By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan, teachers
We work hard every day at being comfortable, at fitting in, but real energy in the classroom comes in discomfort. When we are uncomfortable, we’re forced to become creative so genuine learning can happen. Our classrooms have to be places where we operate on ideas and energy that push the windows open for new breezes of thought.
Usually teachers work to make the classroom comfortable for students, but when we make students too comfortable for the sake of academia, we stifle students’ creativity and learning. When we are judiciously uncomfortable, we grow in creativity and good things begin to happen.
Our colleague, Carley, offers this satiric advice: “Make school more like TV.” She was frustrated when she said it because she knew when we perform for our students, which is what teachers usually do, there is unproductive stress. Performance suggests perfection. Perfection stifles us and takes risk-taking away. It keeps us in line. Perfection is exhausting and eventually boring because it has to be exact.
Creating releases us and allows us to be aware of our surroundings and to interact with our content, with our students. When there’s creating, there’s a sense of wonder because we don’t know what the product is going to look like, but we can live with the product or we can change it because it’s organic and evolving.
As we step into creating instead of performing, we become learners in our classrooms, developing into an authentic part of the classroom—not just the dispensers of knowledge and the graders of essays but the recipients of all the good thinking that’s emerging. Our students teach us, and that’s a healthy school environment. This is true reciprocal teaching.
Performance is so tempting because that’s how we’ve been taught, but, frankly, it’s a model that doesn’t work.
We turn our attention to The Great Gatsby for our first parallel of literature into action. Let’s face it, Fitzgerald’s novel is happening and sexy now, thanks to director Baz Luhrmann. If we perform The Great Gatsby in our classrooms, we dissect it and decide whether or not the American Dream is dead; we vote as to whether God is relevant or if we even care; we dissect theme, motif, character, climax, and we totally miss the point of the novel. But we outperformed ourselves.
By the way, if we think that the American Dream is dead, we’ve truly missed the point of The Great Gatsby —the Buchanans lack social conscious, which leads to their downfall. Fitzgerald isn’t just pulling our attention to decay—he’s pointing to a pathway out of decay and into a better sense of humanity. We take his message to heart.
Check out this review of Luhrmann’s Gatsby:
What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball. — Variety
While we won’t be showing this entire movie in our classes, we will show scenes to support Variety’s criticism of Luhrmann’s vision. We’ll also follow teacher Kelly Gallagher’s advice from Teaching Adolescent Writers to compare one pivotal scene from the book and the two movie versions.
As we embrace creativity in our classrooms, we can do all the English teacher moves from above, but we’ll puzzle over what Fitzgerald was saying about humanity and why his message is important now, almost 90 years later. For example:
Hunger in Oregon:
- 270,000 people per month eat meals from emergency food boxes (that’s half of Portland’s population).
- Of those, 92,000 are children.
- Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, emergency food box distribution has increased 41 percent.
- Profiles of Poverty and Hunger in Oregon
- A Snapshot of Hunger in Oregon
If we don’t act, we are Daisy; we are Tom. If our hearts are not touched by the wealth and apathy of that generation and the awareness of our own wealth and apathy, we, too, are the Lost Generation.
Ok, enough guilt. So what can we do?
- Draw students’ awareness to the parallel issues from the novel to our society—we’ve given examples above.
- For students whose families don’t talk about social issues, you have to provide the context to help build their understanding. Here’s how we do this:
Oh, and because we’ve gotten a bit rubric-happy, here’s a proficiency-based scoring guide for our new standard of discomfort:
|Comfort zone||Medium comfort zone||Discomfort zone|
Note—we don’t tell you all the English teacher moves for The Great Gatsby because there’s good information already available for that. We also don’t give you a handful of articles to use in drawing students’ minds to financial inequities in our society because the articles change constantly, and the articles will find you once you begin daily reading and wave goodbye to performing.
Not sure how incorporate writing and conversation into your classroom? Consider taking a National Writing Project course to learn more about integrating writing into your content (Oregon Writing Project).
Also, see Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This. We’ve learned a lot from our colleague, Kimberly Hill Campbell’s books (and classes, if you’re in the Portland area): Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay and Less is More.
You may have to get uncomfortable in trusting that you can do this work, that you can rely on your literacy to help you ease the way for your students. Know that while we deeply trust our creative processes, we’re also dedicated readers, which allows an alchemy of our thinking and the appearances of just the right article, poem, photo, or video clip.
We believe the same will be true for you, but you’ll have to be aware, alert, and ready to act. Tell us how it went for you—the good, the bad, and the revisions.
- How Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ Is Spreading the American Dream (celebuzz.com)
- StyleBlazer Exclusive: Catherine Martin Talks Designing “The Great Gatsby” (styleblazer.com)