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Allegory and America: Analyzing the work of Virginia Lee Burton

Author: Kate Reber

This unit will be taught in my 11th grade English 3 course. The goals of this unit are to teach students about symbolism and allegory in fictional texts and to address issues in American History in the 1930s and 40s. My English 3 course is taught in parallel to an American History course, so we try to move along in a synchronized and often mutually-reinforcing curricular trajectory. I also try to focus my teaching primarily on novels, so that students can build reading stamina while also developing their comprehension skills and literary device recognition and interpretation.

Our studies will have a specific focus on analytical strategies. The discrete skills of this unit fall under one of my students’ areas of highest need – interpreting symbolism and allegory in fictional texts. Before my students can be successful as interpreters they first must develop skills in identifying symbols and possible allegories. Once they are confident in recognizing these literary elements they can then apply their skills to interpreting their use and analyzing the author’s intent in the piece. The unit will use rudimentary texts – primarily the picture books of Virginia Lee Burton– and then transfer those skills to higher level texts.

We will focus specifically on five of Virginia Lee Burton’s picture books for children: Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little House, Katy and The Big Snow, and Maybelle, The Cable Car. These books were published between 1937 and 1952 and share some thematic unity. They do all advance some form of an argument about modernity and urbanization. The stories express Burton’s mentality that has been interpreted as somewhere between conservative and conservationist. They offer a lot of room for experimenting with interpretation, which will be the students’ primary focus in the unit.

Download Unit: 11.01.10.pdf

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