Friday, October 18, 2019

What You Said About Using YA Fiction in the ELA Classroom

Back in August, we asked English teachers in our personal learning and social media networks for their thoughts on how, when, and why they use young adult fiction in their curriculum, particularly novels that feature or focus on sensitive topics. We were excited about the opportunities that these texts provide for students to think about sensitive issues. But we also were wondering about how we help students wrestle with the depictions of challenging experiences, particularly if these texts are assigned as summer reading, leaving students to read and digest these texts on their own. Below, we share the responses to our blog posts and online survey.

For us, this inquiry was sparked by discussions Susan had with a few parents of students new to her school about the sexual content in a couple of the summer reading choices (Looking for Alaska by John Green and Tyrell by Coe Booth). And the challenges involved in incorporating such valuable but complex texts into our curriculum were particularly underscored for us while we were collaborating this summer on an informational text set on Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. One anonymous response made us feel like we were not alone in our concerns: “Thank you for addressing this! I wrestle with the same issue, and have been working with my colleagues to figure out how to create space for students to process what they have read over the summer in a meaningful and collaborative way once they are back in school.”

According to the responses we received to our survey, 60 percent of the teachers who responded said they teach two or more YA books per year. Most respondents (80%) said they assign YA fiction as choice reading, but whole-class reading was a close second (70%), followed by summer reading (60%). In terms of which YA novels respondents teach, responses ranged from a list of 10 titles to “waiting on approval to incorporate Long Way Downby Jason Reynolds next year.” The full list of titles was surprisingly wide-ranging, with only All American BoysSpeak, Looking for Alaska, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appearing more than once.

Among the benefits of incorporating YA novels into the ELA curriculum cited by survey respondents were that YA novels are “engaging,” “more relatable,” have “easier language,” and are “written to appeal to students’ age group.” One teacher said that the connections students make with YA plots and characters “open the door not only to excitement about reading (and writing about literature), but also to innovative thinking about the texts,” while another argued that students can become engaged with writing that addresses topics that interest and challenge them, and that they themselves and their issues reflected in the novels.

The difficulties respondents cited included the perception that YA novels “lack literary merit,” and the desire to “balance entertainment with providing works that challenge students’ thinking.” Teachers also noted concerns about profanity and the desire of many school administrators and parents to “shield their children from the explicit nature of many of the [YA] books.”

One respondent wrote: “while I don't have a ‘fear’ of discussing difficult/sensitive topics in the classroom, the difficulty can be facilitating an appropriate and respectful conversation among students when addressing the topics in a YA novel.” Another said, “They are a springboard for discussions of deeper themes and issues. They allow students to experience risky situations vicariously, critically analyzing choices and effects. Students get to see themselves in literature which is validating.”

Overall, teachers encouraged others to take the YA leap and “do it.” A couple suggested pairing the YA novel with a classic text, short stories, or informational text. Others stressed preparation: reading the entire book first and being ready to answer questions from both students and concerned adults. One urged teachers to “let students dictate the direction of the conversation. Teachers anticipate the issues students want to discuss, and even get anxious over things the novel might bring up for students. Every class is different and will focus on different things.”

In terms of the specific issue of assigning YA novels that focus or touch on sensitive topics (i.e., sex, suicide, violence, etc.) as summer reading, teachers emphasized the importance of knowing your audience, including both parents and students. A couple suggested introducing the topics before the end of the school year, if possible, or providing a packet of readings and resources to support both students and parents in discussing the books together. Several cautioned teachers to assign such books only as a choice. Some advocated providing descriptive blurbs about the books to parents without “redflagging” potentially sensitive content. Others said providing an explicit warning about particular content was a good idea.

Several stressed the importance, however, of creating space and time in the classroom for discussing any sensitive topics that appear in summer reading books to help students contextualize them in terms of their own lives, their communities, and society as a whole. As @MissNikkiIn5th wrote: “I teach fifth graders but feel that we need to give kids enough support to fully digest a text with a sensitive topic. They need to be able to ask questions, discuss, etc.” 

Sixty percent of the respondents to our survey said they had been challenged about assigning YA novels, by parents, administrators, etc. Topics cited as the basis for those challenges ranged from sex and violence to cigarette smoking.

We were impressed, though not surprised, by teachers’ principled and courageous responses to such challenges. For example, one teacher wrote: “We have a district policy modeled after NCTE's guidelines. All challenges were handled between me and the parent - the kids all read the books. Why? 1. I pre-teach many important issues. 2. I explain my rationale for teaching the book and the merits of exposing students to the topics/ideas in spite of the objectionable scenes/content.”

Another respondent cited the ALA policy on book challenges: “The whole text needs to be looked at instead of objecting based on something taken out of context, and parents can weigh in on what is appropriate for their individual child, but not necessarily for a whole class. The only time this didn't work was with Thirteen Reasons Why. When the Netflix series came out, it was pulled from our school library even though students had been reading it for a decade. The show is problematic, but I thought we would have done a better job of helping students process [the issues surrounding the show] if we had kept the lines of dialogue about the book and show open.”

One teacher offered some interesting reflections on being personally challenged by parents: “I have personally been challenged by 2 parents. My administration has also been challenged. One setting was a back to school night and the parents actually broke out into discussion as to why the books (Tyrelland Kendra) were good for discussion with their kids. Another time a parent said her daughter was a very young 13 and was mortified by the content. She suggested a note be added to the summer reading packet indicating explicit sexual situations. I thought that was a great idea and I complied.” (Note: Teachers considering such a red-flag might want to review NCTE guidelines.)

According to the majority of responses, conversations between teachers and parents, sometime proactively initiated by the teacher, usually resolved any concerns, and sometimes even led to students and parents reading a book together. Sometimes principals supported their teachers, while others changed the book; and sometimes teachers themselves opted to provide an alternate text.

So, for now, here are our takeaways:

1. Many of our colleagues agree that YA literature is compelling and engaging. Teachers worried about the literary merit concern (one we don’t particularly share) can pair YA literature with more canonical texts.

2. Using YA literature effectively requires context and opportunities for conversation. Again, pairings, including short fiction, poetry, or informational texts, can be useful in providing that context and helping to shape those conversations. (Please share your ideas for doing so in the comments below.) Set your students up for success with summer reading by bookending that independent reading with classroom conversations.

3. Work with parents, colleagues, and administrators to develop and utilize a thoughtful and consistent strategy to justify and explain your choices of YA literature. And employ the resources of NCTE and ALA as critical backup!

Our biggest takeaway is this: Our gratitude to be part of a thoughtful and brave community of ELA teachers determined to use YA literature to help their students become better readers, writers, and thinkers in a complex and challenging world!



All American Boys
Code Orange
Crossing Ebeneezer
Flush
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
How It Went Down
In Sight of Stars
Inside Out and Back Again
Jumped In
Kendra
Looking for Alaska
Maniac Magee
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Monster
My Brother Sam Is Dead
Oliver
Persepolis
Piecing Me Together
Speak
Still Life With Tornado
Tangerine
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Afterlife of Holly Chase
The Book Thief
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Cay
The Chocolate War
The Hate U Give
The Outsiders
The Usual Rules
They Both Die at the End
Tuck Everlasting
Tyrell

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Seeking Input and Sharing Resources

We hope you've enjoyed some well-earned time to relax and recharge this summer that's sparked new ideas for the upcoming school year. We are enjoying working on some new projects, one of which we'd like your input on. More on that in a moment, but first, some resources to help your planning for the new year:

  • Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby features classroom-ready text sets that support critical, timely conversations around race, immigration, and inequality in connection with Fitzgerald's novel. These readings, accompanied by vocabulary activities and reading and writing/discussion prompts, support student inquiry into questions like "Why Should We Care About Economic Inequality?" and "What Is Tom Worried About--Is Civilization 'Going to Pieces'?" Check out our blog for ideas on how to put present-day issues in dialogue with Gatsby.
  • If you are teaching A Raisin in the Sunour second volume will help you underscore the enduring relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play with ready-to-use text sets on housing discrimination past and present, the violence surrounding housing desegregation, and more.
  • Looking for ways to collaborate with your content-area colleagues around literacy? Check out Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. This volume offers practical strategies for initiating cross-disciplinary collaboration and developing students’ disciplinary literacy skills, as well as a sample unit based on a science article and an excerpt from Lord of the Flies.

While we love finding engaging connections with the canonical works we teach, we are also huge fans of a lot of the young adult fiction that teachers are increasingly incorporating into their curricula. So, we've been working on a new text set centered around one of the most beloved YA novels -- more on that soon! In the meantime, we've been thinking about how/when/why we do assign YA novels in our ELA classes -- especially those that touch upon some of the challenging and sensitive issues that students often face. And we'd love to get your input, so please check out our previous post  and/or complete this short survey.
Finally, if you’d like hands-on training in our approach to using informational text, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer half-day and full-day workshops for both English and/or content-area teachers. If you are in NJ, we hope to see you at NJCTE in September and please join us at NJEA in NovemberOtherwise, we hope to see you at NCTE in Baltimore!
We hope our resources help you create rewarding learning experiences for you and your students. If you use any of our materials, please send us your feedback. We would also greatly appreciate it if you would post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Thank you again for your interest -- and everything you do for your students!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Why and How Do You YA?

While summer reading for us often includes tackling at least one or two pedagogically oriented texts (Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain for Susan; Teaching Naked for Audrey), it also means inhaling several young adult novels that we’ve been itching to read since a colleague or student suggested it weeks or months earlier. (Consumed by us so far: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, Odd One Out by Nic Stone, Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (finally!).)

Though we dive into these YA novels for our own pleasure without apology, of course we also do so with at least part of our brains considering how/where/whether we might incorporate any of them into our own instruction, add them to our classroom libraries, or just keep them in mind for the right student or colleague to recommend them to. 

At the same time, Susan, in her role as curriculum and instruction supervisor at her school, has been engaging in her annual round of conversations with parents who raise concerns about some of the YA novels (Looking for Alaska by John Green and Tyrell by Coe Booth, in particular) that have been assigned as choices for summer reading. And while she fully supports her English teachers in their choices and believes that these novels give students the opportunity to think about challenging and sensitive issues and experiences that they may soon encounter, she has also been wondering about the fact that teachers often assign these books for summer reading, leaving students on their own to read them and wrestle with depictions of experiences and issues they may not be prepared for, sometimes with no follow-up discussion when the school year starts.

So we’re torn: We think it’s important to expose students to books that give them the opportunity to engage with and think about experiences and issues they might not have encountered themselves in a fictional space. But assigning these engaging and relevant YA books as independent summer reading might be just as problematic, although in a different way, than sending students off on their own to read The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, we also are acutely aware – as we are currently working on an informational text set focused on Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson -- of how challenging it can be to teach and discuss these books in class.

And so we’d love to hear your thoughts – please feel free to add your comments below and/or complete this brief survey about your experiences with YA literature. We’ll report back on all the great wisdom you’ve shared in an upcoming post!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Guest blog: The Merging of Media in the English Classroom -- A Summertime Reflection

Today, we welcome a guest blog from New Jersey English and journalism teacher Stacy Gerst:

Admittedly, the curriculum for the British literature course I teach follows an incredibly scripted framework: a chronological, historical approach to the traditional literary works that serve as the building blocks of the traditional literary canon. The problem? I’m not working with the “traditional” students that my predecessors had in mind when crafting this curriculum. And the department is not ready to update it yet. Consequently, the struggle is “more-than-real” as my colleagues and I try to overcome the roadblocks that exist in our relentless pursuit of the profession’s elusive Holy Grail: student engagement. 

From its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, works from historic gems such as The Exeter Book lack appeal to the average student who struggles to connect to literature in meaningful ways. The lamentations of the poem speakers, often mourning their cold, difficult existence at sea and the daunting conditions that threaten survival, often fall on deaf ears. Put off by the external trappings of Anglo-Saxon life, many students close themselves off to engagement and stop short of exploring some of the broader concepts that transcend time or space, such as the impact that exile has on the human condition. 

Back in 2015, I came across a story on my USA Today app that caught my attention with the following headline: “More than a decade after release, they all come back.The multi-chapter story, written by Kevin Johnson, follows the plight of Silvestre Sergovia and the impact that solitary confinement has on him and other prisoners. Since 2015, political attitudes toward this practice has shifted greatly, especially when the Obama administration took a firm stance against its use with juveniles. Awareness has served as a catalyst for positive change. This was obviously an issue that mattered, but how could I integrate this into my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way?

It is at this juncture of pedagogical dilemma and innovative thinking that I could apply the theory and work that Fisch and Chenelle laid out in Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (2016). During a session led by the pair at the NJCTE Fall 2018 conference, they challenged attendees to rethink their approach to the canon and revitalize it for contemporary audiences by linking them to relevant informational texts. The key to this lies in the use of non-fiction, an element that advocates of practical learning as well as the Common Core hold in highest regard (and rightly so!). 

After studying “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament” from our textbook, I assigned the Johnson article to students along with several straightforward reading comprehension questions. The article lent itself well to this because 1.) it was long enough to challenge their stamina and 2.) was complex enough that they had to do more than just skim. This is increasingly an issue with my students; very few, if any, fully read a text when they can take a shortcut. I attribute this in part to the efficiency of search engines to “cache” information in articles for them or using Ctrl + F (Windows) or ⌘ Command + F (Mac). (Of course, the impact of technology, media, and screen stimuli on attention spans play a role, but that’s a blog post for another day.) 

But how could I lead students to make the thematic connection between the two? I posed the following to students for a more extended written reflection:

In the conclusion to the piece, Kevin Johnson writes, “Segovia, meanwhile, believes he has the strength to defeat the demons of isolation and make it to the other side, where he intends to remain this time.”

Explain how “the demons of isolation” affect both Segovia and the speakers of the Anglo-Saxon exile poetry. Use textual evidence from the article and the poems to back up your claims.

I needed the comprehension questions to get my students to this point. The class discussion that followed revealed the dilemma that many students felt regarding crime, punishment, the criminal justice system, and the conditions inside US prisons. Several acknowledged that it was not as clear-cut as they once thought it was. 

One student response offered a personal anecdote: his uncle spent several years in prison, and his personality had changed profoundly as a result. “He isn’t the same person.”  Regrettably, the change was not in the vein of “He realized his issues, worked on them, and came out better.” Instead, his uncle was incredibly distant, struggled to connect to family, and didn’t function very well in his community. As the rest of the class listened to this, I could observe a greater sense of empathy in their responses to this raw (and rare) moment of exposure. Here was their friend, who trusted the group enough to share this intimate story about a person he cared about, who was impacted by this issue, who was impacted by exile, the same feeling explored by the Anglo-Saxon poets many years before. 

Lessons such as these are the ones that leave a lasting impact on students when they leave our classrooms. 

Based on the success I experienced with Chenelle and Fisch’s approach, I was inspired to integrate another literary work, Les Miserables, to expand upon this theme and social issue. Although the work was French, I felt confident that no one would argue with exposing students to another established canonical work. For the sake of time and student engagement, I used the 1998 film, directed by Billie August, and, on the whole, my classes found the story riveting, emotional, and captivating (just as readers and audiences have for years). But again: how could I integrate informational text and content to engage students and connect them to relevant social issues? 

One of the pivotal questions explored in Hugo’s story is whether or not “reform is a discredited fantasy” as Javert claims in the film. Here again, my news media consumption worked to my advantage when a 2017 news article about Shaka Senghor came to mind.  Sengor (whose 2017 memoir Writing My Wrongs: Live and Redemption in an American Prison I have since read and recommend) explores prison life and the parole system in a way that parallels Valjean’s experience in Les Miserables. I created comprehension questions for students to answer in response to the news article as well as Sengor’s 2014 TED Talk titled, “Why your worst deeds don’t define you.” The integration of both informational text and video media was especially effective for instruction. 

Just as before, the goal was to have students make connections between multiple works. I include a few examples below:

  • One similarity between Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean and Shaka Senghor is that both experienced a “transformative” moment. Discuss what it was for each of them and what impact it had on them.


  • While Valjean was able to redeem himself for his past misdeeds, Fantine was not. Hugo uses this to highlight another social issue: the treatment of women at this time. In what ways was she “held hostage to her past”? 

  • According to Senghor, in the article, how do laws regarding parole make it challenging for released prisoners to start over? How was this true for Valjean in Les Miserables?

I will continue on this journey to create a more engaging curriculum that connects those in my classroom to contemporary issues while getting exposure to the classics. This, perhaps, is the most practical approach I’ve encountered so far and thank Susan and Audrey for sharing their findings and ideas with others in our profession.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

How Stevenson's Just Mercy illuminates injustice and Mockingbird

There’s a blurb on the cover of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption that compares Stevenson to Atticus Finch: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those without hope.”

As readers invested in thinking critically about the character of Atticus in TKAM and wary of the idea of Atticus as someone who “made such a difference in the American South,” this blurb strikes us as misleading, to say the least. Atticus, remember, did not strive to defend Tom Robinson, nor did he do so successfully. The idea that we celebrate this lawyer as some kind of hero of civil rights is a bit odd, no? (Stevenson himself notes this irony.)

But Stevenson’s book, his tale of his own work as a lawyer defending Walter McMillian, a native of Harper Lee’s Monroe County, forces the comparison in a way that is intriguing for readers of TKAM

First off, Walter, like Tom Robinson, grew up in one of the black neighborhoods outside Monroeville. While this community may have celebrated Lee’s novel, transforming an old, local courthouse into a “Mockingbird” museum and producing a local stage version of the novel, Walter’s story suggests that Lee’s ideas may not have been fully embraced. 

As Stevenson tells the story, when Ronda Morrison, the 18-year-old daughter of a white, wealthy family was found dead in 1986, Walter McMillian was arrested.

Walter had a few things going against him. He was poor and black. And he had engaged in an interracial, adulterous affair with a white woman.

Ultimately, all those factors play a role in this horrifying tale of injustice. There’s police misconduct, corruption, and incompetence. Unbelievable elements include the fact that Walter is placed on death row while he is a pretrial detainee. As Stevenson notes, this is “almost never done.”

The piece of Walter’s story that most resonates with TKAM is his conviction for this murder (no spoiler: this happens quite early in the otherwise quite suspenseful book). The connection with TKAM is the craziness of that conviction. Just as Atticus and everyone in Maycomb knows that Tom Robinson couldn’t possibly have choked Mayella with his damaged left arm, everyone in Monroeville knows (or should know) that Walter couldn’t have killed Ronda. On the day of the murder, he was at a fish fry at his house, with members of his family and at least a dozen church parishioners.

The ways in which law enforcement manufactures evidence, primarily through manipulating people to testify against Walter, is a fascinating piece of the story. And readers will be engrossed in Stevenson’s discussion of his own journey as a young lawyer and his broader fight to serve death-row inmates and address what he identifies as the injustice of poverty. 

But Stevenson draws one scene in his book that drives home the horror of Walter’s and Tom’s conviction – and in a way that Harper Lee does not capture. Stevenson, as part of his defense of Walter, goes to meet two dozen of his family members. We quote the passage at length, with some excerpting:

“It would have been so much easier if he had been out in the woods hunting by himself when that girl was killed.” Armelia Hand, Walter McMillian’s older sister, paused while the crowd in the small trailer called out in affirmation. . . . 

“At least then we could understand how it might be possible for him to have done this.” . . .

“But because we were standing next to him that whole morning . . . We knowwhere he was. . . . We know what he was doing!” People hummed in agreement as her voice grew louder and more distraught. It was the kind of wordless testimony of struggle and anguish I heard all the time growing up in a small rural black church. . . .

“We were with him all day! What are we supposed to do, Mr. Stevenson? Tell us, what are we supposed to do with that?”

Her face twisted in pain. “I feel like I’ve been convicted, too.”

The small crowd responded to each statement with shots of “Yes!” and “That’s right!”

“I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?” (92-93)

This passage about injustice in relation to a 1986 murder is so full of possibilities for readers of TKAM trying to think critically about Harper Lee’s meditation on injustice in relation to a rape in the 30s. Why doesn’t Lee include a scene between Atticus and the members of Robinson’s family and the broader black community in Maycomb after the conviction? What would that scene look like? What would Tom’s wife have said? How would Tom’s children have responded? How would their lives have been disfigured by the brutal injustice that not only took their father’s life but instilled in them the idea that they were also convicted?

What Stevenson does here, in a way that Lee does not, is to highlight how one miscarriage of justice is an act of terrorism enacted on an entire community. That’s the work that lynching was designed to do. A lynching wasn’t simply intended to punish one individual but to terrify a community. That’s why lynchings were such public, publicized spectacles: so the message of terror would spread far and wide. Tom escapes lynching in TKAM, thanks to Scout’s disarming interaction with her schoolmate’s father, Mr. Cunningham, but Tom’s death by seventeen bullets while in government custody surely has a similar chilling effect on the African-American community in Maycomb. 

Reading Just Mercy alongside TKAM underscores, one more time, the ways in which Scout’s blinkered perspective can’t or doesn’t expose the ugliest elements of Lee’s story. But with our students, by juxtaposing TKAM with an excerpt from Just Mercy, we can help our students do that work and see what Scout does not.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Thoughts on Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

We just finished reading the fascinating Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. 

Cep sets herself three tasks. In the first section of the book, she investigates and tells the story of Reverend Maxwell. The Reverend, an African-American preacher, army veteran, and pulpwooder, was accused and exonerated in the killing his first wife. In turn, he cashed in on several life insurance policies he had placed on her. In the years that followed, more people around the Reverend died, including the husband of his second wife, that second wife, the Reverend’s brother and nephew, and the daughter of his third wife. Each death was followed by numerous, often contested, payments on life insurance policies taken out by the Reverend on the now dead. The Reverend is a larger-than-life figure, feared in his community not just for his association with these many deaths, but for his rumored voodoo powers. The climax of this section of the book is the death of Maxwell, shot at close range at the funeral of his stepdaughter by her sister’s husband.

The second section of the book tells the story of Tom Radney, an equally complex character in his own right. Radney was a progressive state senator in 60s Alabama. His early career was marked by one pivotal moment: his decision to identify himself as an icon of the New South and to support Edward Kennedy (and not George Wallace) for the presidential nomination. Vandalism and death threats followed, and Radney withdrew from politics. In 1969, he reentered, running for lieutenant governor, but he was defeated. Cep notes that Radney may have been not ahead of his time but “ahead of his place” (100). He wanted to bring change to Alabama, but he didn’t end up doing so in the legislative arena. Instead, he made his career as a trial lawyer. His office, called the Zoo, served rich and poor, white and black, and he thrived. In fact, Radney successfully defended the Reverend in the only murder charge he faced, for the death of his first wife, and worked to secure payment for the Reverend in his many disputed insurance claims. The climax of this section is Radney’s successful use of the insanity defense to secure exoneration for Robert Burns, the Reverend’s assassin.

The last section, and the one many English teachers and readers of Mockingbird will be most interested in, is the story of Harper Lee and her apparently unsuccessful attempt to write the story of the Reverend and Radney. Cep writes of Lee’s refusals of celebrity and conventionality, of her deep intellectualism and curiosity, and of difficult relationship with writing. In particular, Cep focuses on the ways in which Lee’s scrupulous dedication to accuracy, in contrast to Truman Capote’s practice with In Cold Blood, presents unique challenges: an absence of facts, self-serving memories by those involved, and confounding protagonists. Ultimately, for reasons that we may never fully understand, Lee seems to have found herself unable to write this story.

One moment in the final section is particularly striking in light of the persistent and thoughtful conversations about the politics of Mockingbird. Cep writes of Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, and her insistence that it would be “best to convert readers to the cause of racial justice with a child’s loss of innocence [rather] than to condemn them through the disillusioned voice of an adult daughter” (179). Hence the shift to the narrative voice of Scout, in Mockingbird, and away from the adult perspective of Watchman. In Watchman, Atticus is condemned by his daughter as a member of the White Citizens’ Council. In Mockingbird, Scout’s ability to criticize her father’s accommodationism and political complacency is limited by her age and her inability to see outside the world of Maycomb and the courthouse.

In an otherwise carefully nuanced and researched book, Cep states blandly that Atticus in Mockingbird remains “heroic forever” (178). It’s disappointing to see Cep render this simplistic reading of Atticus. Certainly she’s in good company. Mockingbird was received and canonized, just as Hohoff had hoped it would be, as “a redemptive story of tolerance” (178). The film version, probably more well-known in our culture, particularly for those who never actually read the book, bolsters this view of Atticus as heroic and the book overall as redemptive. (Teachers can find resources for undertaking a more complex consideration of Atticus in our volume on Mockingbird.)

Of course Tom Robinson, shot in the back seventeen times, does not receive redemption, and Atticus himself issues an ominous warning, not of redemption but of retribution: “Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up [racial injustice] and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.” The violence enacted on Scout and Jem at the end of the novel hints at exactly the kind of bill-paying to come in a society that complacently looks away from the brutality in its midst.

Perhaps Lee’s vision of the South was more complicated than the “palliative plot” (178) she, under the guidance of Hohoff, found herself telling as she transformed the story of southern racism in Watchman into Mockingbird. Was Lee’s attempt to take on the story of the Reverend her way of rejecting Hohoff’s politics and her own compromises? Certainly, taking on the tale of a black Alabama preacher who worked the insurance system to make himself a fortune and may or may not have murdered his family along the way, could not have been a more challenging choice for the author of the much-beloved Mockingbird.

Would the world have welcomed this sort of book from Lee? The vitriol surrounding the publication of Watchman probably suggests the answer.

In any case, Casey Cip has taken up Lee’s mantle, and we have Furious Hours. For those of us who find Lee, Mockingbird, and Watchman to be intriguing, complex pieces of the story of American literary and cultural history, the plot thickens.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Interactive timeline tracks changing views of Gatsby

We recently tweeted about a very interesting interactive timeline about The Great Gatsby, created by Andrew Newman, associate professor of English and History at Stony Brook University, but we wanted to write a brief blog to call more attention to his excellent work.

His interactive timeline allows readers to consider the ways in which “the frames of reference, or `horizons of understanding’” for Fitzgerald’s novel have changed over time.

Newman’s critical point, which he also articulates in “`Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’: The Great Gatsby in the 1980s” (published in Changing English, and linked to - outside the journal paywall - at the end of Newman’s timeline), is that while the text of Gatsby has remained unchanged, what it “has meant to generations of readers” and how that meaning has been shaped “by these readers’ own individual and collective experiences” is a fascinating lens through which to examine this still nearly ubiquitous novel.

Newman’s approach builds on the work of foundational literary scholars of reception theory like Jane Tompkins, who, for example, discovers that while Nathanial Hawthorne seemingly remained a constant in the literary canon, his position there is not a testament to the idea that his classic work has withstood the test of time and transcends the “limitations of its age.” Tompkins discovers, for example, that The Scarlett Letter is considered a great novel at different points in time, but that at each moment, “it is great for different reasons.” An “enduring work of American literature is not a stable object possessing features of enduring value” but a text that “because of its place within institutional and cultural history” has come to be valued as excellent, but excellent for different reasons at different moments in time.

Using an approach grounded in reception theory, Newman examines curriculum guides, classroom editions, and articles in pedagogy journals. He considers, moreover, how students reading the novel in the context of the 1974 film adaptation. starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, may have been influenced by its interpretation. How is our students’ understanding of the novel today shaped by the vision of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film?

One favorite moment in his piece is when he discusses a quote in The New York Times by Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Leach remarks, “there’s more fascination with a Gatsby in a depression, when no one’s rich, than in a time when everyone’s rich.” As Newman notes, Leach is “wrong”: “there was no interest in Gatsby during the Great Depression; it became popular during the post-war era, when there was an increasing proportion of stakeholders in the American Dream.”

Indeed. What a brilliant reminder that the texts we read are not timeless, enduring classics that have always been and always will be read and valued by readers everywhere! No!

That said, given that we are, as Newman notes, approaching the kind of inequality of the 20s, in which the American Dream seems less and less powerful as a foundational myth of America, will Gatsby retain its popularity? Will we, English teachers, students, and readers, abandon Gatsby at this historical moment? Or will this text emerge as an “excellent,” “enduring” novel because of its ability to speak to the concerns of our current moment: xenophobia, anti-immigrant fervor, and anxiety over the decline of white male power?

Regardless, Newman’s research into the frames of references by which Gatsby’s readers have over time made sense out of Fitzgerald’s novel is such a valuable way for us to allow our students to demystify and deconstruct the status and stability of Gatsby as a cultural object.