From the Classroom: Fearless Reading (and Analysis)
By Tricia Ebarvia
Ever since the NCTE Convention in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theme of advocacy. How can we advocate for our students—and the teaching practices that we know will best serve them? How can we help students advocate for themselves—on their own behalf and perhaps more importantly, on behalf of others? How can we help students advocate for issues that can help make their world and our society a better place?
As educators, we know the power of empathy. Just yesterday, as we finished up our unit on Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, my students and I discussed how important that novel is to our understanding of others around us who may be feel vulnerable or disempowered. Literature has the unique power to allow us to walk around in another character’s point-of-view, to broaden and deepen our own experiences so that we can become, ultimately, more understanding fellow human beings.
But lately I’ve been thinking that literature, by itself, may not be enough. If we read books, no matter how rich and wonderful and engaging they are, but we fail to expose students to study today’s relevant social issues, we miss an opportunity to help students to read the world. And in this era of #fakenews, reading the world may be more important than ever.
How can we do this? First, as teachers, we can model what reading the world looks like. I talk regularly to my students about things I’ve learned by reading the news or listening to a podcast or watching a documentary. I “think aloud” the connections I see between what we’re studying in class and recent news editorials or articles I’ve read. And I invite students to do the same.
From my Classroom: A Lesson on Fearless Girl
My seniors and juniors have been studying argument over the last several months. While we read classical arguments, many of which are still relevant today—like MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and Carson’s Silent Spring—we also analyze arguments happening right now in the world. And one argument that has been circulating in my news feed has been the statue of Fearless Girl in Manhattan financial district.
Fearless Girl, the new statue of a confident girl facing the pre-existing statue of Charging Bull, has been interpreted by many to be a symbol of feminism—the girl “stands up” to the Wall Street, especially as the statue arrived in NY at the same time as the Women’s March in D.C. Fearless Girl was only supposed to be on display for a week, then a month, but because of the popularity of the statue—search for images of “Fearless Girl statue” in Google and you’ll see hundreds of New Yorkers and tourists posed beside her—the city has decided that the statue will remain for at least another year.
Recently, the artist who created the Charging Bull statue has taken issue with Fearless Girl, as she has changed the meaning of his original work. Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant and artist, created Charging Bull to represent the strength of the American economy. Now, facing Fearless Girl, his artwork looks less resilient and confident, and instead, more domineering and menacing.
As with many issues today, people are divided. In my Twitter feed alone, I’ve seen dozens of articles arguing both sides of the issue, from major news publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well as smaller websites and bloggers. There are no shortage of opinions (and name-calling). So how can we help students navigate issues like these—especially given the “echo chamber” effects of social media. While some may argue that it’s best to avoid discussing anything that could seem controversial with students, if we don’t equip students with the tools to make sense of these issues, we essentially abdicate that power to the forces of their peer group and social media.
So instead, I make a point to show students how I use social media to learn rather than just like. Here’s what we did yesterday:
- As our opening notebook prompt, I projected a photograph of Fearless Girl and Charging Bull (similar to the one above) and asked students to jot down their initial thoughts. Most of my students were already aware of the issues, but about a quarter were not familiar with either statue. In that case, I asked students simply to describe what they were seeing.
- Next, I briefly gave some background on the controversy by sharing screenshots of some Tweets I had collected (you can see them below). My goal was to summarize various perspectives as briefly as possible but also show students how people argue in the world (successfully or not). Even for students who were already aware of the issues, the Tweets piqued their interest.
- I then asked students to note how they personally feel about the issue right now, given what they’ve just seen or heard elsewhere. However, I asked them to use the following template to do so: As someone who is ______ (identity), I see _______ (issue) with/as _______ (opinion or perspective) because in my experience, _______ (support). My hope is for students not just to have an opinion, but to also acknowledge the ways in which our opinions are shaped by our identities and experiences. (I wrote more about using this template model HERE.)
- Next, I gave students the following two editorials, which represent the two major sides of the issue and which I also found through my social media feeds (Note that there are some language issues in each piece, but other comparable texts could be easily found online):
- “Staring Down Sexism: Fearless Girl Should Stay” in the Toledo Blade, April 4
- “The Charging Bull Sculptor is Right: Fearless Girl Should Go” in Slate.com, April 14
- I asked students to read and annotate for key points. Because we’d been studying argument, students could evaluate the strength of evidence and reasoning, note key rhetorical strategies, and point out logical fallacies.
- To summarize, I asked students to narrow down the issues for both sides into a binary by completing the following template: “The issue here comes down to ______ v. ______.” Here are some of their responses. The issue comes down to the importance of inspiring women’s rights v. the rights of an artist in how his art is interpreted; popular opinion v. individual freedom; a symbol of female empowerment and strength v. the wrong type of feminism; free speech v. free speech. As you can see, they were varied but useful in seeing how we distill complex issues to get to what’s at stake (for better or worse). I forced students to think in terms of a binary.
- With only a few minutes left in class, and presented with only these binary opinions, I then gave students another text, a blog post written by Greg Fallis, a photographer and writing teacher at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. The piece, titled “Seriously, this guy has a point,” had been circulating on all of my social media feeds. This piece resists the binaries of should she stay v. should she go and tries to find a middle ground. It was this piece that actually inspired me to have my students read more on Fearless Girl.
Unfortunately, class ended before we could more fully deconstruct the piece, but we’ll take some time over the next few days to do that. The piece serves as a wonderful mentor text for students for a qualified argument. Fallis does what I want my students to be able to do—he thoughtfully and respectfully considers both sides and rather than pass judgement, he asks questions. In the opening, he comments on the tendency of those using social media not to listen to one another, or not to read deeply enough into the issues. So he did his own research to learn more. And ultimately—and perhaps most importantly for our students to see—he acknowledges the complexities. Fallis, unlike a 140-character Tweet, noted how the two sides aren’t mutually exclusive; he tries to find the spaces where nuance can still live in a binary world. Don’t we want all our students to be able to do that?
Where to go from here: Text Pairings
As we approach the end of the year, like our students, we may feel tired and worn. But I’ve always found the end of the year to be a perfect time to pilot something new for next year. Trying something new, especially something you’re excited to teach, can be energizing. If non-fiction hasn’t been a consistent piece of text study this year, there’s no need to drop everything to create a new unit on argument. But we can take the literature we do study and supplement it with relevant non-fiction works.
Fiction and non-fiction, like poetry and prose, often work best together. If students read a text like Richard Wright’s Native Son, perhaps pair it with Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Or as I suggested to my 9th graders yesterday, read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime after Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Or if there’s not time for a full length book, excerpts will do as will articles. Students could read the Atlantic article, “Is Google Making us Stoopid?” with Dave Egger’s The Circle.
I became an English teacher because yes, I loved literature. I loved Hamlet and Gatsby and Scout. But it wasn’t until I started to actively read the news, essays and editorials, that I could make more authentic connections between myself, the world, and the literature I was reading. As the texts in the world our students confront become increasingly complex—and social and multimodal—let’s try to make spaces for students in our classrooms to engage with them, fearlessly.
What are your thoughts? Do you have ideas for how to help students read the world? We’d love to hear about them—please comment below!
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature, AP English Language & Composition, and AP Seminar at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. In addition to being a PAWLP Co-Director, she is also a 2016-18 Heinemann Fellow. She can be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia and her website, triciaebarvia.org.