Teaching Identity Through Literature

Teaching about identity politics is a difficult task for any teacher and very difficult when this discussion is with 8th graders in a predominately white (96.6%) upper middle class (average household income is $73, 053) community. Almost all of my students are similar in race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and culture and are similar to me as their teacher in these aspects. My students also enjoy the same music, sports teams, movies, television shows, clothes, and literature. If you were to observe my students you would notice the boys all wear $300 sneakers with jeans and hoodies and the girls wear Uggs and leggings and Vera Bradley backpacks, it is difficult to distinguish one student from the other.

However, like with all social groups there are small pockets of social groups that are being oppressed with in it and it is important to help them find their identity  which we can do through literature. Also important is to open the majorities’ eyes to the fact that there are other people in the world that don’t feel, look and act as they do. I always explain in the beginning of the school year that I have spina bifida and personally always had a difficult time with identity because of it. I have never really identified as having a disability or with others that have disabilities (when I went to a spina bifida support group once I felt bad for ever feeling sorry for myself and never went back) I also have a difficult time identifying with my peers who have never struggled with physical adversities. I have also always looked different having to wear leg and back braces, walking with a limp  I remember in middle school reading Judy Blume’s Deenie about a girl diagnosed with scoliosis (that I also have because many with spina bifida do) and for the first time not feeling so alone. Being in the minority in a social group is difficult, finding one’s identity is also, and trying to do so in the face of adversity is often impossible.

In the last two years I have seen the impossible happen with the acceptance of gay and transgender students in the classroom. This happens when the majority has been influenced by the beliefs, opinions, and views of a minority and in this situation the only way to do so is by raising consciousness. Raising consciousness in this situation is simply by students being comfortable enough in their environment and supported both at home and at school to be their authentic selves. In order to achieve this we need to ensure a safe, open, understanding, accepting, supportive, respectful, learning environment for all students.

At the middle school level one way to teach is this through literature. I have done this in my own classroom through reading the book The Misfits by James Howe. This novel revolves around a group of friends, one that is gay, which opens up a conversation in the classroom that does not often get discussed. This is the link to the book description and discussion questions. https://www.teachervision.com/tv/printables/simonschuster/Misfits_TG.pdf

One resource that is particularly helpful when teaching this book and identity politics is http://www.GLSEN.org, the web site of GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) which has a “Create Your Own School Climate Survey” as well as state and school district anti- bullying laws, educator resources such as GLSEN programs and lesson plans by grade.

In class we discuss how to create a safe school environment for LGBT students, this is a great resource for support.

http://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/glsen_familiav2014.pdf

My school has not done much as a whole other than create “Safe Zone” posters for any teacher who wants to put one in their room to nonverbally communicate to LGBT students that they are a safe person to talk to if they need to. However, the students within the classroom have been more accepting now than years passed. I believe there has been a shift and students are more aware that there are teens that are gay or that identify as a different gender than they were born as. Even five years ago this was not the case, it would have still been very difficult for a student to identify as gay or transgender in their social group.

After doing some research it is a little disheartening how little my school does for LGBT students compared to other middle schools. I know at the high school level there is more support offered, at the middle school level it is really not discussed at all. This must be difficult and isolating for students who already feel so much in the minority. Hopefully by incorporating other strategies students may feel more connected. For example, other ways to teach identity politics could be keeping a variety of literature in the classroom library. My favorites are Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt, Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews, Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock.

There is also a lesson on http://www.GLSEN.org that I love titled Using Literature As a Tool to End Name Calling which uses Bibliotherapy, or “the guided use of books to help solve problems”. The lesson’s objective is “to introduce students to literature that provides realistic and thought-provoking depictions of name-calling and bullying, to increase students’ identification with targets of bullying, and to develop their sense of empathy toward others, and to help students identify safe and empowering ways to cope with and respond to name-calling and bullying in their lives”. This lesson can be used with a number of pieces of literature, I use it with The Misfits but the lesson online uses it with Judy Blume’s Blubber. However, this could be used at the high school level when reading about racism and/or feminism as well. Although racism, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity can all me uncomfortable and controversial topics (especially to teach in the middle school level) they are important when teaching identity through literature.

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

 

After reading Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” I still couldn’t answer the essential question “should the identity of an author impact a reader’s interpretation of a text?” I believe this is because for the most part I believe the identity of the author does impact how the text is interpreted whether we want it to or not.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one of my favorite books and has been very influential to me in many ways. I don’t think I could separate Plath’s own life and the struggles Esther’s (the protagonists) goes through and have the same kind of connection or impact it had. Having known Plath’s own struggle with depression prior to reading the novel is what makes the story so much more real and why so many connect with it. I know when I first read it as an undergrad and English major just weeks before graduating I felt as if I wasn’t crazy, someone else had felt as I feel. If I later found out that a man wrote this book that had never struggled with depression, I would have felt cheated and deceived. It is in the knowing that there is a connection between the author and reader that makes the impact so strong. However, Barthes believes “ To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (1325). I believe Plath (as am I) would be perfectly okay with that.

Although there are times when I know quite a lot about the author before reading a book, there are also times when I know next to  nothing. Currently I am reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami knowing nothing other than it was published in the 90’s by a Japanese writer and has 133,833 4/5 star ratings. Still as I was thinking of the essential question all the books I have read that created an impact on me, the author was a crucial part of that as well.  Another example of this is Edgar Allan Poe. I teach mood and tone reading Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as part of the curriculum. Prior to reading the short story we read a short biography as a play because I feel it is important that my students understand what his life was like, his heart breaks, loneliness, and despair, prior to reading his works. How could one possibly read the poem Annabelle Lee without knowing he wrote it for his young wife who died of the same illness that took his mother at a young age? So many of his works were influenced by his life experiences that it is important to know the author to feel his work.

We all know Poe himself is a man of mystery and he has once veiled the gender of one of his narrators and many critics believe it was a very purposeful decision. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” there is an unknown, nameless narrator. In the story there is only “I” used, no gender pronouns so the reader can put themselves in the place of the narrator or analyze the story debating if the outcome would change if the narrator was female or male. Some critics believe that Poe being a male author would assume that readers would know it was a male narrator but the idea is plausible either way.

During this conversation my class also discusses authors such as J.K Rowling and why she used her initials and not her full name when publishing her books and you would not believe how many of my students did not know that the author is indeed female. In this case gender veiling worked. I explained that she and the publishers were afraid that seeing a female writer on the book would deter boys from reading them and by the conversation in my class, I believe they were right. We also discuss the reverse in gender veiling, I have not seen or heard of any instances of the reverse happening (male authors shielding their gender). I did some research and found an article titled “Meet the Male Writers Who Hide Their Gender to Attract Female Readers” who interviewed three authors who use initials to simply sell more books when asked how one author feels about it he seemed to be in it for the money. “Does it help to be identified as a woman, or to have no gender at all?” asks Thomas. “No one can say for sure, but it is certainly arguable. And given that every ‘debut’ novelist wants to give themselves every possible chance, why take the modest risk that using a male name might bring? Why not just use initials? Get rid of gender altogether?” This got me thinking, during a time when gender and sexuality is so fluid what would happen if authors only used initials? Would all potential readers run to their nearest devices to look up photographs and biography information or would we stop caring about the author and more about the text? In this case would Bathes and Foucault be more understood in their beliefs? Would this then end the prejudices that are still a problem today just as it was for the Bronte sisters in the 1800’s?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.

 

Oswell, Paul. “Meet the Male Writers Who Hide Their Gender to Attract Female Readers.” Alternet. 11 Aug. 15. Web. 22 Mar. 16. .

Controversial Cultural Studies Incorporated into The Diary of Anne Frank and the use of Propaganda

As you can imagine introducing any controversial topic to eighth graders from a small rural community is a challenge. Of course depending on your administration it may be easier if you have their support. For example, if my content coordinator came into my class to observe or evaluate me as I was teaching a lesson that incorporated Marxism she wouldn’t question my choice, trusting my teaching abilities, experience, and knowledge. However, as public school teacher I am not sure I would feel comfortable straying away from the common core standards that much. In the last five years our creative ability and teaching freedom has been slowly taken away. Student success on state testing and our teacher evaluations are now linked, this means if our students don’t show a significant amount of growth, our jobs are at risk. As you can imagine this is why ‘teaching to the test’ is becoming an epidemic through many districts.

Cultural studies have never been part of the eighth grade curriculum and we have little say of what are units consists of based on the constrictions of the common core standards and the limited available resources. It is difficult for me to even image bringing up Marxism to my students considering just bringing a pencil to class is considered a huge success on most days. I wouldn’t necessarily stay away from saying specific words like Marxism mostly because my students wouldn’t know they were “hot button” words at all. However, I would need to take a middle ground to be strategic in how I introduced the topics in a lesson so the students are engaged and also retain the information once they leave my classroom.

One way I could include Marxism and cultural theory in the classroom is when I teach the drama unit which revolves around a play adaption of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have a lot of interviews, primary documents, posters, videos, and articles that are incorporate into the unit. Some of these are propaganda postcards with images of Hitler building highways and making improvements as well propaganda children’s books depicting Jews as animals.

Prior to this unit I would have taught a small lesson on propaganda during the dystopian unit as an extra credit assignment. Students can create a poster based on the book with guideline and use of examples. For a refresher and a more in depth explanation I would begin with this video  https://youtu.be/-WpFzTplp28. This does a great job explaining what propaganda is as well as the history and the role of mass media influencing the use on a much larger scale. There is also discussion on Hitler’s use and his opinion on propaganda with ties the unit together.

After the propaganda video and some discussion I would show the biography of Theodor W. Adoro https://youtu.be/4YGnPgtWhsw and explain how he was an influential socialist in Germany after WWII who made valuable contributions how he blamed the use of mass media such as the propaganda and the complacency of society to be so easily manipulated for the Holocaust to continue. I can also take this further and ask students if they can give me examples of modern day propaganda just to see how aware they are or if they are like the complacent society that Adoro describes. Are we being easily manipulated by mass media and so easily influenced by what is being projected that we lose sight on what is important?  I can then show the students modern examples of propaganda such as “MODERN DAY WARFARE” which is a great example of internet propaganda http://www.skiptomalouuu.com/2011/10/modern-day-warfare.html as well as commercials and they can identify which technique is being used to persuade https://youtu.be/0eWPbr_KzN4

From the video:

1) Simple solutions (Google)

2) Name calling, card stacking, repetition (Bounty)

3) Appeal to tradition, emotional transfer (Gap)

4) wit and humor, simple solutions, small print (Boost Mobile)

5) repetition, jingle, plain folks (Clapper)

6) jingle, bandwagon (Snuggie)

7) wit and humor (Doritos)

As a writing piece students  can compare the difference between the propaganda used in WWII and the propaganda used now. Students can also write about the differences between how we use or free time and if that influence our subconscious. This lesson could be a great lead in activity to reading The Wave by Todd Strassar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Eyre and Katniss Everdeen: Two Girls on Fire

 

While reading Jane Eyre I couldn’t help but immediately connect many of the themes to what I am currently reading with my students, The Hunger Games. I know it may seem that these two novels, published over 150 years apart couldn’t possibly have any similarities. However, many interesting parallels can be found and analyzed when looking into the powerful themes that cross all ages and genres.

The three themes most evident in the novels that I feel I could currently teach in my classroom are social class, gender inequality, and authority. In order to incorporate Jane Eyre into my lessons I would have to photocopy specific passages of the book that I felt connected to the correlating themes in The Hunger Games. Students would be asked to highlight any related themes (as well as motifs and symbols) and analyze within a group the connections as well as try to expand on it by giving a contemporary example. Students could also complete character analysis charts in class by finding similar characteristic traits in both Jane and Katniss. These activities would widen student understanding of how prominent these themes are and how novels published in 1847 and 2008 can have very similar characters and themes that we still see today. It would also be wonderful to at least expose eighth graders to a relatable character from gothic Victorian literature.

The theme of social class is the most prevalent in both novels. In Jane Eyre the reader sees the strict Victorian hierarchy beginning with Jane being treated unfairly by her aunt and cousins because she is an orphan, which is considered the lowest class in the social hierarchy. Jane does not have any money or family so she is sent to a boarding school that is described as an institution to educate orphans. At the school only very basic necessities are given and strict rules are enforced. Similarly, Katniss is also considered to be in the lowest class of her society. In The Hunger Games the country of Panem is divided into districts instead of states. Within this social hierarchy Katniss lives in what is considered the lowest ranking district of all. Katniss doesn’t only live in the lowest ranking district, but she also resides in the most poverty stricken part of the district. Katniss is also considered an orphan because her father has died and her mother is in a state of debilitating depression. Both protagonists live within a social hierarchy where they are considered to be at the very bottom, due to no fault of their own. These hierarchies are put into place with very strict authority to make it difficult for anyone to rise in social status. However, both characters prove that though difficult, it is not impossible.

Similar to the theme of social status is the use of authority and control used to retain it by the control of food. In both novels there are large connections between food social status. In Jane Eyre, Jane is given burnt porridge on her arrival to Lowood that is too disgusting for most to eat. However, it is necessary for her to consume it because she has gone too many days without nourishment. Thankfully kindness is shown by Miss Temple who gives the girls sandwiches after feeling guilty for the lackluster meal that was given. This shows the use of control by those in authority by giving the lower class inedible food, but also proving that there are still kindhearted people who see beyond social class that are willing to provide when necessary. There is a similar scene in The Hunger Games when Peeta gives the starving Katniss (a stranger) bread that was meant for the pigs to eat.

This can be taught in conjunction with The Hunger Games because control is used similarly in this way. Katniss and other citizens of District 12 are often on the brink of starvation and at times will also eat anything they are fortunate to be given. In District 12 food is scarce and controlled by the authorities in the form of tesserae, which are tokens worth a year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. Once a child turns 12 they can receive tesserae and place their name into the pool that the yearly Hunger Game tributes are drawn from. Of course this system isn’t fair because the poorest of the districts will have a much higher chance of being chosen for the Hunger Games because they are in need of food. The entries are also cumulative so the districts of higher social status that are not in need of food do not have their names in more than the required amount. This arrangement allows the authorities to keep control of the hierarchical system as well as foster the districts resentment of each other to further the separation of social classes.

Gender inequality is also seen in both novels and students could create character collages to visually provide what kinds of inequalities Jane faced in the 1800’s vs. Katniss in the dystopian twenty-second century and as an extension look at gender inequalities today. Although students may assume gender inequalities have changed immensely since the 1800’s they may think differently once they analyze the texts in class. In both novels Jane and Katniss are described as being part of a society that assumes woman should be domestic, motherly, passive, and should keep their station without question or forming any unique ideas. However, both break the mold and prove to be individuals who do question the society they live in as well as initiate change for equality between genders and social class. We later see both Jane and Katniss move higher in their own social classes once they have had the chance do discover their true selves. Katniss does not have equal power until she has to survive the games where boys and girls have equal opportunity for survival and she does survive earning a life of ease and comfort. Jane later learns that when her uncle died he left his fortune to her and only then is able to marry as an equal.

If I wanted to continue with this lesson there are many other themes that could also be explored; such as love, mothers/family, emotion vs. intellect, and independence. There are also similar symbols that can be discussed including fire (ashes) and birds, as well as motifs like morals, rebellion, and rebirth. I believe Jane Eyre could be a great companion novel to The Hunger Games and a very unexpected one. There is so much emphasis on high interest reading that many classics are not taught at the middle school level. I believe if it were worked into lessons in this way students would be more open to reading classics they may not necessarily have chosen on their own.