When performing a close read, it is difficult to get students to read between the lines to go beyond plot and character recap to do some real analysis. This represents a huge paradigm shift for grades nine and ten students who are used to doing book reports, summarizing what they read and what they think about it. A contextual analysis of a piece of literature forces students to engage critical thinking skills, formulate and answer critical inquiry questions, and make in-depth connections to which they may not be used.
What is context in literature?
Context refers to any external factors that have influenced authors as they write, focusing on the questions “Are events or places from the [author’s] life reflected in the [text]? Are people or relationships from the [author’s] life reflected in the [text]? Are the [author’s] ideas or beliefs reflected in the [text]?“
Context has become a huge teaching point in my practice, simply because, to me, it seems like such a simple context, but the students struggle. Every semester I teach or review context as a concept, I change my approach, and every semester it is met with varying success. This prompted me to embark on a critical inquiry quest of my own, to discover a way to teach context that is student-centred, inquiry-based, and engaging. The results of my quest are codified in 15 Practical Ideas for Teaching Context in Literature, available on Amazon. Using one of the ideas in that collection, I taught a successful and engaging lesson on context, that was probably the best one of my career!
If you’re in a pinch…
Some of the activities in my book can be time-consuming, taking up three or more days of class, and while getting the concept across is well worth the time, you might find that you don’t have the time to give over to some of these activities, particularly toward the end of the semester. Fear not. Here is a way you can do it in one or two periods.
The lesson plan I am sharing with you here is for teaching context in Macbeth in grade ten. It is focused more on connections with the play rather than Shakespeare himself, as it is assumed that students would have already had an introduction to Shakespeare in grade nine. To be sure students are following along with the lesson, I create a note-taking template for students to complete during the presentation with the caveat that the slide deck will not be shared at a later date, removing the excuse that they do not have to pay attention because they can make the notes later. I had great success with this method in my grade nine class and hope it will work as well with my grade tens.
The lesson begins with a series of videos and slides with which students are prompted to make notes and includes a critical inquiry activity in which students compare five different portrayals of the witches to discuss their effectiveness. We watch the Patrick Stewart version of the play, and the unit culminates with students creating a portfolio of five writing activities selected from a choice board—a combination of fiction and non-fiction pieces—from which they choose three to polish and submit for evaluation. All of the context was selected with this in mind so that once they begin the portfolio, most of the concepts covered should have already been introduced.
Materials needed for the lesson in context are: