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 CafĂ©.”

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.