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.