Monday, April 25, 2016

Gatsby and the privilege of the 0.1 percent

Teaching The Great Gatsby and thinking about how to make Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel relevant to your students today? We are working on Gatsby for our fourth volume in our Using Informational Text series for Rowman and Littlefield, so we are thinking about this issue constantly. So we were amused, horrified, and thrilled to read the article “In New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in Same Boat: Marketing to Rich Customers, Companies Foster a Money-Based Caste System” on the front page of the April 24 edition of The New York Times.

The article references today’s wealth disparities and economic and social stratification and links our current age of privilege to the Gilded Age (which ended in 1900, before the world of Gatsby) and the Titanic (which sank in 1912, also anticipating Gatsby). Nelson D. Schwartz, writing for the Times, cites Emmanuel Saez, a Berkeley economist who has elsewhere remarked on how our current economic climate most resembles the Roaring Twenties, the age of Gatsby, when, as now, the top 0.1 percent of families owned the largest share of wealth. (An excerpt of a recent study co-authored by Saez on inequality and socioeconomic mobility in American society appears in our recent volume on teaching A Raisin in the Sun.)

And in this world where a tiny number of people have vast sums of money, American businesses are evolving to capitalize: “to create extravagance and exclusivity for the select few, even if it stirs up resentment elsewhere.” Two hundred seventy-five guests from among 4,300 passengers enjoy a private pool, restaurant, and oasis from the crowds on Norwegian Cruise Line. The rich can pay for after-hours access to Disney World. Wealthy families can skip the lines at SeaWorld. And more of all this is to come.

As Thomas Sander from Harvard’s Kennedy School puts it, “We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class … and [doing] a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.”

The only issue for marketers catering to this new Gatsby elite is how much transparency should be part of this new “money-based caste system.”

The answer seems to be a lot of transparency. No need to hide the privileges of wealth in this age of super affluence.

Those of us temporarily in the same boat as the ultra-wealthy can expect not just to be treated differently but to see that unequal treatment displayed for our benefit. As the Times reports, regular diners on Royal Caribbean will have to walk past the windows of the exclusive Coastal Kitchen reserved for the elite before they can “crowd around the buffet tables of the open-to-everyone Windjammer Café.”

Companies seem to have determined that notwithstanding a bit of envy, “offering ordinary customers just a whiff of the rarefied air can enhance the bottom line … class segregation can create something to which people can aspire.”

A whiff of rarefied air and a dream of the girl with the voice “full of money …. in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl”: these indeed are the stuff out of which James Gatz is transformed into Jay Gatsby.

Let’s hope we can use this Times article to help our students to think critically about what it means to worship excess, privilege, and exclusivity – both in Gatsby’s world and in ours.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What the proposed NJ revisions to the CCSS mean for ELA teachers

Because we are invested in the use of informational text and because we teach in New Jersey, we thought it might be useful to record some comments about New Jersey’s proposed revisions to the Common Core State Standards, now to be called the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

Two changes are particularly relevant to those educators.

First, the new standards try to address an outsized emphasis on close reading:
It is important to note that the Common Core slants heavily in the direction of close reading of unfamiliar text. Our educators know that this is not the only way to read and comprehend a passage. New Jersey understands and is committed to the importance of background knowledge, social context, historical perspective and a reader’s personal response to the written word…. In fact, this attention to reading by using learned strategies for making connections, is one suggestion that we have heard from our educators since the adoption of the Common Core. Through this clarifying revision, we hope to strengthen the standard to incorporate close reading into all classrooms alongside other developmentally and grade appropriate approaches to reading.
Much of the backlash to close reading has centered around David Coleman’s demonstrations of close reading as an isolated intellectual exercise in which the primary text is the source of all knowledge. Coleman’s particular approach to close reading threatens to “exclud[e] … the establishment of an informative context for reading” (Guillory, 2015, p. 670) and is particularly problematic for students who struggle to make sense out of the central texts of the American canon and key issues like race and class without a broader context in which to ground their thinking.

It’s not clear, however, that Coleman’s approach accurately represents the practice of close reading or that the Common Core standards idealize isolated close reading. After all, Anchor Standard 9 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).

This standard underscores our approach, in contrast to Coleman’s decontextualized close reading. In our work, we emphasize the creation and use of clusters of visual and multimedia texts (from paintings to PSAs), literary texts (including young adult and graphic novels), and informational texts (from government documents to Supreme Court decisions and news articles) – around a core literary text, so that students can discover and build, through the process of close reading, an informative context in order to develop a capacity to engage in substantive, meaningful conversations.

Regardless, it is terrific to see the New Jersey Student Learning Standards encourage an emphasis on connections. The anchor standard explicitly adds language about connections: “CCRA.R1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences and relevant connections from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” And the specific standards in the various grade bands contain language to reflect this additional emphasis on connections: “RL.8.9 Analyze and reflect on (e.g. practical knowledge, historical/cultural context, and background knowledge) how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.”

Let’s hope that the renewed emphasis on student-to-text connections or “the reader’s personal response to the written word” does not push the pendulum too far back in the direction of personal connections. Educated students need to be empowered to heed their own critical voices as they read various informational/nonfiction and literary texts, but they also need to know how to build and use “background knowledge, social context, historical perspective.”

Finally, kudos to the members of the Standards Review Committee for some key language changes in the revised standards.

First, we are thrilled to see the term “informational text” replaced with nonfiction. “Informational text” has always been a problematic term, since all texts contain information, and nonfiction is not necessary an unproblematic site for information. Nonfiction is clearly the superior and accurate term and a welcome change.

We are particularly pleased to see the additional of a global outlook: RI.11-12.8 “Describe and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. and global texts” and RI.11-12.9 “Analyze and reflect on (e.g. practical knowledge, historical/cultural context, and background knowledge) documents of historical and literary significance for their themes, purposes and rhetorical features, including primary source documents relevant to U.S. and/or global history.”

In the area of writing, the revised standards offer an improved recognition of importance of process and of the way the specifics of a discipline shape writing. The shift in language in grade 8 reflects this important emphasis in all grade bands: W.8.10. “Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, metacognition/self correction, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.”

Finally, it is also gratifying to see the Speaking and Listening standards acknowledge the fact that we adhere to “agreed-upon norms for discussions” rather than rules. As the current presidential primaries make all too clear, perhaps to the dismay of many, we live in a nation of norms, not rules, and those norms are subject to change. Hopefully in our classrooms, those norms will be set by the collaborative agreement of the student community.

It’s hard to leave aside all the broader politics about standards, both locally and nationally. At least in terms of literacy, the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, however, represent a reasonable and thoughtful improvement on some of the issues in the Common Core.

Guillory, J. (2015). The Common Core and the evasion of curriculum. PMLA, 130.3, 666-672.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Lord of the Flies: An opportunity to talk about hazing, bullying among today's teens

We’ve written about male aggression and Lord of the Flies before, most recently in our newest book, Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text, which offers a scientific article about male fruit fly aggression as a cross-disciplinary connection with Golding’s novel. Another striking and persuasive pairing with Lord of the Flies appeared in The New York Times this week. Writing in the sports section, Juliet Macur commented on recent charges of hazing-related assaults within the football team at Conestoga High School in Pennsylvania.

Macur quotes psychologist Susan Lipkins who argues that “hazing is a sports tradition that has endured for generations … The adults in the room [coaches and administrators] leave the room and let the mayhem ensue.”

Lipkins argues that coaches who leave athletes unattended in the locker room are basically leaving  “the inmates in charge of the asylum” and Macur makes the case that those adults are “only asking for trouble when they leave teenage boys unsupervised because those boys are often testosterone-fueled and power-hungry, a perfect combination for hazing to occur.”

So adolescent (and athletic) boys are basically the equivalent of inmates in an asylum? Without adult supervision, they are inevitably going to engage in violent and brutal behavior?

Surely, adolescents deserve the chance to unpack the assumptions here.

First off, note that Golding’s Lord of the Flies makes a remarkably similar argument. And who can ignore the incredible and shocking similarity between the specific brutality Golding imagines and the hazing incidents Macur describes? Alas.

But is Golding’s novel an endorsement of Macur’s and Lipkins’s argument? Is the criminal and cruel masculine behavior on Golding’s island the inevitable result of lack of adult supervision of teenage boys?

All the boys, after all, do not behave this way, and many clearly do their best to resist.

And what is the role of adults and particularly male adults in shaping the behavior in both these worlds? After all, Macur isn’t talking about a lack of supervision by female coaches (of course the football coaches are always male). Golding pointedly offers us a tantalizing hint at the male modeling children encounter in the world of his novel: the figure of the naval officer, complete with his revolver, who comes to rescue the children at the end of the novel and intriguingly cites R.M. Ballantyne’s imperialist The Coral Island as the reassuring model for the boys’ behavior on the island.


Surely all young adults deserve the opportunity to think about the source of the bad behavior of some of their peers. Suggesting that a lack of adult supervision is the source of (not to say the necessary corrective to) the problem of violent hazing among male athletes offers an image of young men as mindless, animalistic brutes. If I were a young person, I think I would want an opportunity to talk about that.

And talking about that assumption and about the details of Macur’s challenging and horrifying article (and the nasty realities it describes) offers our students an intriguing and compelling connection with Lord of the Flies that surely will make language arts class both more compelling and perhaps more important.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

'America's Stacked Deck' and Gatsby's enduring relevance

So, we are delighted that our latest two volumes are in print, Using Informational Text to Teach a Raisin in the Sun and Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. If you use these or our earlier Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (2014) and have feedback, please send us a line.

Meanwhile, we are gearing up for our next volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby. Gatsby remains one of those seminal texts of American education, still read, like Mockingbird, by most high school students in the United States.

Do your students love this book? Does Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel still resonate in 2016?

If your answer to the former question is no and you are wavering in your answer to the latter question, think about those informational text connections that can draw out the relevance of this very historically-specific novel set during the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and layered with now-obscure references to the Black Sox Scandal and bootlegging.

For example, Nicholas Kristof just published an opinion piece in The New York Times called “America’s Stacked Deck,” focused on the ways in which the current political campaigns reflect frustration with what Bernie Sanders calls the “rigged economy.” Kristof’s piece is a great way to make Gatsby relevant for students today.

1.     Kristof talks about the “structural unfairness in America … A dumb rich kid is now more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid.”

First of all, what American high school kid doesn’t need to be thinking about this kind of inequity? And how are we going to begin solving this issue if we don’t enlist the great minds of our young people in thinking about it early and often?

Plus, Gatsby is all about this issue of educational inequity. Who, within the novel, gets to go to Yale? Why do you think they get to go there? Does the phrase “dumb rich kid” resonate about any character? (Hint: one who went to Yale!) And why do you think Gatsby spent only five months at Oxford, despite the opportunity for education in Europe offered by the Armistice? Could his experience reflect on the struggles of many under-represented students today at elite institutions? (Have a student interested in this question? Point him/her to Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace!) How does educational privilege underwrite the trajectory of the different characters in Gatsby?

2.    Kristof also talks about how “when societies face economic pain, they sometimes turn to … scapegoats.”

Kristof is talking about refugees. But who are the scapegoats in Gatsby? How are different outsiders within the novel sacrificed to shore up the economic and social status quo? How does Tom Buchanan’s power depend on the takedown of Gatsby? Who else in the novel is forfeited to the needs of the elite? Why, given what he’s witnessed, do you think the young protagonist Nick Carraway is “haunted” by the East and chooses “to come back home”? What do you think this choice reflects about Fitzgerald’s view of the American privileged class?

3.     Kristof cites some experiments in social psychology: one player in a Monopoly game begins with more money than others; that wealthy player not only generally wins but he/she “lords it over others and even grabs more pretzels from the communal bowl.”

This experiment encapsulates a beautiful explanation of the problem of entitlement, a critical concept for adolescents of every social background to grapple with. Who, within Gatsby, grabs more pretzels? How does this Monopoly experiment explain that entitled behavior? In what ways have these different characters been granted a leg up in comparison with others? And crucially, who, in the novel, is punished for taking more pretzels and who is allowed to grab away without any punishment?

A text like Gatsby should be read by most high school students, but if we don’t draw out the issues of entitlement, inequality, and scapegoating central to the text, we’ll have missed our moment to talk with the next generation about the central issues of our time.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Present-day housing discrimination and A Raisin in the Sun

This Feb. 20 New York Times article shows that discriminatory
challenges to homeownership persist even today.
In our just published volume, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), we offer a unit based around the essential question: How Difficult Would It Really Have Been for the Youngers to Buy a Home in Clybourne Park?

This question is critical to understanding Lorraine Hansberry’s play. Without a sense of the barriers to home ownership for African-American families like the Youngers, students can’t fully appreciate the tremendous challenges and risks Mama faces in purchasing a house in Clybourne Park.

Think Walter’s liquor store venture was the most risky investment in the play? Far from it.

Mr. Lindner’s offensive offer to buy out the family on behalf of the neighborhood association is clearly the most innocuous possible outcome of Mama’s purchase.

Through several different informational texts, we offer students the opportunity to think through the other likely outcomes of Mama’s decision.

First and foremost, the Youngers would have surely faced violence in Clybourne Park. This idea is articulated in the play by the neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, who speculates that the Youngers will end up in the newspaper: “NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK -- BOMBED.”

The play doesn’t actually touch on the legal and economic challenges a low-income African-American family like the Youngers would have encountered. Would their homeownership have been prevented by a restrictive covenant like the one Hansberry’s father faced – preventing ownership by African-American families (or by Jews and Asians)?

Or would the Youngers have lost their home and all of their investment funds to the greedy, discriminatory practices of the real estate industry? This outcome seems the most likely.

Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, which we excerpt in our book, outlines a practice called contract selling. Greedy speculators would sell homes to African-American families “on contract.” Because redlining meant African-American families could not access regular mortgages, people like the Youngers were forced into these contract sales. And the terms of the contracts were unbelievably exploitative. Miss one contract payment, for example, and the family would often lose the house and all they had invested in the property (any down payment as well as whatever additional payments they had made toward fulfilling the contract). Unlike with a mortgage, contract sellers could simply repossess the house. And these unscrupulous financiers often did just that, pocketing the family’s investment and then turning around, flipping the house, and ensnaring another unsuspecting or vulnerable family.

This story of contract selling is one of many hidden histories that underlie Hansberry’s text and belie the hint of a happy ending at the end of Raisin. In all likelihood, a family like the Youngers would have been caught short one month, and their entire investment would have been forfeit.

Think this practice is something from the deep, dark American past? It isn’t.

Just this week The New York Times offered a front-page story, “High-Risk Deals on Shabby Homes Ensnare Buyers,” that makes clear that this kind of unsavory practice is thriving at this very moment throughout the U.S. In Akron, Ohio (the focus of the article), and elsewhere, “deep-pocketed investors” have bought up many of the derelict houses produced by the recent housing collapse. These same financiers in turn offer these homes to vulnerable buyers, sometimes for “four times the price” of the initial sale. And because the mortgage industry has retreated from high-risk sales, vulnerable buyers can only afford to buy these homes “on an installment plan, with a high-interest, long-term loan called a contract for deed.”

As Matthew Goldstein and Alexandra Stevenson write in The Times, these transactions “can become a money trap that ends with a quick eviction by the seller, who can flip the home again.” Déjà vu.

Are your students struggling to see why a play like Raisin matters?

Use this fascinating article in The Times or pull the piece together with the other texts we offer in Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun to unpack for students both what an enormous challenge it would have been for Mama to buy and actually hold onto that house in Clybourne Park and how greedy financiers then and now continue to exploit vulnerable home buyers who are trying to grab hold of that ultimate symbol of the American dream: a home of one’s own.

Better yet, collaborate with a social studies or financial literacy teacher so that your students can think through the ways in which home ownership in America has and continues to be the site of troubling and persistent economic exploitation.

Not sure how to get started on this kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Check out our Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A note on the passing of Harper Lee

Along with the rest of the world, we mourn the passing of Harper Lee. What she has given to all of us through To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is immeasurable and will endure. 

We know that readers around the globe will continue to grapple with her complex and challenging vision of race, class, and injustice in American society for generations to come.

Like so many, we owe Harper Lee an enormous debt both as readers and as educators. But personally, we also feel obligated to thank her for the work we have been able to do and the rich conversations we have been so fortunate to have with teachers across the country about Mockingbird over the past few years. Our packed session at NCTE in November, along with Susan Groenke and Robert Prickett, on “Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in (Not-So) Post-Racial Times” was a thrilling testament to both the enduring relevance of Lee’s landmark novel and to teachers’ continued dedication to engaging students in the critical conversations that both Mockingbird and Watchman inspire.

Thank you, Harper Lee, for inspiring and challenging us all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Day 2 at NCTE: Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction

Maybe our favorite session at NCTE this year (okay, besides our own excellent session) was “Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction: A Literature Lover’s Approach” with Deborah Appleman, Carol Jago, and Rachel Malchow-Lloyd.

If you missed the session or are curious, here are the slides.

Some stand-out moments:

  • You need to find the sweet spot of proximal development – texts that are challenging but not too challenging.
  • Use visuals to provide entry to informational texts. We so agree on this one.
  • Find the narrative thread in non-fiction.
  • Use jigsaw technique to offer different perspectives (critical lenses) on an informational text or to cover different sections.
  • Decontextualized close reading is necessary (Common Core) but not sufficient for complex text.
  • Think of intertextuality and text bouquets as you bring multiple texts into conversation. (Don’t you just love the image of text bouquets!)
  • Look for moments to contemporarize – to bring in texts that allow for a contemporary perspective
Finally, Appleman drove home the importance of non-fiction: “Knowledge is the lens through which we view ourselves and our world.”

But how do we offer students this knowledge when so much of what we read is fiction? Carol Jago noted that only 10% of classroom libraries is composed of non-fiction. And that includes a lot of material on dinosaurs and baby animals. This needs to change.

To that end, Jago offered a wonderful survey of some great non-fiction titles. Here are some we jotted down as quickly as we could:
  • Moonbird by Phillip Hoose (author of Claudette Colvin) on climate change
  • Tommy: The Gun that Changed America by Karen Blumenthal about the automatic weapon developed too late for WWI
  • Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow
  • Invisible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
  • Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad – by the amazingly versatile M. T. Anderson
  • Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of the 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Hector Tobar
These titles can serve as independent reading, but we also need to find ways to include bits and pieces, whenever we can, in connection with our anchor literary texts to add color (our metaphor) to our text bouquets. Tobar’s volume would likely be a valuable addition to a discussion of Lord of the Flies paired with the story of the Chilean miners. The possibilities of interesting connections with these high quality, timely, and engaging informational texts are vast.

And, as Carol Jago pointed out, just as it’s okay to jigsaw and excerpt when we work with these informational texts, it’s also okay to do so sometimes with our literary anchor texts.

We want to build our students’ reading stamina, but building wonderful bouquets out of the intertextual connections of a variety of fictional and informational complex texts will create the robust learning and deep-thinking students we most want.

Thanks for this great session! We can’t wait to get ourselves and our students reading!