Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Understanding the Context of Modernist Poetry


The Lesson


Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I

Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I—A dramatic shift in sensibilities ocurred as a result of these factors of modern life.

Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory

The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." The statement testifies to the modern writer's fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.”
—from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American PoetsThe Modernist Revolution: Make It New

Understanding the context of literary modernism (specifically, modernist poetry) is important for students before they analyze modernist texts themselves. To that end, this lesson enables students to explore and consider the forces that prompted such a “fundamental change” in human nature. In this lesson, students will explore the rise of cities; profound technological changes in transportation, architecture, and engineering; a rising population that engendered crowds and chaos in public spaces; factory life; and the aftermath of WWI. Students will begin to understand how these influential factors contributed to making individuals feel less unique and more alienated, fragmented, and at a loss in their daily lives and larger worlds.

Guiding Questions

  • What are several historical, social, and cultural forces that prompted the modernist movement?
  • What were the effects of these influential factors?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand the historical, social, and cultural context of modernism at large.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Setting the Context of Modernist Poetry
  • Ask students to define the term “modern” in general? Write descriptions on the blackboard/whiteboard, and ask students to think of different contexts in which the term is used.
  • Read the following definition of the term “modernism” from the University of Virginia’s Electronic Labyrinth available via the EDSITEment-reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts:

    The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War I period. The ordered, stable and inherently meaningful world view of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’.. rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, [modernists] presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.”

  • Pass out the following blank Aspects of Modernism chart (available as a PDF). Based on the quotation above, help students brainstorm some of the differences between Romantic and modern periods, which may include the following:

Pre-Modern World (e.g., Romantic, Victorian Periods)Modern World (early 20th century)
Ordered Chaos
Meaningful Futile
Optimistic Pessimistic
Stable Unstable
Faith Loss of Faith
Morality/Values Collapse of Morality/Values
Clear Sense of IdentityConfused Sense of Identity and Place in World

Have students keep this chart, which they will add to as they continue with Lesson Three of this curriculum unit.

  • Note that the English novelist Virginia Woolf proclaimed that, “human nature underwent a fundamental change ‘on or about December 1910.’" [From the Academy of American Poets “The Modernist Revolution: Make It New”]. Her claim was in reaction to the transformative post-Impressionist exhibit curated by critic Robert Fry, which featured artists such as Gaugin, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. Ask students to consider what this statement means—to undergo a fundamental change in human nature. Discuss with students their own experience of such a shift in human nature. While many students will likely mention September 11th, encourage students to think of other profound changes: computers, the Internet, and World Wide Web; space travel, including the space station and the Mars rovers; 24 hour news networks; the prevalence of cameras and digital photography; and so forth. Ask students to think broadly and write down specific emotional and social changes they have experienced in their daily lives because of these changes.
Activity 2. Exploring the Context of Modernist Poetry
  • Now that students have briefly considered how events and inventions can radically affect our worldview, redirect them to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The following exercise may work equally well working as individuals, in groups, or as a class. If working as a class on a single computer or if you wish to provide students with a brief introduction before group work, lead students through a tour of the interactive timeline from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Learner.org: Timeline: Events of 1876-1999. Focus on the late 1800s and 1900s. The class may also review the Twentieth-century Timeline, a link accessed via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. While not all on the same scale of September 11th, certain historical, social, and cultural forces prompted the same kind of wide-scale change in the way individuals thought about their world. Ask students what some of these influential forces were. Students should see events such as: the rise of cities; profound technological changes in transportation, architecture, and engineering; a rising population that engendered crowds and chaos in public spaces; a growing sense of mass markets often made individuals; and WWI contributed to making people feel less individual and more alienated, fragmented, and at a loss in their daily lives and worlds.
  • Divide students into five small groups. Assign each small group to one of the five topics listed below. Ask students to explore the assigned resources and to try to imagine life before and after the key moments in history. These sites primarily focus on U.S. history.
  • Have each group assign a scribe, and ask each group to list at least five adjectives to describe how life must have been within the context of the topic they explore as a small group. Emphasize that students should consider these topics within the context of how an individual would respond to these social, cultural, technological, and historical changes.

Inventions/Technological Breakthroughs


Assessment options include the following exercises:

  • Have each student group present their findings, including their list of adjectives, from the small group activity to the full class. Write all adjectives on the blackboard/whiteboard. Lead brief full class discussions on each topic, and begin to chart primary characteristics of a modernist sense of the world.
  • Have each individual student write a typed, two-page letter in the voice of an individual living during the late 1800s to early 1900s. The letter can be written to imaginary individuals from future generations. The letter should address the individual’s response to the social, cultural, technological, or historical change explored during the small group activity. Be sure to integrate into your letter the adjectives your group identified during the small group activity, and explain why those terms apply to you as an individual (in the persona you have chosen to adopt).

Extending The Lesson

Consider extending this lesson with the EDSITEment lesson plan Poetry of The Great War: 'From Darkness to Light'?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)


Activity Worksheets