Disease and Culture through Literary Time
Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman

Time: 1 day
Preparation Time: 1 hour to read lesson and to consult with the school librarian
Materials: Library books
- See suggested list within activity

This lesson begins the unit by reviewing the impact that disease has had on various cultures and times. Each student will then choose a book to read that has a disease as a component of its plot or theme. Students will be shown the matrix which they will need to fill out as they read their literary selection and will be given directions for the expository theme which they will write after completing their reading.

Students will be able to:
1. Read a piece of literature from a specific era, which addresses disease, and then identify in a matrix and in class discussion, pieces of information within the literature for examples of the impact of disease on culture and literature.

English Education Standards
Standard #2
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Arizona State Standards
READING Strand 2: Concept 2: Functional Text
PO 2. Synthesize information from multiple sources to draw conclusions.



1. We are all drawn to some period in history, perhaps to a culture that is in our own ethnic background or possibly to some civilization that is worlds apart from our own experiences. Ask the students to think of all the different time periods and peoples they have studied in school, seen portrayed in the movies, read about in literature, or perhaps been told about by relatives. What civilization at what point in its development resonates with each student? Ask the students to write down what cultures interest them the most and what aspects of those cultures do they find intriguing.

2. In a short class discussion ask students to share their answers. Then ask them to consider what they have been studying in both science and history classes thus far in the quarter and theorize which diseases the culture they find interesting may have been afflicted with. How would certain diseases affect a culture, from the everyday life of its citizens to the course that culture may follow?

3. While the impact of wars and famous people on a society is often written about, there are also books which explore a time and a place in the midst of a serious epidemic. Students will select a book to read over the next week which has such a theme. Arrange ahead of time with the school library to have books in the classroom which have to do with society and disease. Possible titles which you may easily find multiple copies of in a school library include:

Fever 1793 by Laurie Hulls Anderson
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
The Plague by Albert Camus
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
An American Plague by Jim Murphy
(This is a high interest/low reading difficulty book)

4. Students may also suggest titles to you. Any book which explores the impact of a disease on a population is acceptable; so books used in this lesson may be factual, historical fiction, or science fiction.

5. Explain to the students that there will be two written activities in this two week learning cycle, filling out a matrix for the disease written about in their novel and writing a five paragraph theme about the novel.

6. Students will choose the novel they wish to read in the time remaining in class.

7. Inform the students that they will have the rest of the week in class to read their novel, fill out the matrix, and gather information to answer the following question: How would certain diseases affect a culture, from the everyday life of its citizens to the course that culture may follow? How might this affect be reflected in the literature of the time or about the time?

8. During the following week you may want to structure time within the class period for students to respond to the written responses needed for the matrix and the larger question and also for discussion regarding the question.

Students need to select a book that they will read for this learning cycle.

Embedded Assessment
Assess the level of student involvement in this lesson by the frequency and quality of answers given in the class discussion and by spot checking the written work done by students in response to the engage questions and those asked at the beginning of the lesson. This may be done by walking around as they jot down their ideas.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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