Sunday, November 19, 2017

Talking About Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump at NCTE

We had a great time yesterday talking with teachers at NCTE in St. Louis about “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” When we began work on our fourth volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, we were far from the Age of Trump. But now that we are firmly enmeshed in the world of President 45, our project with Gatsby seems more relevant, more pertinent, and more pressing.

As we heard from NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick during the presidential address Friday morning, “we are English teachers – we walk towards the fire.” Or, as Jacqueline Woodson said in her keynote, “We are living in a time when resistance matters – writing to resist, teaching to resist, learning to resist.”

Still, as important as those words are, we know that teachers on the front lines can find the fire hot and the work of resistance scary and difficult. We heard from teachers in New Jersey at NJEA last week about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms and their concerns about facing a political backlash if they try to engage in current political issues.

Our audience of educators at NCTE shared these concerns:
  • Sometimes opinions are so polarized that students do not know how to express their opinions without being angry or offensive.
  • It can be tough to discuss such topics with homogeneous student groups.
  • In a more liberal area, on the other hand, conservative students are "othered" and silenced.
  • I think the students want to discuss it. Our teachers are in varying stages of 'comfort' in guiding these conversations.
  • I think students are desperate to have challenging conversations. They sometimes don't know how to separate their emotions from the facts.
This last comment is so powerful to us. Of course students want to have these challenging conversations. It’s their world; they are grappling with the different legacies (of racism, of inequality, etc.) that they are inheriting and their potential to make changes to the world. As adolescents and young adults, they are coming into a growing sense of their responsibility; they are finding their voices and thinking about their emerging power. School needs to be a safe place for our young people to have these challenging conversations!

Our approach is to ground these challenging or, as one of our audience members put it, courageous conversations in text, so that students can engage with language, rhetoric, and ideas rather than just opinions and emotions. What does this text say? How does writer use language to convey his/her/their ideas? What assumptions ground the text?

Gatsby is the perfect text for this work because it focuses on income inequality, nativism and white nationalism, anti-Semitism, cheating, and bullying – all key concerns in the Age of Trump. Using informational texts, like excerpts from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy and Kenneth L. Roberts’s Why Europe Leaves Home, we can unpack the issues of racism, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel and provide opportunities for students to have informed, critical conversations about the ways in which these difficult issues played out in the 20s.

And when we do this work with Gatsby, we are hardly being radical, politically-divisive teachers. We are simply being and asking our students to be careful readers whose interpretations of this central text of the American canon are informed by the source material that Fitzgerald himself invokes and that his readers would surely have known. (Or, if we examine David Vandivier’s “What Is The Great Gatsby Curve?” about wealth inequality, we are studying the ongoing resonances of Fitzgerald’s text and its importance as a cultural touchstone in our society.)

To us, this seems a productive, calculated way to step into today’s fire and to help our students grapple with the sometimes toxic and often powerful rhetoric which surrounds us.

As Jacqueline Woodson reminded us during her address, “Telling stories helps us remember where we came from in order to help us think about where we are going.” Isn’t that our purpose in reading our great American texts, like Gatsby? Reading these texts carefully, and using some powerful supplements to help us with that work, matters now more than ever.

If you attended our workshop at NCTE and/or are eager to see more of these materials, our volume on Gatsby is currently due out from Rowman and Littlefield in January 2018. But we are happy to share materials earlier; don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

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