Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Difficulties of The Great Gatsby

We have been working for more than a year on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, the fourth in our Using Informational Text series with Rowman and Littlefield. So we were thrilled by Stephanie Powell Watts’s wonderful and provocative “I Love the Great Gatsby, Even if It Doesn’t Love Me Back: On Difficult Characters and the Unbearable Whiteness of Classic Literature.” Watts is also the author of the just-published novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, which we are very much looking forward to reading as it remixes Gatsby around the lives of a contemporary African-American family in North Carolina.

Published on, Watts' brilliant essay explores being drawn to and “in love” with Fitzgerald’s novel but also being repulsed by the “demeaning” racism, sexism, and cruelty in the text. She explores, for example, the underdiscussed white nativism in the text and many of the horrific moments of repulsive racism. For Watts, as a self-described “lower working-class, rural North Carolina … southern black ki[d],” Gatsby is a text that “was not written” for her and may or may not love her back.

Still, Watts relishes the ways in which Gatsby allows us, through Nick, to have a “front row seat to this moneyed world and the cruel indifference those privileged few have for the striving and struggling masses.” And Watts is satisfied with this albeit ugly view, and with the fact that Nick is neither “a revolutionary [n]or a prophet”: his response is to flee the Eggs.

This combination in Gatsby of wondrous hopefulness, ugliness, and messy retreat works for Watts, and so she can love this book even if she also “fear[s] that the door of the book will suddenly close in my face by excluding and demeaning people of color, women, the poor.” Other readers may be less sanguine and loving toward what Fitzgerald offers. We look forward to seeing how Watts addresses this fear in her novel.

Regardless, we can’t agree more with Watts’s assessment that The Great Gatsby is a book for the twenties but also especially for our own time: “characterized by economic and racial fear, a time of great wealth for a few and greater uncertainty for many.” Our hope is that students in the U.S. who encounter the world of Gatsby have the opportunity to discuss its beauty and its ugliness, to love and hate it, and to use it to think about the difficult issues we faced in our past and continue to face now.

As noted above, we are putting the finishing touches on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, but if you’d like a sneak peek into the kinds of issues and texts it will include, check out our blog and website. We’ve blogged about a couple recent New York Times articles that provide very timely connections to Gatsby, and the materials from our recent workshop, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump,” are posted on our website. We hope these resources will help you use informational texts to engage in and support the sometimes difficult but necessary discussions about the novel and the realities of our present-day lives.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Developing vocabulary through drama

It has been a busy week for us.

We are thrilled that Susan was honored by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English (NJCTE) as Educator of the Year. She accepted the award at the annual NJCTE conference at Montclair State University this weekend, where she also presented some of our new work on The Great Gatsby in a session entitled, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” We are excited to be finishing the volume from which this work is drawn, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby and look forward to its publication as the fourth in our series with Roman and Littlefield.

Meanwhile, Audrey travelled to Amsterdam with NJCU graduate student Tatiana Reyes who was presenting at “Look Both Ways: Narrative and Metaphor in Education at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. While at the conference, Audrey attended a fascinating session presented by Jackie Winsch, “A stage for racial justice: Empowering youth through integrated drama education.”

Winsch’s focus was vocabulary development through drama. Her focus was the elementary classroom, but one of the activities she discussed could be easily implemented in the secondary classroom and fruitfully added to a teacher’s toolkit for addressing challenging vocabulary in informational text.

For the activity, the students sit in a circle and the teacher stands in the middle. The teacher narrates a story, and as she does, she calls students into the circle, one, two, or three at a time. Students are asked to engage in a kind of narrative pantomime: to act out pieces of the teacher’s story (in Winsch’s example the students were princesses and a beast) with facial expressions and physical actions (sometimes prompted by the teacher). They might also be asked to repeat bits of dialogue (the beast said, “I am hungry,” so the student as beast repeats, “I am hungry”). Each time the teacher wished to dismiss certain students from the center, she would “whoosh” them out, and then beckon other students in.

The key to this activity, for our purposes, was the inclusion of several key vocabulary words into this narrated drama. Students were physically acting out and sometimes repeating dialogue that included targeted words. In a fun, interactive manner, students were hearing and using the key words, all in an engaging narrative context. In other words, this was a teacher-led version of the vocabulary skits we love.

This activity could easily be implemented in a secondary classroom. In Winsch’s example, the teacher had created the narrative and led the activity, and secondary teachers could do the same. But students could also write and then implement their own narratives, leading their peers in a brief and simple narrated skit. As with the vocabulary skits we advocate in our UsingInformational Text series, these skits could be on any topic (Winsch’s were intended to allow students to explore gender norms) but could also foreground the content of the upcoming informational text (a skit about table manners and gender norms for clothing in preparation for reading an excerpt from Lillian Eichler’s 1921 Book of Etiquette which we offer in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird to stimulate discussion of gender in To Kill a Mockingbird).

The brilliance of this activity is that it gets students out of their seats, acting and thinking creatively, embodying and using new words. All of this enhances their necessary “massive practice” so that they can own these new words and engage any challenging reading with confidence.

Jackie Winsch used this activity to argue for integrating drama and play into education. Play is such an important part of learning, and it should play a greater role in school generally, not just in the elementary grades.

In conclusion, then, given all that we know about how crucial complex vocabulary is in determining students’ success with informational text, this narrated vocabulary pantomime activity is one tool we hope all teachers add to their toolbox.