Sunday, January 15, 2017

Invoking Mockingbird, Obama reminds us of importance, difficulty of empathy

In his Farewell Address on January 10, 2017, President Obama once again charmed and pleased many English teachers across the United States with his reference to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In case you missed the moment, Obama said, “if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need[s] to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch – who said, `You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

This passage, a favorite for many teachers, comes at the beginning of Chapter 4, when Atticus describes the practice of climbing into another’s skin, or what we might today call radical empathy, to Scout as a “simple trick” (39). The current political moment suggests there is nothing simple about it.

Indeed, Obama acknowledges in his Address the difficulty and rarity of this act of empathy. He presses Americans to “pay attention, and listen … acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t vanish in the ‘60s.” Obama insists that we also need to work to tie the “struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … [including] the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”

The allusion to Mockingbird seems a perfect exemplar for Obama’s point and for our current political moment. Tom Robinson and Calpurnia live in a desperately unequal world. In Maycomb, their lives are simply worth less; they are disempowered and dispossessed.

But so too is Mr. Ewell. Scout as narrator in Mockingbird explains that the “families like the Ewells” (227) inhabit every town like Maycomb. They are people left behind by both good times and bad: “No economic fluctuations changed their station – people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” (227).

Just as Atticus never really steps into Tom Robinson’s skin and imagines the world from his point of view, the plight of the Ewells, who actually live in “what was once a Negro cabin” (227), is never tied together by anyone in Maycomb as part of a broader struggle for justice in the novel. One might say that the two disempowered characters live in their separate bubbles, until their worlds collide. Mr. Ewell is the antagonist, of course, but both characters suffer, disproportionately of course, from their place in the world of Maycomb in which they are not seen by the broader society or by each other.

Obama’s Address asks us to do what is definitively NOT a simple trick: to see each other and all those who are interconnected with us; to listen to each other and have real dialogue, rather than stay in our bubbles or snipe at each other over social media.

For those of us teaching Mockingbird, this is one more moment in which we can use informational text – in this case Obama’s Address – to show students the relevance of the literary texts we teach and to cultivate in our students the skills, disposition, and courage to become engaged, informed citizens. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Using 'Loving' to teach 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

There’s lots of talk about the recent film Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the interracial couple who triumphed in the Supreme Court over Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. It’s a sweet film, and one that takes an intimate approach to the subject in a way that is sure to be embraced by teachers. Loving contrasts the quotidian events of rural life and love with the broader politics of racism in the United States in a way that mostly charms, even if it is somewhat frustrating in its deliberate focus away from the Civil Rights Movement.

In an interview with NPR, Nichols discusses how he first became aware of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and their battle with anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia when he was introduced to the HBO documentary on the Lovings in 2012. Nichols says, “[F]or that to be the first time that I heard about Richard and Mildred Loving was kind of unacceptable to me. I think this is something that people more than just law students that have taken constitutional law classes, you know, should have a familiarity with, especially now.”

We couldn’t agree more. So many of our nation’s signature Supreme Court cases are unknown to the people of our nation. And many of the decisions, like Loving v. Virginia, are actually relatively accessible and deeply engaging. They certainly are readable by, as Nichols writes, “more than just law students.”

In fact, we think many Supreme Court cases make terrific, engaging companion texts to some of our most commonly taught literary texts.

For example, we use an excerpt from Loving v. Virginia in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill A Mockingbird. The case serves as the informational text-center of our unit, “What’s Up with Mr. Dolphus Raymond?” Studying Loving v. Virginia gives students the legal context with which to understand the fact that the white Dolphus Raymond could not legally marry the African-American mother of his children. Scout may or may not be aware of this prohibition, which makes it all the more inaccessible to students today. Reading Loving v. Virginia together with Mockingbird reveals the deeper gravity and historical resonance behind Raymond’s drunken masquerade. Nichols’s Loving surely deserves a place in our classrooms as well (even just the 2 1/2 minute trailer for the film does fine work in unpacking for students the taboos against interracial marriage).

Indeed, reading Mockingbird together with Loving v. Virginia is one way, we think, in which the Common Core helps us engage students in “difficult conversations” (Chadwick 91) about race, class, and social injustice. Jocelyn A. Chadwick references these “difficult conversations” in her excellent discussion of teaching Huckleberry Finn in the November 2016 issue of English Journal. Her essay forms one of several companion pieces to Peter Smagorinsky’s provocative essay on whether it is “time to prohibit Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn” (75).

Leaving aside the issue of teaching Huck, one issue that struck us in the debate in EJ was Smagorinsky’s worry about the Common Core’s “emphasis on reading within the four corners of the page while sublimating emotional responses in service of textual analysis” (80). This worry seems to echo earlier concerns that the Common Core would force English teachers to put aside literature in favor of instructional manuals.

The Common Core, however, asks us to broaden, not narrow, our students’ reading. Students are sometimes asked to read “within the four corners of the page,” but the Common Core also introduced the informational text standard and emphasized the important skill of putting different kinds of texts into critical conversation. Anchor Standard 9, for example, asks students to “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (CCSS, 2010). Explicitly, this standard articulates a reading practice in which students use multiple texts to build an “informative context” that expands beyond any singular close examination of a solitary text.

Particularly for texts like Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, that informative context can be just as important as the emotional context. Emotional responses to literature can and should retain a place in our classrooms, but we also have a responsibility to help place those responses within the complex and politically difficult historical context that students often can’t access from the literary text alone. After all, Scout and Jem think Dolphus Raymond is a drunk because they have no context within which to understand his actions and behavior. Informational texts, like Loving v. Virginia and Nichols’s Loving, make sure our students don’t make those same mistakes. These companion texts to Mockingbird are crucial tools for us to use in meeting the Common Core Standards, building literacy across a range of text types, and facilitating difficult but critical classroom conversations.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Mapping inequality in A Raisin in the Sun and our own cities

A few weeks back Slate published an article that anyone who is teaching A Raisin in the Sun will find immensely interesting. Henry Grabar writes about the Mapping Inequality project created by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Grabar’s article, “Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods,” is a compelling introduction to this fascinating set of interactive maps.

Mapping Inequality is a database of more than 150 federal “risk maps” from between 1930 and 1940 that show which neighborhoods were considered “best,” “still desirable,” “definitely declining,” and “hazardous.” These designations would come to dictate the level of investment or lack thereof in cities across the country for decades. As Grabar notes, “These maps, which came to shape not just the distribution of mortgages but other types of lending and investment, were the origin of the term ‘redlining.’” Once a neighborhood was redlined, as Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses in “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, the homes there were no longer eligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured private mortgages. Redlining, in effect, “. . . exclud[ed] black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

While the color-coded maps put the fact that racial discrimination was an integral part of federal housing policy in sharp relief, the truly fascinating (and infuriating) treasure are the appraisers’ notes about each neighborhood that accompany the maps.

As Grabar highlights, “In 1937, for example, a summary of the Eastern Parkway area of Brooklyn noted its favorable influences—‘near Prospect Park,’ ‘substantial row brick construction,’ ‘close in,’ ‘good transportation facilities’—and one detrimental influence: ‘slow infiltration of negroes from the section to the north,’ meaning the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Eastern Parkway was at that point about 2 percent black. It was colored yellow, for ‘definitely declining.’”

Chicago’s Brownsville, on the other hand, was redlined due to the fear of the effect the construction of the Ida B. Wells public housing project might have on the neighborhood: “This venture has the realtors guessing as to what the ultimate result will be when so many of this race are drawn into this section from the already negro-blighted district. … Already Washington Park at the south, a very fine park, has been almost completely monopolized by the colored race.”

Grabar also observes that “[r]acist though they were, the appraisers seemed to recognize that cutting the area off from financial institutions would ultimately be ruinous. ‘One of the most important necessities is to provide means of financing these colored homes so that they may be rehabilitated,’ the Bronzeville report states. Instead, contract sellers and subprime lenders moved into the void.”

If you’ve used the chapter in our book Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun that focuses on the violence that surrounded the integration of a previously white South Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s, you may find the 1939 appraisal of South Deering particularly interesting. (Other units in our volume focus on housing discrimination past and present and socioeconomic mobility.) The database offers students the opportunity to dig into information about the neighborhoods that the Youngers are moving from and to in A Raisin in the Sun.

Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods” also gives students the opportunity to consider the history of their own cities and how redlining influences their present-day reality. The article, and the database underlying it, underscore the wealth of informational text we can use to make the literary texts we teach year after year come alive for our students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Using informational text to support English-language learners

At a recent gathering of New Jersey educators, a teacher I had just met asked me if our approach to using informational text would work for English Language learners.

“Yes!” I responded, and then rattled off how front-loading vocabulary, focusing on text features, and building relevance, etc. were all essential strategies for ELLs.

And then I wanted to blog about what I had said because it’s a topic we haven’t emphasized in relation to our approach to using informational text.

In a post for ASCD Express, Lydia Breiseth highlights three key strategies for building ELLs’ comprehension skills: building background knowledge, teaching vocabulary explicitly, and checking comprehension frequently.

We would argue that these strategies are key in supporting comprehension and engagement for all students, not just English language learners.

And, these strategies encapsulate both why we think using informational text in the classroom is so important and how we can support student success with such texts.

Informational texts can be powerful tools in building the background knowledge that will help students access literary texts or other informational texts. In addition, they can help increase student motivation by highlighting the relevance of curricular content to their daily lives.

In our model for using informational text (detailed in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text), we begin with a range of vocabulary activities that front-load both key vocabulary and concepts that students will encounter in the informational text. This primes students for success with even very challenging texts.

We advocate focusing on 8-10 key words so as not to overload students or to make vocabulary instruction too onerous and time-consuming.

We also urge teachers to prepare the text by cutting out anything that is not relevant to their instructional goals. Teachers of ELLs or any students who struggle with reading comprehension may shy away from exposing them to challenging, diverse texts, even while knowing that their students will face such texts in their future lives. Using short, engaging excerpts with sufficient support and preparation can help build students’ skills and confidence with complex texts.

To follow-up on the pre-reading vocabulary support, we encourage teachers to provide guided reading and discussion questions alongside the excerpt that direct students’ attention to key text features and concepts. Again, this kind of support is important not just for English language learners but for all students.

We follow the reading of the excerpt with writing and discussion prompts that invite students to think critically about the text and to make connections with other curricular content.

For classroom-ready examples of these kinds of informational text units, check out our volumes on using informational text to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun. For detailed instructions on how to build your own informational text units, on your own or in collaboration with colleagues in other content-areas, see Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text.

Like Breiseth, we acknowledge the time and effort required to create this kind of support for our students, but we know from classroom experience that it is well worth the effort!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Another Raisin connection: Sonia Nieto on How 'Zip Codes Still Matter'

Are you teaching A Raisin in the Sun this year? We keep coming across amazing connections to Hansberry’s play.

Here’s a quick and fun idea. Have students read Sonia Nieto’s recent column, “Zip Codes Still Matter,” published on the blog of Harvard Education Publishing. In this moving and eminently readable post, she describes her experience moving at age 13 from working-class East Flatbush to a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Nieto describes the transition as “both positive and traumatic.” The piece, usefully, combines her discussion of her personal experience and 2012 research by Jonathan Rothwell about discrepancies in housing costs and the disparities of opportunity across zip codes.

Then, have your students write a blog post or journal entry by Travis Younger, describing his first days at his new school in Clybourne Park. What will he notice? What will he find positive? What will be traumatic? Will Travis, like Nieto, judge the move “lucky” overall?

Cap off this creative exercise with a brief analytic one that will make your assessment easier and serve as a slightly disguised piece of analytic, evidence-based writing. Have your students discuss how they crafted their Travis entry. How do the sentiments they voiced on behalf of Travis reflect their understanding of Raisin and the world Travis inhabits before the move to Clybourne Park? How did they choose to depict Travis’s assessment of the positive and the traumatic, based on what we know of where Travis comes from in Chicago and where he is going to in Clybourne Park? And, finally, how did they use Nieto’s entry to inform their Travis entry? Having students use the play and the Nieto blog posting in crafting this reflection piece will allow you to assess efficiently and effectively their creative work while also offering more practice in evidence-based writing.

For more readings that can help students engage with the many important ideas and themes in Raisin in the Sun, and vocabulary, writing, and discussion activities to go along with them, check out our volume, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Timely NYT article can connect students with A Raisin in the Sun and present-day inequality

Are you teaching A Raisin in the Sun this year? Are you looking for a new substantive hook to help your students understand what’s at stake in Hansberry’s play? Do your students need help thinking about why the Younger family was willing to risk so much (humiliation, violence) to move to Clybourne Park? The New York Times has a great article that can help.

Clyde Haberman begins his important piece by asking: “Should your ZIP code determine your future?” It’s a catchy but moot question. Our ZIP code does play a huge role in determining our futures. This is what Hansberry and the Younger family understood and what underscores the continuing importance of Hansberry’s brilliant A Raisin in the Sun. (If you have been using our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun, you will immediately see how this new article fits in with the units on housing discrimination past and present and socioeconomic mobility and inequality featured in the book.)

Haberman’s “Housing Bias and the Roots of Segregation” is a companion to a 15-minute video, part of the Retro Report, a video documentary series examining major news stories of the past. (The video, or a short part of it, can be a great way to hook your students into thinking about this weighty topic before reading the article.) In particular, The Times’ article and video focus on Dorothy Gautreaux and her lawsuit, some fifty years ago, against the Chicago Housing Authority. The lawsuit resulted in the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, giving a small number of families vouchers to resettle in white, affluent suburbs. The children in these families thrived, despite racism and setbacks. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration created a similar program, Moving to Opportunity. Read the article to see the complex analysis of the results of the Clinton administration’s attempt to address housing segregation and social inequality.

The story of the Younger family and Mama’s attempt to give her grandson Travis a better future by moving him to a white, more prosperous neighborhood is no crusty, irrelevant tale from our distant past. As Haberman reports, from 2000 to 2013, the number of Americans living in “concentrated poverty rose to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, with African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately represented.” These young people, like Travis, may not be entirely trapped by their zip codes, but they are significantly, tragically disadvantaged. Hansberry’s play, sadly, reflects an enduring reality that the Obama administration, as the article details, is now making its own attempt to address. In our own way as educators, by exposing our students to such complex, important texts, we can help them develop the powerful knowledge and critical thinking skills they will need to address these issues themselves.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A new school year, a new Mockingbird

EdWeek currently features an inspiring piece by David B. Cohen about teaching Mockingbird. Cohen talks about the ways in which his views and teaching of Harper Lee’s seminal and influential text have changed, particularly in light of his current reading about institutional racism and economic oppression in the historical period of the novel.

Indeed, as Cohen writes, “even if the book stays the same, the reader changes over time.” So his current reading of Mockingbird is different from what it was some twenty years ago, based on who he now is but also what he now knows about the broader context of the novel.

We might amplify Cohen’s important comments with a reminder that the readers of Mockingbird today are not just us, the teachers, but also our students. What broader context and particular reading do students today bring to the table in order to make sense out of Harper Lee’s text? What do we as teachers hope they will take away? How can we help them see the connections between this very historically specific story of Maycombe and today’s American universe, replete with tensions about race, economic inequality, social justice, etc.?

Cohen writes that a text like Mockingbird is never at risk of feeling “stale and overused” because it contains such “rich material.” But he also emphasizes, so rightly, that by “adding relevant new learning,” we “keep the experience fresh.” Indeed, that is the difficult but exciting task of the skilled English teacher.

When we select innovative and engaging informational or nonfiction texts in order to provide a potent context for both us and for those many students for whom Mockingbird can seem an alien text describing a foreign world, we do our jobs well. There is no one Mockingbird; which version of Harper Lee’s novel will you offer your students this year? What texts will you curate for them in order to shape their first or second encounter with what Oprah Winfrey calls “our national novel”?