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”?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Review: Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun

Teachers College Record just published (July 18, 2016) a wonderfully thoughtful review of the 2nd volume in our Using Informational Text series, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun. Lauren Capotosto clearly understands our goals in the volume, and we are grateful to her intellectual generosity. We have indeed tried to perform “the time-consuming legwork to identify appropriately complex and relevant informational texts to pair with Raisin” so that teachers can “deepen students’ understanding of both the play’s larger context and its current relevance.” Thanks, for so thoroughly understanding what we were hoping to accomplish!

In a further sign of how in tune Capotosto is with our overall project, she writes of a hope that future books in our series “might provide guidance for teachers outside the ELA classroom to teach texts through discipline-specific lenses.” Indeed, we have published our third volume, Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text, to do just that. As we know, the Common Core challenges all teachers to incorporate discipline-specific literacy into their classes, and this volume is intended to help non-ELA teachers and their ELA peers collaborate to help students read skillfully and confidently and make connections across disciplines and classrooms. 

If you're looking to revamp your curriculum for this rapidly approaching school year, whether in teaching literary classics like To Kill a Mockingbird or A Raisin in the Sun, enhancing student engagement and disciplinary literacy, or initiating collaboration across disciplines, the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series can be a valuable resource!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finding like minds at #ILA16!

Lauren, Rebecca, Susan and Audrey with
two of our fantastic institute participants. 
The best part about conferences are the opportunities to make connections with others doing similar work. ILA has been terrific for us in that regard!

Last year at ILA 2015, we had the opportunity to see a session by Lauren K. Francese and Rebecca Marsick from Westport, CT, authors of Stretching Beyond the Textbook: Reading and Succeeding with Complex Texts in the Content Areas. We were impressed by their model for rigorous, interdisciplinary nonfiction units and immediately saw connections with our own work in our Using Informational Text series (Rowman).

We also had the opportunity to meet with the two women at the helm of CommonLit, Michelle Brown and Sarah Mielbye, who have put together a free, searchable database of cross-disciplinary fiction and nonfiction for teachers to use to create their own units and connections.

Good people with similar ideas: so we proposed a pre-conference institute for ILA 2016, and we were delighted to be accepted and to come together this past Friday to present our ideas, share our visions, and collaborate. It was a terrific session, with wonderful presentations and an informed, engaged, and curious audience. Thank you to all for your participation!

We opened with the following kickoff question: When you’re planning a unit, why is it important to include informational texts?

Many of the answers, shared through the terrific backchanneling tool TodaysMeet, are worth recapping here (so that those of us working hard on this enterprise can see our ideas reflected back by others):
  • We use nonfiction text to promote connections to world.
  • It is about being a global citizen through critical thinking.
  • Connections to real life
  • Disciplinary literacy!
  • Students can make more of a connection to the world around them
  • Students are very engaged by informational text.
  • provide clarifying information
  • real-world applications
  • important for students to learn how to read in specific disciplines.
  • bring an authentic voice to the unit
  • Integrate reading into writing/connect to current events
  • To foster democratic participation by determining bias, counterclaims, corroboration, etc.
  • Teach 'em to be investigative journalist.
  • to help students understand why we are "doing this" in school
  • To Stretch Beyond the Textbook!!!
  • To give purpose to all text
  • Connect (explicitly) to something that matters

Are there challenges to doing this work? Absolutely. You are not alone if you are finding this hard work. Here are some of the issues your peers who participated in the institute struggle with:
  • Finding time to locate high-quality articles aligned with content
  • Finding appropriately leveled texts
  • Making sure factual info is updated.
  • Can be boring for a middle school student if not presented in an engaging way
  • Difficulty level of text, young students first need to be taught how to read nonfiction text-structures, features
  • Balance between high engaging and text complexity
  • Comprehension strats - teachers doing all the work-what about allowing kids to struggle with support?
  • Scaffolding text so all students can engage in a meaningful way.
  • Having teachers see themselves as literacy experts in their discipline.

Susan and Audrey, together with Lauren and Rebecca, and Rob from CommonLit, shared models, strategies, resources, and tips. To share in our ideas, please check out some of our materials here. Or reach out to any of us.

Here are just a few of the key points we all emphasized in our session:

1.     Find opportunities for connections/collaborations with other teachers, even if these are built on interpersonal friendships rather than disciplinary connections
2.     Use big questions and media to engage students and spark curiosity
3.     Think about purpose and perspective with every text
4.     Remind students that everything is a text to be read and analyzed (video, images, artwork, documentaries, nonfiction, and fiction)
5.     Use activities and organizers to build students’ confidence and ability to make meaning from complex texts

In closing, we asked our participants to reflect on what they used to think in comparison to what they now think. Here are our two favorite responses:

"I used to think I was alone in merging subjects. Glad to know there are more folks like me trying to make cohesive learning experiences real."

"Don't overload by using the whole article - use excerpts of informational texts."

We are not alone. Many of our excellent peers are engaged in this work. It can be challenging, but we can employ a range of strategies, including excerpting the texts we use and collaborating with others, so that we don’t overwhelm ourselves or our students.

Informational text connections can give purpose and meaning to our content and help students develop the critical literacy skills they need to be effective learners and engaged and informed citizens.

Meanwhile, thanks again to our great audience and to all the terrific teachers and instructional leaders working hard to make literacy across the disciplines a meaningful part of every classroom for all students!

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).