Making Contemporary Connections to Literature | Facing History & Ourselves
Two female students work together at their desks.

Making Contemporary Connections to Literature

Students draw connections between social issues that the author explores in the text and their impact on our world today.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

Students learn best when what they are learning is relevant to them, both for the lives they are living now and the lives they will lead in the future. ELA teachers play a key role in this process when they incorporate opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between the universal themes that emerge in the texts they are reading and contemporary issues in the world today that matter to their students. For example, a literary text might explore the relationship between justice and fairness, which students could connect to issues such as racial or gender discrimination, gun laws, LGBTQ+ or disability rights, or mass incarcaration. 

The following learning experiences help students draw connections between social issues that the author explores in the text and their impact on our world today. These are important competencies to foster in students—competencies that require them to practice perspective-taking, engage with big questions, and develop opinions about contemporary issues that impact not only them but others in their immediate communities and around the world.

In order to deepen their understanding of the text, themselves, each other, and the world, students will . . .

  • Read critically and ethically to understand thematic development, characterization, conflict, and craft in order to make personal and real-world connections between the text and their lives.
  • Practice perspective-taking in order to develop empathy and recognize the limits of any one person’s point of view.
  • Make real-world connections that explore historical and contemporary contexts in literature.
  • Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, and appreciate texts.
  • Draw evidence from two or more literary and/or informational texts to support analysis of characterization, setting, thematic development, and/or conflict. 
  • Prepare for and participate in conversations to practice expressing ideas clearly, building on others’ ideas, and incorporating evidence from the text.
  • Produce a clear and coherent written summary of a news source.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using this learning experience, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Facing History learning experiences are classroom-ready activities that you can incorporate into your lesson plans. They are designed to be modular and adaptable, so you can use them over and over again with a wide range of texts to help students explore characterization, point of view, perspective taking, setting, and thematic development through a Facing History lens.

This learning experience is divided into three sections—Introduce, Explore, and Extend—which increase in complexity and depth of analysis, but they don’t need to be used in sequence. The entry point depends on students’ familiarity with the concept and the level of complexity they are ready to tackle. Educators might choose to incorporate just one section into a lesson plan, teach all three over the course of one or two class periods, mix and match, or repeat one multiple times during a unit to help students track character or thematic development.

  1. Introduce: The first activity introduces a concept and helps students develop the schema they will need for deeper exploration. It may involve vocabulary work, schema building, and opportunities for personal reflection and pair–shares.
  2. Explore: The second activity engages students in a deeper exploration of the concept and helps them apply it to the core text of the unit. It includes opportunities for close reading, literary analysis, collaboration with peers, and rich questions for small-group and whole-class discussion about the text and how it connects to the real world.
  3. Extend: The third activity invites students to produce a reflective, expository, analytical, or creative piece of writing (or other form of expression) in order to explore connections between the text, key concepts from the learning experience, and/or their own lives.

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  1. Have pairs generate a list of social issues that the text explores and then share their ideas with the class. Record their ideas on the board. 
  2. Have students choose a social issue from the list that interests them to reflect on in a journal response that uses the Rapid Writing teaching strategy. The following prompts can help get them started:
    • What social issue in the text matters to you? Why? 
    • What do you think the author wants you to think about or understand in regard to this issue as you read their book? What makes you say that?

This learning experience adapts the “3 Y’s” thinking routine. 1

  1. Have students work in small groups to discuss a social issue that the text raises. Pass out the Exploring Contemporary Social Issues handout and have students record notes as they discuss the questions. As you circulate, encourage them to incorporate evidence from the text to support their thinking.
  2. Then have groups imagine that a news source that exists in the world of their text is publishing an article that examines the issue they just explored. Use the Create a Headline strategy to write a headline based on ideas that emerged during their discussions. Remind students that this is a headline for a news source in the world of the text, not one in the world today.
  3. Have groups share their headlines using the Wraparound strategy before discussing some or all of the Exploring Contemporary Social Issues questions as a class.
  • 1The “3 Y’s” is a thinking routine developed by educators at Harvard University’s Project Zero.

Note: If you would like students to engage in a more robust research project, see the Explore section of the Facing History learning experience Research Three Ways.

  1. Have students find an article from a news source (see a list of trusted news sources in our Current Events Teacher Checklist) that helps them deepen their understanding of how the text connects to a social issue in the world today. They should read and annotate their article, perhaps using the following key:
    • Write a “☆” by information that explains, clarifies, or helps to illuminate the main idea of the article related to the issue.
    • Write a “♡” by places that resonate with you because they reflect something about who you are or your world.
    • Write a “!” by places that challenge what you know about the issue.
    • Write a “C” by places that connect to the text (work of literature).
  2. Then students should write a short summary of the article, using their annotations as a guide. If your students don’t have experience summarizing informational texts, you will need to provide a model and directly teach this important skill. 
  3. Use a strategy like Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World or Connect, Extend, Challenge to help students connect the information they learned about the issue with what they already know and their own lives. Students can share what they learned about their issue in small groups or a gallery walk.

Materials and Downloads

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY