“A Sea of Troubles” Offers Text Pairings for Greater Relevance

But facilitating lessons in civility is the cherry on top

Read any of these texts in your classroom?

To Kill A Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, Romeo and Juliet, The Handmaid’s Tale, Night, Farewell to Manzanar, 1984, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Animal Farm?

If these books are on your classroom shelves, A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality by Elizabeth James and B. H. James will provide concrete ways to combine these classics with innovative informational texts to build relevancy and timeliness into the books you assign.

A Sea of Troubles book cover

In the preface, under the subtitle “The Purpose of This Book,” the authors write:

“The specific image of a sea of troubles, from Shakespeare’s most famous speech, still resonates today. Scrolling on one’s phone, absorbing the injustice and calamity around us, can feel isolating and overwhelming. What is the individual to do? How do we not get dragged under? … as English teachers, do we simply suffer those troubles and carry on as usual, or do we, within the context of the work of an English course, take arms? … What if we could use the texts in book rooms across America and reimagine an English classroom that very purposefully tied beautiful, compelling literary arts with the real world around us, pairing those literary texts with informative nonfiction that could enhance our understanding of those texts and of our current besieged world?”

A Sea of Troubles | Elizabeth James and B. H. James

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of current day connection that I want for my students. After all, it’s always my goal — an absolute need even — to make the literature we read relevant, significant, and practical… to make it personally matter to my students.

Students listening to teacher
Photo: Unsplash

Essentially a book of lesson plans that shed light on social inequality themes in classroom literary favorites, I would venture the strategies can be adapted for other texts as well. Chapters also include detailed plans for activities, discussions, essay prompts, student-written mentors, and lists of resources.

Below I’ve provided a few chapter titles from the book plus one informational text (there are others) utilized by the authors in the lessons and activities.

  • “Syntactical Othering and The Merchant of Venice” (paired with the TED Talk “Racism Has a Cost for Everyone” by Heather McGhee)
  • “Systemic Racial Injustice in A Raisin in the Sun” (paired with “The Case for Reparations” Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic)
  • “Abuses of Power in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (paired with “What Power Does to Your Brain and Your Body” by Hilary Brueck in Business Insider)
  • “Genocide and Ethnic Internment in Night and Farewell to Manzanar” (paired with “Facing Criticism Over Muslim Camps, China Says: What’s the Problem?” by Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy of The New York Times)
  • “Gender Inequality and The Handmaid’s Tale” (paired with “Few Women Run the Nation’s School Districts. Why?” by Denisa Superville in Education Week)

Hmmmm. So much to ponder! The titles alone reveal how curated literature pairings can foster deeper thinking and discussion.

But there’s more to this book than what it touts on the cover.

True, while the book does provide text pairings for greater relevance, it also underscores the need to teach civility, to engage students in controversial yet collegial discussions. For example, in an intertextual comparison between To Kill A Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale, the authors write:

“Students (male and female) need stories that explore the female experience, and Scout Finch’s idyllic childhood just isn’t enough. This may be potentially divisive. Do it anyway. We need a generation of students who can talk to each other and make headway, particularly on topics such as the Equal Rights Amendment, the wage gap, sexual assault, and abortion.” 

Indeed, teaching civil discussion skills is needed now more than ever, given that many teens 1) are more comfortable texting than talking and 2) are increasingly dependent on social media where anonymity fuels misunderstandings and hostilities.

However, to prevent classrooms from becoming tinder boxes of controversy, the authors suggest teachers explicitly tell students, “This unit will not have a political agenda. This unit will strive to turn down the noise and immediate, visceral, knee-jerk reactions, and get us each to a place where we can understand both sides of an argument about which we may feel very strongly.”

Authors Elizabeth and B. H. James are both high school English teachers. Teachinglit.org has more information.

I think that sort of directness will be needed when using this book, and I’m glad the authors have addressed and provided it. To make our literature selections relevant for living in today’s world, we must also provide the scaffolding that allows our students’ “civility skill sets” to develop so civil discussions can result.

Yes, A Sea of Troubles performs the task touted on the cover: it shows how to use innovative text pairings for greater relevancy in contemporary times. However, its untouted task, facilitating lessons in civility, is the cherry on top.

Thanks for reading again this week! Please leave a comment below on my Contact page. Have a great July!

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