George Lucas Educational Foundation
Integrated Studies

Putting an Environmental Spin on Literary Analysis

Secondary students can consider the ecological context in which a text was written to gain new insights into their reading assignments.

April 12, 2024
GUGAI / Shutterstock

Like many English teachers, I encourage my students to consider the historical context of a text, from political factions to pop culture. Unstable monarchies shaped the world of Macbeth, and The Bluest Eye was born of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, until recently, I rarely thought to consider a factor too often considered boring: How was the weather?

We know that weather affects our mood and can have lasting effects on our natural world, shaping society and culture. Macbeth was influenced not only by King James I’s reign but also by England’s Little Ice Age, a period beginning in the early 14th century that created longer winters and affected water sources and crops. This unexplainable shift in weather caused many in England to suspect that there were supernatural forces at work, influencing Macbeth’s encounters with mystical beings beyond human control.

Analyzing Literature and its Connection to the Ecological World

One way to consider a text’s environmental context is to apply an ecocritical lens. Ecocriticism is a literary theory that considers how a piece explores and is impacted by the relationship between humans and their natural world. Applying ecocriticism to a text includes evaluating the impact that the environment might have had in society when the piece was written and how the text represents the ecological world. By considering both, we can see not just how nature impacted society but also how texts can affect a culture’s view of nature as well.

For example, Kate Chopin’s 1894 Story of an Hour can be seen as a reaction to the shifting relationship between people and nature in the industrial age while also encouraging the reader to rethink their views about nature. These influences shape culture and connect to modern-day discussions about the environment.

Providing students with an ecocritical framework gives them a different angle to approach a piece of literature and opens up critical cross-curricular discussions. When students make connections between the science of a natural event or the environment in a text they’re reading, they can engage with both subjects in ways they may not have previously. Stories can help us gain a richer understanding of how science affects humanity, and scientific knowledge helps students gain important context and understanding of the impact of the environment on a culture. 

Applying an ecocritical lens allows students to research how other cultures or communities view and engage with their natural world. This understanding can broaden students’ perspectives about nature. Cross-curricular connections also allow students to engage in more authentic learning and combine multiple literacies within a lesson or unit. These connections can be significant in discussions about climate change and human relationships with the environment. Students learning about climate change engage in deeper learning when they use not just science literacy skills but cultural and textual literacy skills as well, allowing them to view climate change information more holistically.

Building Lessons Around Ecocriticism

While applying ecocriticism to a text can be a large project or unit, it can manifest in smaller ways within a classroom. For larger units, teachers can choose texts that discuss climate change and engage students in a research project that allows them to share connections. Students can also research the climate and environment of a text and analyze its effects on a piece of literature. When my students read To Kill a Mockingbird, they can dig deeper into Scout’s initial description of Maycomb’s ecology and environment: How does the Dust Bowl era and environment affect the citizens of Maycomb, and how does Lee’s portrayal of Maycomb as “a tired old town” that was “somehow hotter then” affect readers in the 1960s and today? Just as we ask students to consider how events were processed historically in a text, we can also ask them to analyze how weather and the environment were viewed by either characters in a book or the author who wrote the text. 

Another option is to consider the natural elements of a text as any other character or symbol and discuss how it shapes the audience’s perspectives as they engage with the work. By treating the environment of a text this way, we open up possibilities to understanding nature from another culture or perspective within a text that students may not normally encounter. English teachers can also work with their science colleagues to incorporate science into more extensive summative assessments that allow students to use science skills to analyze a theme within the text they read. 

For shorter lessons, teachers can introduce the concept of ecocriticism and have students write a poem and reflect on it through an ecocritical lens. Students can also hear poetry and writing from communities affected by climate change and reflect and write on their responses. This idea allows students to apply an ecocritical lens to literary work and consider how that work could help enact change or engage others. Teachers can provide a short story or poem and ask students to find weather reports or historical documents about the natural world from that period, allowing them to incorporate history and research skills into the lesson. 

One of the beautiful things about stories is how they can create windows into new worlds. Showing students how to have an ecocritical view of literature provides them with a new perspective on literature that is especially timely with discussions on climate change and the environment. By asking students to consider the weather in the texts they read, we help them focus on something they may not normally consider and build their relationship with the natural world. Encouraging students to consider the ecology of a literary world helps them see themselves as active participants in their own ecology who can shape the environment around them for the better.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Integrated Studies
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.