Sunday, June 27, 2021
Just as I was about to close the books on this unprecedented school year, a Facebook ad caught my eye that I immediately screenshotted and forwarded to Audrey. This is not so unusual; we are always on the lookout for text connections that can help teachers enliven their teaching of the most commonly taught texts – especially Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, Speak, and of course Gatsby. But this ad for Gatsby New York Ultimate Reviving Eye Cream was puzzling. In fact, for me, as an English teacher, it was quite provoking.
We have all become accustomed to cookies and algorithms personalizing ads for us. Was I seeing this ad because I’m an English teacher? Because Audrey and I have written and presented about teaching Gatsby? Because I’m an exhausted educator at the end of an endlessly challenging school year whose eyes clearly need reviving? These questions remain unanswered, however, as I remain stuck on my first reaction: Gatsby? Eye cream?
Clicking on the ad took me to the product website where everything about it seemed genuine and oddly devoid of any reference to The Great Gatsby or the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg that famously loom over the valley of ashes in Fitzgerald’s novel. That said, the tone of the marketing copy, which promises to restore youthful appearance around the eyes and enable customers to “look more graceful with age,” is reminiscent of the exuberant claims that ads in the 1920s made for various powders and elixirs. And the yearning to reclaim something lost in youth and deemed necessary for future happiness certainly aligns with the novel’s themes.
While reading the website, I couldn’t help wondering what Daisy would make of its exhortations: “Every woman looks her best when she’s happy. … Gatsby eye creams are designed to give you that look of health, vitality, happiness and joy.” Perhaps middle-aged Daisy would seek out such a product? (A marketing email I received from the company was sent by a Daisy Aston?!)
It is intriguing to wonder what students might make of this product and its website as texts to consider alongside Gatsby. We often encourage students to look out for pop culture references to canonical works, in part to prove the relevance of what we teach. A teacher might use Gatsby New York Ultimate Reviving Eye Cream as a model or part of a cluster of such contemporary Gatsby references and give students the opportunity to think critically about the ways in which these references intersect – interestingly, engagingly, oddly – with the novel. Or we might use it as an entry point for comparing the advertising rhetoric of today with that of the 1920s.
Later in the summer, I might flesh this out into an actual lesson, but for now, I’m going to leave it there because, though part of my brain is already racing ahead to think about what new, better things I can do in the fall, the rest of me – including my eyes – needs to rest and let go of a school year that required us to “beat on … ceaselessly.” We hope you are doing the same.
I didn’t buy the cream.
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Thinking of the works we read with our students as “windows and mirrors” has become a popular way of conceptualizing why and how we diversify our curricula, thanks to Emily Style who named the concept in 1988. In “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” she wrote:
… [S]tudents’ educational diet is not balanced if they see themselves in the mirror all the time. Likewise, democracy’s school curriculum is unbalanced if a black student sits in school, year after year, forced to look through the window upon the (validated) experiences of white others while seldom, if ever, having the central mirror held up to the particularities of her or his own experience. Such racial imbalance is harmful as well to white students whose seeing of humanity’s different realities is also profoundly obscured.
In considering how the curriculum functions, it is essential to note the connection between eyesight and insight. … no student acquires knowledge in the abstract; learning is always personal. Furthermore, learning never takes place in a vacuum; it is always contextual.
Finally, as we began writing this, we shared in the widespread tributes to Beverly Clearly, who passed away this week, at the age of 104. In her honor, let us continue to give our students opportunities to read stories they can see themselves in, to encourage them to “embrace their too much-ness,” and to write the books that they want to read. And let’s continue to create the ELA classrooms we and our students need and want.
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Over this last year, we’ve watched as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the many forms of inequity that shape the lives of our students. Looking back, we find strength and hope in the new things we’ve learned with our students and the emerging efforts to redress historic wrongs.
This past week brought news that the City of Evanston, Illinois, approved a first round of reparations for Black residents who have suffered the effects of housing discrimination. This effort is believed to be the first of its kind enacted in the U.S.
As reported by the Washington Post, qualified Black residents can apply for housing grants up to $25,000 to be used for down payments on a home, mortgage payments, or home repairs or upgrades. This measure follows research conducted by a city subcommittee that documented discriminatory practices toward Black residents, including past rules that limited where Black residents could live in Evanston. The report, for example, showed that despite the existence of a fair housing law passed in 1968, “as late as 1985, real estate agents continued to steer Black renters and home buyers to a section of town where they were the majority.” While some welcome the city initiative, even those within the community who support the idea of reparations do not necessarily agree with the approach adopted in Evanston. The Washington Post article does a great job of providing detail about the Evanston measure and its history as well as contextualizing it within the broader discussion of reparations occurring around the U.S.
Given Evanston’s proximity to Chicago, this development is particularly relevant to discussion of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. The Younger family faces just such discrimination when Mrs. Younger buys a home in a White neighborhood on the Far South Side of Chicago in the years following World War II. The events of the play are based on Hansberry’s father’s unsuccessful attempt to do the same, an effort that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun provides text clusters on housing discrimination past and present that can help you and your students understand both the context of A Raisin in the Sun and Evanston’s attempt to redress the effects of this legacy.
In addition to the many news articles written about this historic measure, the City’s website provides extensive information about the effort, which has been in the works since 2019. Informational texts include: answers to frequently asked questions, links to municipal resolutions and reports, and videos of an Evanston town hall meeting and a presentation on the “State of Housing in Black America,” in which the history of restrictive covenants and federal redlining and their long-lasting impacts are discussed. This wealth of informational texts provides a variety of options for you and your students to draw from in making sense of A Raisin in the Sun, making connections with history, and considering historical inequities and reparations in your own locality.
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
As we move into a new school year defined by uncertainty, it seems more imperative than ever to try to help our students (and ourselves) make sense of the world. But with so much going on right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, civic unrest in response to systemic racism, widespread economic distress, a contentious political climate and presidential election – it’s hard to know where to start and easy to become overwhelmed. This is especially the case given that many of the intertwined aspects of the current global crisis may impact some or all of our students very differently than they affect us. As many have said in recent months, “we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.”
But, even amid such upheaval, we have several enduring things going for us. First, our classrooms – though they may now be partially or completely virtual – are spaces where we can help students (and ourselves) engage in the difficult conversations needed to understand and address the issues shaping our lives – including the disparate ways these issues shape the lives of different groups of people and why. Second, literature still provides a safer space to approach such discussions, centered upon fictional events in fictional worlds that prompt us to build empathy with characters whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Third, putting literature in dialogue with informational text enhances the relevance of the literary work while helping us understand our present circumstances with the benefit of new knowledge and different perspectives.
So, when we heard NPR’s July 21 story on the Trump administration’s plan to repeal and replace a rule enacted during the Obama presidency to address racial discrimination in housing, we immediately thought of it as a timely update to our units on housing discrimination in relation to A Raisin in the Sun. This article on this issue also provides an occasion to look at how government policies can either combat or sustain systemic socioeconomic inequality.
As the article explains, the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule required municipalities to identify patterns of discrimination in housing and develop a plan to address them. Such a plan might include changing zoning regulations to allow more affordable housing. However, the Trump administration has deemed this Obama-era rule an example of government overreach that has had a “devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban [sic] areas,” according to a June 30 tweet by Trump.
Reporter Danielle Kurtzleben characterizes the White House’s plan to replace the rule as an attempt by Trump to win over white voters in suburban districts. She quotes UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck, who describes Trump’s campaign against the AFFH rule as “racializing the idea of housing” and championing the socioeconomic exclusivity of the suburbs. A claim by Trump during a tele-townhall meeting – that Democrats want to "eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows who into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down” – appears to support Vavreck’s argument.a timely hook into our units on housing discrimination past and present in dialogue with A Raisin in the Sun (or our blog for the New York Times Learning Network). The question-based headers that label each section of the article could also facilitate a jigsaw reading of it, with a different group of students responsible for reading and explaining each respective section.
In the past, when we’ve discussed housing discrimination with students, even those who have been directly impacted by housing discrimination, they were often surprised to learn that the housing policies that have shaped their lives are not immutable but instead the result of specific actions taken by people over time. And while these conversations have helped students understand a bit more about their own world, they make A Raisin in the Sun seem all the more relevant, and “not just a story,” as one student put it.
For us, this has been the most rewarding kind of teaching, and we firmly believe that it still can be, even with all that’s new and uncertain about how teaching and learning will be carried out for the forseeable future.
Indeed, this approach enables us to address two immediate concerns that might otherwise seem at odds with each other: supporting students’ social emotional well-being and addressing any “learning loss” that may have occurred over the last stressful months. Indeed, an introduction to trauma-informed teaching created by WE Teachers encourages teachers to model and give students the opportunity to engage in the healthy acquisition of knowledge (i.e., identifying credible sources, avoiding information overload, reading critically, etc.) as a way of managing anxiety and providing the basis for empowering students to take action.
More than ever, our students need us to equip them with the knowledge and skills to actively engage with the world and its so many injustices and opportunities.
Friday, May 22, 2020
Thursday, May 7, 2020
Friday, October 18, 2019
The Afterlife of Holly Chase