We had the opportunity to present our work to a lively and engaged group of educators on Friday at the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. In keeping with the social justice theme of the convention, we spoke about “Collaborating with Informational Texts Across the Disciplines to Engage Students.”
Our participants felt strongly about the potential for nonfiction to engage students on issues of social justice. They cited the importance of students opening their minds to a wide range of information, especially from texts they wouldn’t normally read. They stressed the importance of using informational text to dive deeply into issues, to open their minds, understand facts and bias, and be informed.
We couldn’t agree more! We shared with participants our work on fruit fly aggression and Lord of the Flies (featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text), and we were thrilled to hear comments from our session participants about how this lesson can allow students to challenge the status quo of human behavior and think about the relationship between biology, gender, and social norms.
Indeed, it was clear that the teachers in the room shared our passion for using nonfiction to underscore the relevance of our content area curriculum (whether science or literature) to our students and to the world today.
It was striking and disturbing, however, to hear from the teachers in the room about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms. Clearly, our country is at a difficult moment, and teachers, like everyone else, are struggling with ways to facilitate difficult conversations in a climate where civil discourse and debate are no longer the norm.
We offered our discussion of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy as an entryway into discussion about nativism and white nationalism in The Great Gatsby. Stoddard is twice referenced (as Goddard) in Fitzgerald’s novel, which centers on issues of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and inequality. (This unit appears in our 4th volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in January!)
Gatsby isn’t a radical, left-wing text. It’s taught in nearly every high school in the country. And using a bit of supplemental text, like an excerpt from Stoddard, can help students unpack and discuss Fitzgerald’s references to white nationalism. Students can think about how white nationalism has worked in the past, how writers like Stoddard have used language to promote and defend a racist ideology, and how novelists like Fitzgerald interpreted and commented on the ideologues of their day. This work can equip students to think critically about the resurgence of such ideas today, whether or not those connections are made explicit in our classes.
Sadly, many teachers may find it difficult to promote open and thoughtful discussion in their classrooms, and they may worry about a political backlash if they try to engage students on current political issues.
A creative teacher, however, can use nonfiction and canonical texts, like Gatsby, to promote critical thinking and discussion without necessarily talking directly about Trump or the white nationalism in our current climate. We will be talking more about these issues at NCTE in St. Louis at the end of this week, and surely all of us will be thinking more about how we can make our classrooms places for important, engaged discussion without jeopardizing ourselves or our students.