But What About Literature?

August 30, 2016
Alix Horton

Alix Horton

“How am I supposed to fit in Julius Caesar/To Kill A Mockingbird…./insert title here into Project Based Learning?” is a question I often get as a New Tech Network literacy and school coach.  English teachers understandably wonder how reading a novel or other piece of literature can be made a meaningful, authentic component of a project. It can be even more of a challenge in an integrated, interdisciplinary class, like integrated Biology and English or a Humanities class.

I understand this question, and I empathize, having been in exactly the same position. “How on earth will I include literature?” was a question that came up frequently when I taught a Chemistry and English class.

So first, let’s just revisit what PBL is anyway. Indulge me for a moment, because I think it will help, at least a little. In PBL, students learn standards and skills by accomplishing a meaningful task or solving a problem, together. A core component of PBL is authenticity- students deepen skills and knowledge by applying them to an authentic context. In other words, that meaningful tasks or problem they’re solving should be a real-world issue, or simulate something done in the real world.

I’ve argued before that an “authentic English experience” involves reading and thinking about text, writing about it, connecting to students lives, and, ideally, such an experience involves some joy. I’d like to put a finer point on it this time and ask- “What are authentic experiences that involve literature?” In other words- when, why, and how do people in the real world read literature? For the purposes of this post, I’ll prioritize “outside of school” when I think about the “real world,” though I’ll also mention the kinds of things scholars do when they read literature.

In the real world, people, young and old, read literature to learn, gain a window into another world, and for pleasure. They read as part of a community that values reading and talking about books (I’m thinking of book clubs and blogging communities here). They research, read, and ask questions to find a book that they will love, and when they find a book they love, they tell other people to read it in a variety of ways- through podcasts, blogs, reviews, Twitter, or just over a cup of tea. They read to inform their own creative pursuits. And some people read and then turn around and say something about the world based on what they read, whether they produce literary criticism, a thought-piece for the New York Times, or just get in a long, drawn out argument with a friend. English scholars read literature carefully and then communicate a line of reasoning about that text to a community of other scholars to build a broader and deeper understanding of texts’ purpose, form, and function.

So, how can we include literature in projects? I think more fruitful questions for English folks doing PBL might be:

Why read this piece of literature? Related questions include:

  • Does the text/part of the text answer a need to know?
  • Does the text/part of the text give us a window or perspective into another world?
  • Does the text/part of the text provide one answer to a question people grapple with, or does it help us come up with new questions? Can it serve as a case study of a particular issue or problem?
  • A related, and great question for an integrated class, would be, “If the big question we want students to grapple with is …., what literature might provide one answer/serve as a case study/help us generate more questions?”


What do people in the “real world” do when they read this piece of literature or pieces of literature like it? What do they do afterwards? Related questions include:

  • Does it serve a creative purpose, inspiring other kinds of art, performances, etc.?
  • Is it a model of some kind for others’ writing or creative work? Could it be a model for us?
  • Do people discuss it and argue about it?
  • Do they write/produce something afterwards? If so, what- reviews? Literary criticism? Passionate OpEds? Podcasts?

Let me answer those question for a sample piece of literature. Let’s take Julius Caesar, for example. Why read this piece of literature? It might answer a need to know like “Why is Shakespeare so famous?”, but it probably doesn’t answer historical need to knows- at least not historical need to knows about the time period portrayed in the play. Does it give us a new window/perspective or does it help us grapple with a particular question? Certainly it might help us think about how people of the time thought about history, power, leadership, etc. and inform how we think about those things.  Does it serve a creative purpose? Absolutely, it’s usually performed, inspiring actors, and it’s been used as inspiration for numerous other pieces of art. Do people discuss Julius Caesar and argue about it? I’m sure actors, directors, etc. argue like crazy about how to perform particular sections. And literary critics and English scholars definitely do. Do people write/produce something afterwards? Yes, they write literary criticism, certainly.

Hopefully the quick brainstorming I modeled above got you thinking about possible driving questions and products for a project that includes Julius Caesar. Certainly we could have a driving question about power or leadership. I’m thinking a performance or creative piece inspired by the play would be a great final product, and students could write some literary criticism along the way. We could include a debate, bringing in the text as one possible perspective. If this was an integrated class, we could bring Julius Caesar in purposefully when we were addressing a particular driving question, in order to bring in a new perspective or help us ask questions, or perhaps as a kind of case study. If we’ve done some of those things, we’ve crafted a project that supports students in an authentic experience that includes literature, rather than shoehorning literature into a project.

A side note: if the answer to the questions above is ever, “This is one of the texts the district makes us read,” I’d encourage some creative maladjustment. Rally your students and staff and bring in your administrators, and argue for meaningful texts that serve authentic purposes. I know this is easier said than done, and I don’t say it lightly- I say it because I don’t want students to read “just because,” ever. 

I hope this set of questions at least helps you get started thinking about meaningful and purposeful ways to integrate literature. What are some texts you love, why do those texts matter, and what do adults do after they read those texts? How have you thought about these questions as you designed projects?

Read more from Alix at Literacy for Living.

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