From CRLA 2017: Synthesizing Primary Texts, Secondary Texts, and Protest Songs

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 9.02.46 PMFrom November 1 through November 4, I attended the College Reading and Learning Association’s 50th National Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As stated on their website, the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) consists of “a group of student-oriented professionals active in the fields of reading, learning assistance, developmental education, tutoring, and mentoring at the college/adult level.” As an organization, CRLA serves to “provide a forum for the interchange of ideas, methods, and information to improve student learning and to facilitate the professional growth of its members.” In honor of Pittsburgh’s iconic geography, the theme for this year’s conference was “Celebrating 50 Years of Building Bridges.” All of the sessions related, in some way, to the idea of “building bridges” between teaching, tutoring, and other support services in order to help students succeed. The majority of the sessions that I attended focused on best practices related to teaching reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.

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One session, however, provided a perfect “bridge” between my role at MxCC and the topics I cover for PALS. Jessica Slentz Reynolds and Stephanie Jarrett’s “Using Protest Music to Increase Students’ Awareness of Fake News” (Session 32) was the first session I attended at the conference. Both Jessica and Stephanie are students in Texas State University’s Graduate Program in Developmental Education — Jessica is a third-year doctoral student and Stephanie is finishing up her master’s degree. Their presentation included an overview of the theoretical and practical rationale behind their assignments before describing three specific projects. For the first project, students analyze primary and secondary sources as well as protest music in order to write an expository essay on some aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. In the second project, students select a similar topic that has recently been the subject of “fake news” to analyze in an oral presentation and a written reflection. The final activity involves analyzing a visual image to help students understand the importance of considering audience when consuming a text.

These projects were developed for an Integrated Reading and Writing course, the highest level of Developmental Reading at Texas State, and, specifically, to pilot teaching the course as a co-requisite with a history class.  While I am eager to use all of these assignments in the future, the first project from Jessica’s class can work especially well as part of an introductory literature course. The rest of this post will outline Jessica’s assignment in detail before describing an in-class activity that uses similar strategies to help students better understand the time period in which A Raisin in the Sun takes place.

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Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. During the presentation, Jessica said that students especially responded to Dylan’s songs.

For the second major project in Jessica’s course, students write an expository essay on one topic from the Civil Rights Movement, using one primary source, one secondary source, and one song as evidence. She includes a comprehensive list of topics for this project on its assignment sheet; some ideas include “looking at the experience of African American college students in the South (or in the North), what life was like for Migrant Farm Workers in California and Texas, and Native American/American Indian experiences during the Civil Rights Era. Jessica also includes a comprehensive list of where to start researching this era’s music, including articles from NPR, NewsOne, and AXS.

Students then work on this assignment over three weeks of their accelerated ten week course. During the first week, students are introduced to the Civil Rights Movement, important reading strategies, and an overview of primary and secondary sources. Jessica then models this assignment through a separate activity on grit and discusses how to use sources to help develop an essay’s main idea throughout the second week of the project. Students spend the final week outlining their essays, completing a peer review, and developing the assignment’s rubric as a class. Through this process, Jessica has found that students will effectively synthesize multiple sources when writing an expository essay.

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The original cast of the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This project can easily be adapted to help students analyze sources in an introductory literature course. To do this, I plan on assigning an in-class activity that still focuses on finding and analyzing a secondary source and a protest song, but that uses A Raisin in the Sun as its primary source. While other short stories, plays, or poems written during the Civil Rights Movement could be used with this lesson plan, I chose A Raisin in the Sun because it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and because of Lorraine Hansberry’s own connection to the Civil Rights Movement.

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Sam Cooke, whose “A Change is Gonna Come” could be one song used in this project. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

During the class period before we discuss the play, I will have students, in groups, research one of the following topics: housing (de)segregation, Black feminism, and race riots in Chicago during the 1950s. Then, as a group, they will be responsible for finding one article from our library’s databases that addresses their assigned topic and one protest song that relates to the topic in some way. Each group will create a brief oral presentation in which they use quotes from the article and the protest song’s lyrics to help present information on their assigned topic. These oral presentations will become the starting point of our larger class discussion on A Raisin in the Sun; that way, students will have a clear understanding of what was happening during the time period in which the play takes place before discussing its content. 

After spending multiple class periods discussing the play in depth, students will return to these groups. Together, each group will write an approximately 500-word response paper that uses quotes from all three sources as evidence for an analysis of how their previously assigned topic influences one character’s actions in A Raisin in the Sun. For example, students who presented on housing desegregation could analyze Mama’s purchasing of the home in Clybourne Park. I hope this activity leads to the same outcomes that Jessica and Stephanie saw with their assignments, so that students finish the unit with a better understanding of the time period in which Hansberry was writing and how to engage with a variety of sources.

After attending CRLA 2017, I returned to Connecticut with so many ideas for how I can better teach and support my students. Thanks to Jessica and Stephanie’s inspiration, I already have one new activity ready to go. I’m now counting down the days to Albuquerue, and, in the meantime, look forward to applying what I learned in Pittsburgh to my work at MxCC.

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Teaching Historical Context with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Image resultOne of the major tensions I find myself wrestling with when teaching lower level literature classes is the balance between contextual understanding and close reading. Context helps my students wrap their heads around material that may seem distant or foreign to their own experiences, but it also can interrupt or subordinate their attention to close reading. As a teacher, I want them to look closely at text and use that to interpret, but I am also of the belief that a text never exists in a vacuum. It can be hard to strike a balance between the two, and I discovered this a particular challenge when teaching E.L. Doctorow’s historical revisionist novel, Ragtime. Ragtime is a 1975 novel that mixes historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and many others, with fictional figures and events primarily in NYC to investigate key moments during the United States’ Progressive Era.Related image

The first time I taught this novel my students came up with a general type of response to the text when developing literary interpretations that went something like this: Through the use of historical narrative, Doctorow shows how “X group” (African Americans, working class laborers, industrial powers, women) were treated/seen/acted in the Progressive Era. While this interpretation has some seeds of truth — Doctorow does look at historical and fictional figures across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum — these claims fall into the trap of linking specific narrative choices to generalized statements about the real world. As Jack Lynch says in his very helpful blog I use when teaching literary analysis papers: “Never forget that books are books and, if you’re in an English class, you’re being asked to talk about them. Many books are unreliable guides to the real world outside the texts, and it’s dangerous to talk about, say, Renaissance attitudes toward race based only on your reading of Othello. Talk about Othello.”

Image result for new york 1920sIn other words, while it’s important for students to engage in historical context to identify historical markers and allusions, it’s also important that they don’t see this book as a holistic representative of real world history. This is tricky to navigate, and I found that setting up Ragtime as a text that revises history can help them understand how Doctorow uses historical figures and events to make art. Doctorow calls this to mind in his own quote about rewriting history when he says, “History is a nightmare we can best survive by rewriting it.” The publication date (1975) becomes revealing once students investigate what is happening during that time period in the United States: Watergate, Kent State and Jackson shootings, Nixon re-elected, EPA, just to name a few. I ask students why they think Doctorow, living in the mid-1970s might have had an impulse to rewrite another time in history.

One way I lay this foundation for students when we’re moving towards interpretation and argumentation is to ask them to pay close attention to the diction of their argument. For example, instead of making a claim about the X (women, the Progressive Era, etc.) as a whole, I ask the students to think about what evidence in particular intrigues them about their topic. By asking them to move back into the book, I’m actually asking them to surrender context momentarily to consider the book as a work on its own terms — not a history but a revision of history. This isn’t asking them to forget about the importance of setting and time period, but to look closely at how Doctorow crafts his characters to function within those parameters, not as representatives of it. Doctorow makes all up kinds of things in his book, and takes a different approach than Truman Capote, who I’ve written about in a previous post. As journalist Mel Gussow notes in his 1975 New York Times article about Doctorow’s book, “Ragtime as fictive nonfiction. It’ s the reverse of Truman Capote.”

What follows are some resources I’ve cobbled together from various websites (yes, including Wikipedia) that helps set up historical context for students.

I’ve found that students know little of the Progressive Era, but they DO know John Green, and using Green’s Crash Course is a good way to get them engaged in a time period that feels far removed from their present experience.

Before I send students off to read the first section of the book, we spend some time learning about and listening to ragtime music.

I ask students to pay attention to the book’s pacing, as it echoes the syncopated rhythm of ragtime itself. At the end of the book, we revisit this idea and discuss why Doctorow may have chosen this as the book’s title.

I also distribute a rather lengthy background handout which I’ve below before students read the first part of the novel. This way, if they run into a name or event they are unaware of, they can get some quick grounding to make sense of what’s going on in the novel.

Historical Figures and Terms in Ragtime*

Anarchism – is a political philosophy that advocates stateless societies based on non-hierarchical free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, or harmful

Theodore Dreiser – American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school.

Egyptology – the study of ancient Egypt

Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Archduke of Austria whose assassination precipitated World War I.

Henry Ford and the Model T – was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production. The Model T revolutionized transportation in the United States.

Sigmund Freud – Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis.

Henry Frick – American industrialist, financier, and art patron. Chairmen of Carnegie Steel Company.

Emma Goldman – famed anarchist known for her political activism, speeches, and writing.

Grand Narrative –A story that is supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of history and knowledge.

Harry Houdini – Hungarian-American illusionist, stunt performer, and escape artist.

Scott Joplin – African American composer and pianist who achieved fame for his ragtime Compositions.

Carl Jung – Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist whose theories include extraversion and introversion, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

Lusitania – British ocean liner that was struck by torpedoes launched by German U-boats in 1915. Sinking of the boat hastened war involvement of Americans.

Mexican Revolution – as a major armed struggle that started in 1910, with an uprising led by Francisco I. Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz, and lasted for the better part of a decade until around 1920. Over time the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multi-sided civil war with frequently shifting power struggles. This armed conflict is often categorized as the most important sociopolitical event in Mexico and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century, which saw important experimentation and reformation in social organization.

J.P. Morgan – was an American financier, banker, philanthropist and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time

Evelyn Nesbit – Popular model and celebrity made famous nearly overnight by famed architect Stanford White.

Peary’s expeditions – American explorer Robert Peary claimed he was the first to reach the North Pole.

Progressive Era – a period from the 1890s – 1920s that resulted from economic and social problems due to rapid industrialization introduced to America. Progressivism began as a social movement and grew into a political movement. The early progressives rejected Social Darwinism. In other words, they were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace.

Radicalism – the holding or following of radical or extreme views or principles, especially in Politics.

Ragtime – a musical genre that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. Its main characteristic trait is its syncopated, or “ragged,” rhythm. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. Ernest Hogan was an innovator and key pioneer who helped develop the musical genre, and is credited with coining the term ragtime. Ragtime was also a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin became famous through the publication in 1899 of the “Maple Leaf Rag” and a string of ragtime hits such as “The Entertainer” that followed, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. For at least 12 years after its publication, the “Maple Leaf Rag” heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, harmonic progressions or metric patterns.

Revisionism – Advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements.

Jacob Riis – A Danish-born police reporter with a knack of publicity and an abiding Christian faith, Jacob Riis won international recognition for his 1890 bestseller, “How the Other Half Lives,” which exposed the desperate and squalid conditions of New York City’s tenement slums and gave momentum to a sanitary reform movement that started in the 1840s and culminated in New York State’s landmark Tenement House Act of 1901.

Theodore Roosevelt – President from 1901-1909

Socialism – the theory of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of capital in the community as a whole.

William Howard Taft – President from 1909-1913

Harry K. Thaw – Son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. Husband of Evelyn Nesbit and murderer of Stanford White.

Booker T. Washington – African-American author, educator, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States.

Stanford White – American architect. Among his more important commissions in New York City were the Madison Square Garden (1891), the Washington Memorial Arch (1891), the New York Herald Building (1892), and the Madison Square Presbyterian Church (1906). He had a love affair with Evelyn Nesbit and was shot to death by her husband.

Emiliano Zapata – Mexican revolutionary

Zapatista – Mexican armed insurgent groups that began during the Mexican Revolution.

*Much of this information is taken from wikipedia
Lastly, this is one of those texts where there are many online teaching guides. I always find it helpful to see how others frame a text I’m teaching and have used this particular resource to come up with some in class discussion questions: Random House Guide to Teaching Ragtime

Overall, Ragtime is a fun and complex book to teach. It is a great way to introduce students to revisionist narratives and to learn some history along the way. It’s a fast read, but one that brings up so many interesting layers of conversation that it’s easy to run out of time in class because of lively conversation, which is really what lit classes are all about.