Thoughtful professional book for middle and high school ELA teachers

Have you read any teacher books lately that stimulated you to take activities right into your classroom?  A Sea of Troubles is that kind of book.  


The Premise:

The authors challenge teachers to dig into themes, to explore social issues that are as relevant to us today as they were in these classic plays and novels.  Their focus is on "otherness", how we form our identity, and what social constructs keep it aligned.

Which is pretty much the premise of every conflict in fiction, isn't it?

Having explored that, they examine nonfiction resources to explore where society stands on those issues.

The Topics:
  • Being an "other" or making someone else feel it with The Merchant of Venice
  • Systemic racial injustice with A Raisin in the Sun
  • Power and its abuse with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • Authoritarianism with Animal Farm and 1984
  • Genocide and Ethnic internment with Night and Farewell to Manzanar
  • Gender inequality with A Handmaid's Tale
  • Passionate teenagers and where we learn values with Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird
The ideas in this book could be used as the basis for many lesson plans, given the resources provided.

Getting Started:

Before you begin reading, have your students explore what "otherness" means for them.  Making that connection is super helpful as they explore a character's motivations.

"Otherness is something we all a one time or another will feel, and, equally true, something we will all, at one time or another, participate in ourselves...Evolutionarily, it made sense for survival to know to which group you belonged, and to which you did not...This tribalism was not only related to safety; we learn, in part, who we are by who we are not."

Understanding that concept, students explore who they associate with regarding politics, religion, race, class, gender, and so on.  Who taught them those qualities?  Who or what reinforces them?

Later, they explore a time when they felt like an outsider, and what that felt like.

They look at how fiction is made that much more compelling when the story is being told by a character on the outside than when it's told by someone who has access to everything they want.

After much discussion, they look at nonfiction articles that touch on those same concepts of "otherness" that they've explored in fiction.  Finally, students are challenged to respond to a prompt through writing, posters, or other activities.

All of the activities are engaging would pull students in to more closely read, analyze, and perhaps challenge characters' motivations.  Students would come to a better understanding of their own humanity through this kind of reading and analysis.

Gut Reaction:

I really liked that Elizabeth James and B. H. James (former and current high school teachers) provide lots of examples to support the exploration of these topics.  It made me want to reread some of these classics using their insights to guide me. 

I liked many of the final essay questions that required students to pull together all they had learned, and I appreciated the examples that the authors provided, from posters to essays.

This book was clearly written for middle and high school teachers, perhaps even college professors.  But I think there are aspects that, "gentled down" would be appropriate places of exploration for 5th and 6th graders, using age-appropriate texts.

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