Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Literary Timeline Six Novel Ideas My Favorite Novel Elements of the Novel Top Novel Lists About the Program
Lesson 2
Lesson #1 | Lesson #2 | Lesson #3

Novel Ideas: History of the American Novel

by Elizabeth de La Garza Vargas

Overview | Procedures for Teachers

Introductory Activity:

1. Explain to students that they will be exploring the history of the American novel.

2. Ask them to find a partner with whom they would like to work on a research project.

3. Provide student pairs with excerpts of American novels from 1600 to the present. (You can use the AMERICAN NOVEL timeline at to help select appropriate texts from different time periods.)

4. Facilitate a class discussion of the excerpts. What clues do students notice about the writing styles that might help them place the excerpts in chronological order (according to when were they written)? They might consider:

  • language (tone, formality, diction, vocabulary)
  • subject matter
  • historical context (not always accurate)
  • character descriptions
  • historical clues (i.e., if the story refers to the Vietnam War, we know that it took place sometime after that war began)
5. Direct students to for a list and descriptions of important literary movements in American literature. Ask students to classify their excerpts into the appropriate literary movement(s).

6. Ask students to consider why novels tend to be written as part of a "movement."

Learning Activity:

1. Explain to students that they will continue to explore the history of the American novel. Divide them into small groups and assign each group one of the following time periods:
  • between 1600 and 1699
  • between 1700 and 1799
  • between 1800 and 1899
  • between 1900 and 1999
  • between 2000 and the present
2. Explain to students that they will be creating a class time line of the American novel. Each small group will explore their designated time period together and present a segment of the time line. The segments will be joined together at the end of the lesson.

3. Distribute a piece of long construction paper to each group on which they will display their final work. Students may store the paper in class, but should make sure they know how much space they have for their final presentation. Explain that they will need to make group decisions about what to include in their segments and what to leave out.

4. Students will be asked to conduct preliminary research on their own, bringing to the table the following materials:
  • important historical events of their time period
  • important literary movements of the time period
  • key authors (each student should write a short biography of at least one key author from his or her group's assigned time period)
  • key texts
  • excerpts of key texts
  • photos, maps, actual texts, other two-dimensional visual aids that can be included on a time line
5. When all of the segments have been completed, the groups should prepare to present their segments to the class. The presentations should include an oral interpretation of the time line segment and the above-mentioned resources.

6. After the group presentations, the class will join the segments of the time line and display it in the classroom.

7. As a group, students will propose and vote on a title for their time line.

Culminating Activity:

1. Ask students to reexamine the class time line of the American novel.

2. Ask them to select an author, text, literary movement, or general time frame that interests them. They will discreetly write their selection on an index card with their name on it. The index cards will be kept private, and the teacher will hold on to them until further notice.

3. Explain to students that they will be writing the first chapter of an original novel that corresponds with the selection they wrote on the card. The chapter should be a minimum of two typed (double-spaced) pages.

4. After students have completed their chapters, they will complete an introduction explaining the following:
  • What attracted you to this author/time period/literary movement/writing style?
  • How did you incorporate those qualities into your original chapter?
  • Did you find it easy or difficult to adapt those qualities into your original chapter?
  • What obstacles did you face, if any?
5. Xerox all of the introductions and chapters and publish the copies in a booklet for each student, perhaps separating the original chapters with title pages designed to reflect the time periods on which they were based.


Schedule a reading day. Place each student's original chapter somewhere in the room, each accompanied by a Reading Log. Ask the students to go to a chapter (not their own), take some time to read it, and write a positive remark on the corresponding Reading Log. Additionally, they should make educated guesses about the author, time period, and/or movement according to which the writer wrote the chapter. In five-minute intervals, ask students to move to another student's chapter. In a group discussion, ask them to talk about the chapters they read.

Cross-Curricular Extensions:

Geography: Record on a map the birth places of prominent American authors.

Community Connections:

  • Contact your local library, historical society, or newspaper to investigate the possibility that an American author could be from your area. Where did he or she live? What was his or her life like?
  • Invite a local author to come to the class, share information about his or her writing, and take questions from the students.
Online Resources:

Washington State University American Literature Various resources regarding American novels, including a timeline and author list.

Electronic Texts for the Study of American Culture A selection of texts by American authors available online.

PBS Teachers

About the Author:

After working in educational media production for more than 10 years, Elizabeth de La Garza Vargas went back to school and received an M.S.Ed. from Bank Street College of Education. Her studies focused on adolescent development and the teaching of English/Language Arts and Social Studies. Currently, Elizabeth works in New York City as a freelance writer and educator for institutions including the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Brooklyn Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the New York Botanical Garden.

The American Novel