Finding purpose and politics in Gatsby at PCTELA18

by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle

(Originally posted at the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature blog.)

It was very early and very dark when we began our journey to Harrisburg, PA, to present at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English annual conference, #PCTELA18. Audrey had been to the national affiliate meeting for NCTE, where leaders of all the affiliates gather and share ideas and resources, and met some of the dynamic PCTELA board members, and we were very excited to get to hear the amazing A.S. King speak, so we knew it would be worth the trip.
It sounded good at the time, but when we had to get up at 4am and drive through NJ and PA in the dark, we began to question why we were doing this! As always, we started to feel energized as we arrived at the conference and left feeling inspired and ready to take on the world (if a little tired). Isn’t that what’s so great about NCTE and the affiliates – how they harness and focus our energies and remind us of the amazing community of educators to which we belong.
We presented our latest incarnation of our work, entitled for this forum, Gatsby: 1925 or 2018?
We opened our presentation with our newest favorite tech tool, Mentimeter. We asked our audience the following: When you think of Gatsby, what words come to mind? Mentimeter did the rest, in real time; how awesome!
We chuckled over “overrated,” bemoaned the “green light” (Audrey’s bugaboo), and noted the presence of “economic inequality,” “privilege,” and “wealth.”
From there, and invoking the conference theme, “The Stories of Our Lives,” we launched into our discussion of how The Great Gatsby, a text written and set in the 1920s and taught regularly in many, many English classrooms, can be taught as a topical, relevant text that interrogates fundamental issues — past, present, and future — about our culture and beliefs. We explored key issues in Gatsby – white supremacy and nationalism, the difficulties of economic mobility, economic inequality, anti-Semitism, and the social psychology of privilege and entitlement – and tried to unpack how to use this canonical text to create space for difficult, critical conversations.
For us, it was fascinating to talk pedagogy with PCTELA members who self-identified as people teaching in the big red state of PA. For both of us, teaching in urban Northern New Jersey, the politics are enormously different. The energy and engagement in the room was palpable; several people interjected mid-session with questions and comments (a presenter’s greatest delight!). 
We thought some of the concerns our audience raised and our views on them worth sharing, as we know that teachers across the country, particularly in the redder pockets of our nation, are grappling with how to navigate a tricky political landscape while still ensuring that our classrooms are spaces for:
1. critical thinking about big issues that matter (and not just the green light!);
2. students to think through and contextualize the drama of our particular moment through the context of literature;
3. difficult conversations.
For example, one person at PCTELA asked us whether we were worried about injecting politics into the classroom when, for example, we focus on the white nationalism and economic inequality in Gatsby. Another asked whether we include opposing viewpoints. Still another asked about whether we worried that students would just give us back what we want to hear. These are legitimate, challenging concerns that are worth careful consideration.
Our strategy is two-fold.
First, we try to think about our work as focused on extracting the politics out of the text(s), rather than injecting our politics. Of course, we focus on things we care about. And so our extraction, our focus, is of necessity going to change based on time and place. Trump, KavanaughRoseanne (some of the connections that have recently caught our attention) produce our interest in how the text navigates white nationalism, fear of non-white immigrants, white male privilege, and the anger and entitlement of those in positions of power.
Reading Gatsby in 2018 is and should be different from reading Gatsby in 1950. Isn’t that, after all, the beauty of literature? Audrey likes to think that if anything makes a text worthy of canonical status, it is that text’s capacity to generate conversation and merit scrutiny in different times and places. (But then again, that may be a function of the reader and an altogether different conversation.)
That said, no one in 2018 can underestimate the trepidation teachers (and students too) feel about these difficult conversations. Yet, as one of our PCTELA audience members asserted, based on his experience teaching at a wealthy, all-male private school with what he described as a mostly Republican student body, young people are eager to talk about these things. If we open the door and ground our discussion in Gatsby and companion texts like excerpts from Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, (inspiration for Fitzgerald’s Goddard), or social psychologist Paul Piff’s “Does Money Make You Mean,” an engaging TED Talk about behavioral experiments involving games of monopoly, driving habits, and more, we create space for dialogue in our classroom.
We don’t have to be explicit in discussing Trump or Kavanaugh; for a variety of reasons, we may not be comfortable doing so. But we can frame our discussions of Gatsby and extract the politics from Fitzgerald’s text, so that students have the space and language to think and talk about the big issues that they are seeing all around them. That’s our hope based on our experience, albeit in a very different environment.
After our talk, we had the amazing privilege to hear contemporary young adult author A.S. King address PCTELA.Wow! Her remarks about the importance of young adult literature resonated so strongly with us. King talked about how she couldn’t connect with the four novels (!) she was assigned in the entirety of her high school experience. The Scarlett Letter, she noted, seemed to contain all sorts of issues that should have been meaningful to her, but the Puritans, she admitted, “were a real buzz-kill.” And so she skipped Hawthorne.
S.E. Hinton was another story, for King. (And later, unaccountably, The Satanic Verses.)
Her broader point was that contemporary young adult literature has such an important place in our curriculum, particularly as it keeps young readers reading. King noted sardonically those gatekeepers who say that they don’t believe in contemporary young adult literature and retorted, “it’s not like fairies; it exists.” Indeed. And the passion that so many young readers have for this literature only serves to underscore the importance of our finding ways to make ALL the texts we teach meaningful, relevant, and purposeful for our students. 
Our work is cut out for us, especially for those who teach in schools where the curriculum is still dominated by mostly canonical and somewhat inaccessible texts, like GatsbyBut as we tried to show in our presentation, it is precisely Gatsby’s staid canonicity that makes it so full of insurgent and subversive possibilities. This is the work we love, and that so many English teachers do so creatively, ambitiously, and thoughtfully.

So, all in all, an inspiring and impressive PCTELA conference. We left invigorated, and on the way home stopped in Hershey for a tour of Chocolate World (Susan’s first time). Sweet!

 

Finding purpose and politics in Gatsby at PCTELA18

Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions

Are you planning to attend the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City? Share your experiences with us using #NJCTE18 and tag us @NJCTENews.

NJCTE is sponsoring two presentations at NJEA this year:

  • Joe Pizzo will present “Get a Grant the Write Way” on Thursday, November 8, 3:15-4:45 PM, in room 413.
  • Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle will present “Teaching Inequality to Encourage Students to Speak About Justice” on Friday, November 9, 9:45-11:15 AM, in room 402.

NJCTE board member Katie Nieves will also present two sessions: “Giving Into the Hyperdocs Hype” on Friday, November 9, 10:00-10:50 AM, in the Teacher to Teacher Learning Area, and “Google Tools to Help Struggling Learners” on Friday, November 9, 1:30-3:00 PM in room 317.

And NJCTE board members Pat Schall and Susan Reese will be onsite to meet with NJCTE members and prospective members. Come see us!
Continue reading “Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions”

Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions

Book Review: Using Grammar to Improve Writing by Sarah Tantillo

ST grammar coverby Susan Chenelle

First off, the journalist in me requires that I state that this is not an unbiased review. I have had the benefit of Sarah Tantillo’s wisdom and guidance since the beginning of my teaching career, nearly ten years ago. That said, I would not have taken time out of the precious last days of my summer to write this review if I were not so genuinely excited about Sarah’s recently published third book, Using Grammar to Improve Writing: Recipes for Action.

Tantillo’s approach forefronts the critical why of grammar instruction, i.e., learning to write and express ideas well. As she emphasizes in her introduction, “How we frame grammar instruction matters. If you view it as ‘fixing incorrect sentences,’ you teach it that way. If you view it as ‘building strong, compelling sentences,’ you take a different approach.”

Tantillo’s first chapter, “What should we STOP doing?” goes after four dysfunctional yet common elements of grammar instruction, including having students copy down grammar definitions or rules, having students correct error-laden sentences, and over-editing students’ work. After clearing the decks, so to speak, Tantillo presents principles that will help teachers design lessons that engage students in developing their skills in noticing and wrestling with syntax and language choices and their effects, rather than memorizing rules by rote and trying to remember when and how to apply them. Instead Tantillo encourages teachers to use model sentences from the texts students are already reading to give students opportunities to imitate and/or expand upon them after acting as detectives to identify the grammatical moves each set of model sentences exemplifies and infer the writer’s intention in crafting them that way.

Tantillo grounds her clear, practical directives in research about grammar instruction and teaching best practices, synthesizing the ideas of educators like Constance Weaver (Teaching Grammar in Context), Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion), and Jeff Anderson (Mechanically Inclined). These references to such well-respected and well-known teaching texts make clear how Tantillo’s approach sits within the field. Her work, moreover, and her insights about opportunities to capitalize on, pitfalls to avoid, and ways to fit everything in also draw on Tantillo’s extensive experience in the classroom.

The book is structured in a straightforward, easy-to-use format; readers can absorb the fundamentals of Tantillo’s approach in part one and then dive into the specific section of part two relevant to the grade level(s) they teach. Tantillo also emphasizes the importance of teachers knowing the standards above and below the grade(s) we might teach so that we can meet our students’ diverse needs; this volume makes it easy to see the underlying skills or understandings to target when students are struggling with tasks specified for their grade level in the CCSS. Along with her breakdown of the standards for each grade, she gives concrete advice for how to teach each standard, complete with sample pitches for conveying the importance of each skill to students and “genre alerts” that highlight particularly effective opportunities to teach certain aspects of grammar with specific genres of writing (i.e., teaching interjections and verb tenses with narrative writing). The appendix offers a handy CCSS tracker and sample overviews of weekly grammar, reading, writing, and vocabulary routines based on the particular genre(s) being taught.

While I have already recommended this book to the English department at my school, I will be sharing two bits of Using Grammar with all of my teachers in September: 1) her reminder that “telling is not teaching” in chapter one, and 2) the strategies she shares at the end of chapter four for combatting learned helplessness in our students. As anyone who has attempted to teach grammar knows, persistence and effort are at the heart of revision in writing, but they are also at the heart of learning in general. Tantillo urges teachers to wage this battle by “encourag[ing] engagement and accountability,” “provid[ing] models for clarity, and “encourag[ing] risk-taking.”

These nuggets of wisdom exemplify the thorough, thoughtful support Tantillo offers teachers in this book. Teachers starting a new school year will find it a valuable resource that will help them begin with clarity and purpose.


Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Book Review: Using Grammar to Improve Writing by Sarah Tantillo

NJCTE Board Member Susan Chenelle Receives NCTE 2018 High School Teacher of Excellence Award

NJCTE is thrilled to announce that the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has awarded the 2018 High School Teacher of Excellence Award to Susan Chenelle from University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. Chenelle is one of 14 high school teachers nationwide honored by NCTE this year.

Established in 2001 by the NCTE Secondary Section, this award recognizes and celebrates high school classroom teachers who demonstrate excellent practices and contributions in the classroom. Chenelle will be recognized as a recipient of the NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence Award at the Secondary Section Luncheon on Saturday, November 17, during the 2018 NCTE Annual Convention in Houston, Texas. For more information about the NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence Award, including past winners, see http://www2.ncte.org/high-school-teacher-of-excellence-affiliate-award.

Chenelle is currently Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she taught English and journalism for several years. She is the co-author of the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series from Rowman & Littlefield with Audrey Fisch, with whom she has presented about informational text and cross-disciplinary collaboration at schools around New Jersey and conferences across the country. She earned her master’s degree in urban education from New Jersey City University, and she is now pursuing a doctoral degree at Montclair State University in Teacher Education and Teacher Development. Chenelle was the recipient of NJCTE’s 2017 Educator of the Year Award and currently serves on the NJCTE board.

For more information about NJCTE’s Educator of the Year Award, please see https://www.njcte.com/teacher-awards/. We highly encourage English educators in New Jersey to nominate their colleagues for this award and to consider nominating early career and pre-service teachers for the M. Jerry Weiss Early Career Teacher Award and the Marcia Holtzman Pre-Service Teacher Award. Help us honor the excellent work of our colleagues in the field!

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

NJCTE Board Member Susan Chenelle Receives NCTE 2018 High School Teacher of Excellence Award

Welcome to New Board Member Susan Chenelle

Please welcome NJCTE’s newest board member, Susan Chenelle.

Susan Chenelle is Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she taught English and journalism for several years. Her favorite days at work are those when she escapes her office and spends most of the day working and learning with teachers and students. She is the co-author of the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series from Rowman & Littlefield with Audrey Fisch, with whom she has presented about informational text and cross-disciplinary collaboration at schools around New Jersey and conferences across the country. She earned her master’s degree in urban education from New Jersey City University, and she is now pursuing a doctoral degree at Montclair State University in Teacher Education and Teacher Development.

Susan was also honored by NJCTE in 2017 as Educator of the Year.

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Welcome to New Board Member Susan Chenelle