Increasing numbers of students view literature as static, and some simply do not care about reading, understanding, or embracing assigned works. For them, reading is a little more than a chore, yet another burdensome assignment. Addressing and overturning this attitude requires helping students to “see” how literature is a vibrant and relevant part of their lives and has always had a definite place in their world.

For ELA teachers, an effective approach toward achieving and sustaining vibrancy and relevance in today’s classrooms includes utilizing technology—the internet, multimedia elements, and social media—to transport students around the world and into the stratosphere. Our literature, our facilitation, and our embracing of technology allow us to transport our students into defining aspects of the world and the universe—a variety of texts created by authors, in both fiction and informational.

This multifaceted approach encourages deeper dives into exploring the assigned text itself, while also drawing insights and relevant information from other elements students readily recognize. Technology does not replace reading the text; rather, it provides supporting elements on which students can rely.

In workshops with teachers and in class conversations with students, I routinely have my iPad with me. At a moment’s notice, I can access reference data bases of primary sources that bring the period piece of literature to life: students can see and hear the Dust Bowl; they can tour the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the British Museum; they can view Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul, as they read Pat Mora’s poem “Frieda”; they can share William Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shallot painting, as they read Tennyson, Mallory, or Rowling.

All of these first person, primary source references are on the internet, among many others for our research, yes, but primarily for teachers and students—students who may never have the opportunity to see them up close and personal.

Nothing can measure the impact of students seeing for the first time an African-American periodical—newspaper or journal or pamphlet—that relates to the issues of the time, citing people whose autobiographies they read, such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, or whose literature they read, such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the works of Harper Lee, Pauline Hopkins, Countee Cullen, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Last year, we spent several days at a school discussing late nineteenth century literature, focusing on Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. The school was an all-boys school, and you can imagine their “excitement” at the assignment.

What had been continually unfolding at other schools with students was the immediate and surprised response when we shared primary sources along with a series of inquiries not about plot but about what prompted these texts. How could Douglass have written his autobiography? What else had he written, if at all? How and why did Mark Twain consciously elect to change the initial trajectory of his career and work? Having the technology of primary documents, such as Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, on which Douglass modeled his own autobiography, captured and sparked the boys’ imaginations. They had had no clue about any of this content—content that without technology would have been unavailable to them otherwise.

Integrating technology and assigned texts as an instructional approach in the classroom does not require ELA teachers to become experts in all phases of contemporary technology, but rather, encourages us to understand what attracts twenty-first century students’ attention: social media, multimedia, video, images, apps, etc.

Consider the impact on our students of holding a first folio of Shakespeare's work before them on a digital screen, reading from an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, or seeing the face of Nefertiti, the wonders of the world and the depths of space, all without leaving their classroom. Now place the visual alongside our assigned texts, and we have moved ourselves and our students beyond our expectations and beyond the walls of our rooms. The key is to explore media choices with students and encourage them to express what they would like to see and understand in order to make literature “come alive.” We, too, must explore and think “outside the box” on how we can enable our beloved literature to come alive for our ever-changing student audience.

In the end, this approach holds the potential of improving the impact and relevance of our literary texts, while at the same time helping students to view reading, comprehension, and research as experiences they will recognize as an adventure—rather than a burden—that will enrich their lives forever.

The Rundown—Student Activity

The goal of this activity is to place your students in a creative and organized position as they explore elements in selections from assigned ELA texts. Depending on the organization of their classroom, students either work on this activity individually or in CLCs, what we call Creative Learning Communities.

To begin, develop a list of key questions, topics, ideas from the assigned text. Identifying the relevant information requires that students rely not only on the text but on technology to research complementary information: other text(s)—primary and secondary—images, audio, video, databases, articles, apps, and newspapers. Students must be sure to cite sources so that peers and teachers may benefit.

Students compile their results/research to create a visual/written presentation. During their research, they draw on images, audio visual files, additional texts, and social media posts on their given topic. When completed, students, or CLCs, present their information in a class discussion and address how this information has helped their understanding of the author’s approach in the assigned text. Teachers may even decide to share these projects with other teachers and students, or, as we are seeing in some wonderful schools, with the local community.


Moby-Dick; or, The Whale: Herman Melville

  • What did a whaling ship look like?
  • Where is Nantucket Island?
  • How did ships such as the Pequot find their way around the world?
  • Where did the Pequod sail?
  • What type of whale was Moby-Dick and why was that type valuable to whalers?
  • How was whale oil used?
  • How are whales viewed today?
  • Have you ever seen a whale? What kind? When?
  • How do you understand the relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick, between Ishmael and Ahab, or between Ishmael and the whole experience?
  • Having read about the whaling industry, reflect and evaluate on the whaling industry in the 21st century and the modern issue of fuel and energy needs.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar: William Shakespeare

  • Who was Julius Caesar?
  • What did he look like?
  • What is the Roman Forum, and what does it look like today?
  • What do the initials SPQR mean at the entrance to the ancient Roman Senate?
  • When is the “Ides of March,” and what made the date special for Shakespeare?
  • Why does Shakespeare use the Latin phrase, “et tu Brute” and what does it mean?
  • Does Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and/or Brutus resemble anyone you know, have seen, about whom you have read in the present?

For additional information, contact Heinemann Professional Development.

Click here to learn more about Teaching Literature In The Context of Literacy Instruction.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦


Jocelyn A. Chadwick has been an English teacher for over thirty years—beginning at Irving High School in Texas and later moving on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she was a professor for nine years and still guest lectures. Dr. Chadwick also serves as a consultant for school districts around the country and assists English departments with curricula to reflect diversity and cross-curricular content. For the past two years, she has served as a consultant for NBC News Education's Common Core Project for Parents, ParentToolkit. In June 2015, Chadwick was elected Vice President for the National Council of Teachers of English.

John Grassie is a veteran broadcast journalist, with more than 25 years’ experience producing news coverage, program series, and documentaries for Public Television, NBC News, and Discovery. During his broadcast career, Grassie’s work received numerous awards for excellence in journalism.

Topics: Education Policy, Literature, Reading, Teaching Literature In The Context Of Literacy, Canon, Comprehension, Jocelyn Chadwick, John Grassie, Language Arts

Date Published: 07/19/16

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