225. A Sea of Troubles

Students sometimes see our courses as abstract, irrelevant, and separate from their lives. In this episode, Bill and Elizabeth James join us to discuss a teaching approach that explicitly connects literature with contemporary culture and students’ lived experiences. Bill and Elizabeth are both public high school teachers in Stockton, California, and the authors of A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality.



John: Students sometimes see our courses as abstract, irrelevant, and separate from their lives. In this episode, we discuss a teaching approach that explicitly connects literature with contemporary culture and students’ lived experiences.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners..


John: Our guests today are Bill and Elizabeth James. They are both public high school teachers in Stockton, California, and the authors of A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality. Welcome, Bill. And Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thank you for having us.

Bill: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Are you drinking tea?

Elizabeth: Coffee.

Bill: Coffee. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Oh, a coffee pair, I see, mm hmm… best kind of tea ever.

John: Coffee has been dominating our recent podcasts.

Rebecca: It has been.

Elizabeth: Ours is just pure parental desperation. We’re in the last leg of December and teachers and everything. So, I’m pretty sure it’s Folgers. And it’s a necessity.

Rebecca: Do you feel awake then?

Elizabeth: Indeed. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: And, while this is being released a little bit later, we’re recording it during the week before Christmas, so I’m drinking Christmas tea here.

Rebecca: Today, I have a Blue Sapphire, which is a black blend.

John: So we’ve invited you here to discuss A Sea of Troubles. Could you tell us how this book project came about?

Elizabeth: Phil and I are a married couple that also teach at the same high school, and that’s where we met. So when the pandemic started, we were trying to balance home life, and we’ve got two little kids here, and a plague and the move to Zoom teaching, and in the midst of all this there was still the conversation of will the spring exams still be happening, those state tests and what will we do for the kids? …which seems silly, and sort of looking at the tree instead of the forest situation, but Bill had the idea that it spoke to a larger issue of this question in education of incorporating nonfiction. So there was this weird situation where the world was nothing but nonfiction stories of very important things that everybody needed to understand right now, and that the stakes were very, very high. And then we were prepping our students with “here’s an excerpt from a brochure from Yosemite National Park. This will be how you know whether or not you can investigate a nonfiction text.” It’s like, well, one of these things is not like the other. So, it started with his pitch to me was: “It’s like Hamlet, you know, it’s the sea of troubles. We’re just looking at the sea of troubles. What if we just acknowledge that reality?” And then the second half of that is, as long as we’ve known each other, one of the things that has really bonded us as teammates and teachers is this true belief that literature is the way to get kids hooked and improve with their reading and writing and critical thinking, and that all of the se, in our estimation, oftentimes really boring, condescending, sort of lowest common denominator tasks. That’s how you lose kids, you don’t get them. So we had fought this nonfiction incorporation, kind of our whole career being like, “You don’t need it, because if you’re doing literature right, you’ll get all that other stuff.” For once, it seemed like what if we just put all of the really low bar stuff all the way to the side and said, teach Romeo and Juliet, but let’s also talk about the tragedy of growing up and Bildungsroman, and all of these sorts of things that kids are really going to connect with and that are going to serve them well [LAUGHTER] with encountering nonfiction texts. So we tried to bridge that gap and sort of saw a natural marriage there and an opportunity for it, and then started writing furiously from that point forward.

Rebecca: One of the things I really like about this book is the guidance provided around some very specific activities. Can you talk a little bit about how each of the chapters is structured?

Bill: Sure, each chapter pairs a pretty commonly taught literary text that’s probably in schools textbook rooms, probably available, probably being taught at that school, and then pairs that work with a current social issue, a sort of universal social issue that somehow is reflected in that book even if the book is centuries old, and sort of builds a unit around that pairing. For example, we pair Merchant of Venice with racial injustice, A Raisin in the Sun with socioeconomic injustice, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with abuse of power, and so on and so forth.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I’m so glad we’re here today, because one of the sort of unintended consequences is people, just skimming through, and there’s this idea of like, “Well, this is what I should do with Romeo and Juliet or with To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s not that at all.” It’s just reimagining these iconic texts that we’ve been teaching for decades now in classrooms, and keeping them fresh and applicable to the world around us. So nothing is mandated as if it should be this, it’s just us, like good teachers, modeling possibilities. And what we hope happens is teachers are welcome to use whatever they want from it, but that it sets them on fire to really look at their syllabus, and throw the baby out with the bathwater and just start again with what these books that they’ve been teaching forever could do and how they could reflect the world today around them and their students.

John: And making those connections for students should make those texts come alive in ways that traditional instruction is not very likely to do. How did you select the specific social issues that you’re using for those connections?

Elizabeth: Yeah, it was hard, actually, in the last leg of it, there’s the part when you’re writing a book where you go, “I had an idea, not a book, leave me alone…” you know, there’s no way we’re going to get this done. By the time it went off to the publisher, we reached out to Rowman and Littlefield and said, “We’ve got an idea. What if we double the length of it? Turns out, we have five extra chapters.” And they said, “You can do a second volume, but we can’t do this this term.” We had to cut a lot we had. My favorite one that we cut, that I hope comes back in some sort of later iteration, is we had Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao paired with Woman Warrior, and it was going to be issues of immigration and first-generation versus second-generation issues. That’s something our student population is intimately concerned with, and all kinds of stuff. At the end, we were looking for things that were most globally applicable. Would you say that’s right?

Bill: Yeah, I think so.

Elizabeth: Yeah. It felt almost arbitrary, what landed, because for the past couple of years, it’s felt like everything is that important right now, so it was hard to narrow it down. I hope that there’s a second book in the near future. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yeah. I think at some point we realized that we were following a couple threads, one being otherness and one being abuse of power, and the issues kind of fall into one of those threads.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about otherness? That was something that I had picked up on as well. Can you talk about why otherness is important to explore in a writing or a literature class?

Elizabeth: Sure, it wasn’t something I encountered until my post-grad work. I started teaching when I was 23, and feeling my way through the dark, like all sorts of new teachers. I remember thinking, “Well, that makes sense.” I didn’t know there was a name for this sort of common denominator here. And then once I started reading more about it, and studying and writing about it, it just seemed like it spoke to so many things. So I often teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and that’s a really great one because it’s on so many levels, an issue of otherness. That didn’t make it into the book because I don’t think I could keep myself to a chapter talking about Beloved but that was the book I used to introduce it to with students, and it resonated so quickly and clearly to a roomful of teenagers. That feeling of implicit and visible power structures that were dominating their lives but slippery, and sometimes could not be held to account and they had all had a coach or a teacher or a friend group that was sort of living through othering one or many people, but they didn’t have the language for it yet. So it became this very natural framework for so much literature, not all of it, but so much of it could be taught through there. And what I loved about the framework is it created this humanity to these books that had been hard to get to. For instance, twitter, generally speaking, is very mad at The Great Gatsby recently. I don’t know if you guys have followed this, like, why are we still teaching this book? And I think those conversations are valid, and we should have those conversations, but my students who… we’re a title one school, they’re socioeconomically disadvantaged, they’re a majority immigrant population. They relate to The Great Gatsby from 100 years ago, and what they connect to at a gut level is that feeling of he’s done everything right, and he’s still being kept out of the clubhouse. Jay Gatsby is a hero and a fool all in one and look at how they’re othering him and it doesn’t matter that the houses don’t match, the yearning for your merit being enough to bring you in, does match and they still highly connect to it. They believe that it is then a tragedy that they are reading and they recognize it as a tragedy. And so that’s the sort of reimagining that we hope teachers start doing. As we get into these conversations, and school boards are going crazy about, don’t show this to my kid, and this is what’s wrong, and all of the sort of noise that is happening all of a sudden around education. What can students learn and how is it reflecting the world around them? That should be the first and the last beat of that conversation as far as I’m concerned

John: How do you recommend introducing the concept of otherness to students?

Elizabeth: Well, the exercise that’s in the book, and I like this one, is just a quick write, and I say: Write, not for a grade or anything, but just as clearly as you can, write about a time that you felt othered, that you felt like you were being excluded. It can be at a macro level, or a micro level, write it in first-person present tense, it’s happening right now, and focus on concrete details.” And they do and the roomful of teenagers tells their sad story about the thing that happened to them that changed their life, and sometimes we share out or sometimes I say, “Thumbs up if it was this, or just sort of those broad stroke things, and the room just sort of lights up going, “Yes, I too, have been wronged. I too have been excluded and it is tragic, and finally I’m seen.” And I have them flip the paper over and I say, “Okay, we’re going to do it again, this time, write about a time you othered somebody else, passively or actively, including but not limited to, you watched it happen, and you let it happen. Write about that.” And every time a roomful of 35 kids, it’s that, “oh no” kind of recognition, [LAUGHTER] passing their face, and they all have a story to tell about that too. And they never think about that story. And they never connect their participation in othering as also tragic. So it becomes this very natural discussion of “How can this be a universal experience? How can everybody go through it and recognize the hurt of it, and yet, simultaneously, everybody participate in it to another person? Why do we not learn this lesson? Why is this, throughout time and space?” You know, when we study Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, we’re going to see it and we’re going to see it in Junot Diaz, or whatever contemporary stories are in The New Yorker this week, there’s still issues of otherness. Why can’t people move past doing this to each other? And then that creates a sort of shared humanity around whatever unit we’re going into, and it seems to be pretty powerful for kids.

Bill: Something else we try to come back to a lot in the book is the use of language in the service of otherness and how different ways that language, from propaganda posters to a tweet, can be used to “other” groups of people, and the effect of that. Which just seems like something important for the kids to be able to recognize and be aware of.

Rebecca: And probably it’s something they hadn’t considered previously. I know that as I was reading through the examples, and although I’m not an English or literature teacher, I do teach in the arts, and I was thinking about all the ways that the same kinds of things can be done with other media.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, and that’s really the goal. I mean, I would love them all to be students of literature, and get their doctorate in it. I want them all in elbow patches standing at a lectern, someplace, loving it, but on the other hand, I would sure settle for the hundreds of kids we get to teach each year going out into their communities and recognizing when they are being manipulated, and when somebody has figured out a pattern to enact action, and that they can recognize that and then critically consider whether or not they agree with that or not, themselves, instead of being swept up in repetition or phrasing or syntax. Just because it gets said a lot doesn’t make it true, which is something they’re coming to.

John: Could you give us some other examples of some of the pairings between literature and contemporary issues.

Bill: Another chapter is on authoritarianism, and pairs 1984 and Animal Farm with that issue, and the idea behind that one is that 1984 is a book that we’ve taught for over a decade, but for many years we would teach the book through a literary lens. We would usually have some culminating assessment where the students write their own dystopian short story, or they do research on totalitarianism in the 20th century. Then around 2018, it just became apparent that we need to be looking at these leaders around the world who are just repeating exactly what is in this book, and students need to be researching that, and making those connections. I think the first time I did it, I did that version of the unit. It was right after Jamal Khashoggi had been killed. So we had kids presenting on that and using information that had come out that day in their presentation and connecting it to the novel.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it was really powerful because people were running up to Bill being like, “We need 15 minutes cause we’re reading this article, and we have to cross-reference it. So, they had to change their presentation because it was happening in real time. What a beautiful example of: “We have Orwell’s text, and we can still be English teachers teaching 1984.” We can still do our exercise on character foils, and the three-act structure and we can still discuss syntax and ironic juxtaposition and we can do all of the sort of English teachery things we need, but that does not mean we need to sacrifice how the art speaks to the world and how the world speaks to the art which is so much more engaging for students and arguably so much more important.”

Bill: We also have a chapter on genocide and ethnic internment in Night and Farewell to Manzanar and we have gender inequality in The Handmaid’s Tale, and then our last chapter is sort of more abstract. It’s taking To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet, and then looking at just the tragedy of growing up.

Elizabeth: I think that’s landed as my favorite, maybe primarily because when you’re an English teacher, you know you can count on having to do your Gatsby unit, and your Romeo and Juliet unit, and your Mockingbird unit. I had started to feel really stale in all three of those things and feel like, “Ok, this is the part where I do this tap dance… then they’ll say this, and then I’ll do that, and I’ll say…” and I love teaching, in part, because if it ever feels stale, you just get to recreate what the job is, which is great. But, this is a lens that I found, to begin with, with Romeo and Juliet, and it just made so much sense, the thing that kids will say is they’re just stupid. They’re not really in love, it’s lust. Why are we still reading the story and calling it a tragedy if it’s just two dumb teenagers? And, the conversation became: “But they didn’t know that. So does it matter? If it feels real to them, does it matter?” Some of the nonfiction that we paired was studies that said that for a teenager falling in love does the same thing to the brain chemistry as doing cocaine. That it feels like a high, that it creates a physical high to that extreme, and they were reading this biochemical research about brain activity in teenagers. And then it became this question of, “Well, what’s real anyway?” We can see this, because we have the prologue in the beginning, saying that there’s gonna be blood on the floor at the end. They don’t know that. They are right in their present tense, doing the best they can. Kids really appreciated the dignity that that gave things that they were experiencing in their lives right now. Because they might be going to math class, high on love cocaine, and they can’t learn statistics that day. I mean, that is what’s happening, it’s such a weird time to be alive, and to give them sort of the language to discuss how distracting and distracted and very real it is to them. And then the other thing we talked about was the secondary storyline in that play and Mockingbird is growing out of relationships, childhood intimacies, and we paid a lot of attention to Romeo and Mercutio, who are established as best buds in the beginning and the tragedy of Romeo just not confiding in his friend yet. He’s become a man who’s in love with a woman and partner there, but Mercutio cannot understand why truth is not being told… the betrayal of an intimate friendship as one person grows past needing that friendship as their primary relationship in their life. And I’m watching kids faces, just really soak it in because then the bell rings, and they go to lunch, and they live a manifestation of watching their friend go to the boyfriend and girlfriend and leave them alone at the table, and the pain of that. All of a sudden Mercutio picking a fight to prove his loyalty, it makes so much more sense. I’m not fighting with these kids who are below grade level, who are struggling with grammar and stuff. I do not have to decode the Shakespearean language, they can find it in that big fight scene, and it is moving them. So it wasn’t necessarily a social issue. But we wanted to put it in there as a universal experience. It’s both necessary to go through the tragedy of leaving childhood behind, but it is a tragedy, and something does sort of die and never come back. It would be terrible if it didn’t happen, but it’s got to happen. And then in the midst of COVID, and lockdown and going to school on Zoom, one of the tragedies for us was just watching all of these students and even our own children, recognizing the world was a scary place, and the stakes were high and losing some of their childhood as a result of it, because the world was closing in. So we wanted to include that chapter to give voice to that sort of unspoken tragedy of how do you stay a kid in this world during this time?

Bill: And another angle to that chapter is, Jim Finch is 12 years old and Juliet is 14 years old. So we’re usually teaching these works to students about that age, and just seeing those characters, particularly Jim Finch, just realize the ugliness of the world that the grown ups have given them and have created for them. I think that’s pretty relevant to our students as well. One of the connections we make in the book is to the students in Parkland.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we end the book with a discussion of the Parkland students, the survivors who went to school that day, and so many before them, and probably so many after them who are going to have to deal with this reality of this place of learning colliding with the world around them that is so adult and so unimaginable. They’re going to have to realize that the two worlds collide, there’s no getting out of that. We ended the book with them because it was this metaphor for what we think we need to give kids. Not a world full of tragedy, but an absolute belief that they’re ready to encounter the world as it is, and an absolute belief that they are smart enough to engage in the world around them today right now. That they are worthy of having a seat at the table. That they can recognize change that needs to happen, and that they have the power to enact change, and that the world needs to give them that recognition and that dignity. That the world needs more kids who are ready to encounter the sea of troubles, and [LAUGHTER] whether or not the kids are ready, the sea of troubles is waiting for them. So we’ve never had a classroom full of students that we didn’t think, “Oh, okay, we’ll be okay. Look, who’s coming.” You know, it’s the thing that makes it the best job in the world, hour after hour, just a whole new batch of wonderful kids walks in the door that you trust so much, and that you just want the best for, but sometimes the best isn’t waiting. So we really wanted to create a book that was for teachers, but also spoke to what we thought students needed and deserved. I wish that we could protect them from the tragedy of growing up, but I don’t think we can. So now we’ve got to trust that they’re ready to meet it and do everything we can in service of that.

John: And I think this book helped prepare them for that yourself.

Rebecca: Yeah, I really love the agency that is afforded to students throughout the book, and in the way that you’re even speaking about enacting some of these kinds of lessons in class.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think that’s really important. We try to anchor everything on inquiry based, you know, not just to stand and deliver, but to give the foundation and then say, “Trust your brains, go find it. Show me what you got.” That’s the other part that just makes it great. I tell students, “We’re not doing language arts.” I mean, that’s part of it, but we’re studying fine art. And so, art speaks to your audience, and that’s going to change and evolve. Your reaction to the art is significant and important. By the end of the term, we’re always like: “Well, what did you think of it? Now, critique it. You have the language for it, and the ability to do that, like a scholar, and this art is for you. It’s not for you to recite what I told you it was about.” So that’s always my favorite part where they come in hot with their opinions about it.

Rebecca: So you’ve given us a lot of examples in a high school or middle school context. Can you talk a bit about how we might use some of these strategies in a college setting?

Elizabeth: Yeah. I teach it to a junior college as well. I think it’s almost a lens more structured for university study. So sometimes the content gets more easily absorbed and it’s much less awkward to discuss with people who are no longer living with their parents. So, for instance, I just wrapped up a Handmaid’s Tale unit at the college I work at. One of the tasks was to find… because we were still on online learning,you know, discussion boards and trying to keep it relevant and real time and everything… post an article from the last two weeks, anywhere around the world, where you see something “handmade-y” going on around the world. Something that sounds like it could happen in Gilead, or certainly Gilead would go: “We should try that.” And then we’ll have a discussion about it online. And everybody came up with everything, and I would love to say, “these were not domestic articles” …some of them were. And it created a lot of buy-in for “I’m taking my English 101 course. I’m marching through this thing I have to do for my degree, but at the same time, it’s a good example of a beautiful piece of art, so beautifully written, really compelling, and constantly evolving to reflect the world around us.” Students really got into it. I would have just scrolled past that story on twitter, I would not have even opened. It would’ve just been like another piece of noise to bum me out. But, then to engage with it and see it’s sort of global context was eye opening to them and that was really, really powerful. I think it’s weird the books we decide to teach at high school vs. college. It’s always seemed bizarre to me that Romeo and Juliet comes up when kids are freshmen. I mean, it’s very racy stuff. I’m comfortable with it, but you could also certainly teach it at university level. So we’ve tried to put in iconic books that you would get throughout the continuum of education to speak to teachers. We want it to be usable to teachers wherever they are. So there’s this sort of Farewell to Manzanar and To Kill a Mockingbird, but then there’s also One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Handmaid’s Tale and stuff like that that you wouldn’t see until you were older, and could speak to a number of issues. But, hopefully, teachers won’t feel like it’s written just for high school. I don’t think it is. At university, you have so much more freedom in your syllabus to really pick a lens and go for it. So I hope college teachers pick it up and give it a shot.

Bill: On the other end of the spectrum, Liz teaches at the college level, and she’s using a lot of this same stuff. She teaches Merchant of Venice and Handmaid’s Tale in her English 101. Then on the other end, I teach a weird school where we have middle school kids and high school kids. So I teach high school and middle school. So like, for example, our entire Night and Farewell to Manzanar chapter is actually an eighth grade unit. So I think we’ve got stuff for middle school, high school, and college level.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we purposefully did not put what grade each unit was used for, because we want teachers to imagine how it can reflect their classroom and their students. It’s weird to put it out there like “This is how we do it” because the whole point of the book is there’s an idea that nonfiction standards can be and should be met in the classroom, but it must be authentic, and it shouldn’t be superficial, and assuming that they can’t read or they can’t think. Let’s have it reflect the world and our current unit. So we wanted to make sure that we just modeled the idea, and our hope is anybody who purchases or reads the book is going: “You know what that makes me think of is this unit that I do that is not in this book, but what if I… fill in the blank…” and sort of empowers them to reimagine what the classroom can be in the 21st century, without leaving the art behind? The kids love the art and they need the art too, right, Rebecca?

Rebecca: Definitely.

Elizabeth: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s what I was thinking. Yeah. While I was reading the book I, and browsing through the various chapters, I was really in that space thinking, “Wow, this is a really great way to bring value to the arts, which often are devalued and a way to better communicate how the arts actually help us understand the world around us, because it makes it so explicit.”

Elizabeth: Yeah.

John: And I think more generally, this approach could be more productively used in pretty much any discipline so that people are not studying the content of their discipline in an abstract context, but relating it to things in the world around them and I think it’s something that we probably all should try to do a little bit more of.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we’ve been recently running some professional development workshops for other content areas of how to bring in current nonfiction texts, to discuss the content they have. People have been on board with it. I thought we were going to really struggle in the math and sciences, but it turns out, when you start that conversation, there’s so much. The problem is where’s the time and there’s only so many minutes and everything feels so finite, but the content of real-world applicability of these concepts in the sciences, and, I mean, climate alone. The teachers were really enjoying the idea of “the reason we learn basic chemistry is because it has these effects later on.” So I’m getting kind of excited to talk to a broader audience of educators about it, I think it could be very cool.

Rebecca: I also like kind of the opposite of that. Maybe a space that’s already very focused on nonfiction, and bringing in fiction as a way to explore through story and bring some of the concepts to life and see them in context. So sometimes we’re not always able to do something that’s actually in real life or have that specific example or it’s hard to envision that without maybe the story world around it.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Fiction can really help with that.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we have a team teacher in the history department that we work with a lot, and we’re constantly pairing up the history syllabus with the literary syllabus, and then doing units where there’s a commonly graded assessment in both classrooms and they have to demonstrate skills from both disciplines. The students always say they learned so much more when they took those sort of fake parameters off of “I’m in history class, and I do this, I’m in English class, and I do that.” When one starts reflecting the other, it really opens up the world to them and is the best learning that they get.

Rebecca: Yeah. So you’ve talked a little bit about some culminating projects and assessments that you’ve recommended in relationship to these literary pairings? Can you talk about maybe one other example?

Bill: Sure, some of our chapters just have a traditional essay as a culminating project or a culminating assignment, but one example would be our Night and Farewell to Manzinar chapter. It ends with an awareness campaign for what is happening to the Rohingya and to the Uighur in Myanmar and China respectively. So the the unit obviously, is about the Holocaust and it’s about Japanese-American internment in World War II. The students research those topics as they’re reading the books. Then of course, we read those books through a literary lens, but then it ends with looking at what is happening today in these particular countries to these particular groups of people. It’s a very interesting unit because I did it two years ago before the pandemic, and then I’m doing it again right now. In both cases, I was able to use articles that were published that day in class. Last week, we did an article that was published that day about the Rohingya suing Facebook for I believe, I think it was $150 billion for not suppressing hate speech enough, and leading to people losing their lives. The idea behind it is students create a presentation, create the visual aids for an awareness campaign on our campus, with the idea that most people don’t know about these atrocities that are happening right now in our world. And then they do it in class for a grade, but then when they go out. We get other teachers to sign up and they go to other classes in other disciplines and do the presentations. They do them at department meetings on department meeting days. They go off to different departments and do it for teachers. It’s a real awareness campaign. In the end, we have posters around the campus, and it’s a fun project. It’s real world-y, and it’s a nice alternative to the essay.

Elizabeth: Yeah, and it teaches advocacy and that their voice matters, and that they have information that the world needs to hear about.

John: One of the other examples, as you mentioned, in your book is abuse of power. How could you possibly have found any contemporaneous examples of that?

Elizabeth: You know, I’m telling ya… The problem was, what to put in and what not to put in. And like we said at the beginning, we pitched a two volume edition right off the bat, because how does one choose? In the text we included a chapter that uses One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I chose that one because I remember seeing that movie, and weeping and absolutely knowing McMurphy was a hero, and absolutely knowing nurse Ratchet was a villain. But we started talking about it through the lens of, is anything ever going to happen to nurse Ratchet? Is a boss ever going to know what’s actually going on? What is in her HR file? Probably nothing but commendation. It’s a great text because it speaks to the experience of not having anything tangible to point to wrongdoing, but knowing in your gut, in your soul, that this is not on the up and up and that this is not right, that an abuse of power is taking place. So I would talk to my students about have you ever seen a teacher hunt a kid? From kindergarten to today, have you ever seen a teacher have somebody in their sight that is always getting in trouble, that will get called out for a thing that two people could have done five minutes before or five minutes after, but that kid’s gonna get nailed for it? And every single kid had had a coach or a teacher or a babysitter who they had watched pick on somebody they had power over. Then we looked at a lot of nonfiction articles and research about what power does to the brain. Which was something I was interested in learning about in the past few years… how heady that could be for people and how it often leads to corruption and a lack of empathy, and the inability to imagine the experience of others. We looked at that Stanford Prison Experiment that does show up in college textbooks right away, but my kids hadn’t seen it yet. It was new to them and they couldn’t believe how quickly people bought into pretend roles that a person and a person walk into a room and one becomes a prisoner, and one a big prison guard, and what people will do with a title and a badge. It spoke heavily to that. In the midst of writing that chapter, the George Floyd story happened. I mean, I had a draft of it, and again it sure isn’t the first time this has happened, it won’t be the last time it happens. There’s the tragedy of that. We spoke in my class about the group of people who are on the sidewalk, begging that police officer to get off of his neck… filming it, but nobody rushes him because he’s a cop, you know what I mean? How can he be completely outnumbered… the numbers are not in his favor… of people going: “You have to stop, you have to stop, you’re hurting him.” And because of who he is in society, versus who they are, they can’t save a man’s life. That happened after I had a draft of this. So when we talk about using the art to reflect the world. I didn’t have to bring that connection up, my students brought it up as soon as I opened that Zoom link the next morning. They knew they had just seen a Ratchet. They knew they had just seen a sacrifice, a human sacrifice, in the face of perceived concepts of power and they were moved by it in a way that I’m so glad they were. So we talked about them sort of experiencing it. When I ask them, if they’ve ever seen it, if they’ve ever seen a teacher hunt a kid, most of them have and the next question is, “Well, what did you do about it?” I have yet to have anybody say, I talked to the principal, I wrote a letter, I stayed after class… they don’t do anything, they let it happen… [LAUGHTER] because there is a perceived power structure, and nobody hands out a pamphlet on the first day of school and says: “Be quiet.” All have this implicit messaging that we get from infancy onwards. The other thing that I really like about that unit is we get to talk to kids about anger, which is not something that anybody ever does, and the righteousness of anger. Clearly the destructive qualities of it too. But, Cuckoo’s Nest is a story about people constantly being told to calm down and being called crazy when they get upset. That feels very relevant too, right now. Sometimes, we should get pissed and I think it’s okay to talk to students about that, no matter their age, that some anger exists for a reason, and that anger is a valid emotion. It can destroy things, and you have to be careful of it, but my God, if we can’t get angry at some things, then what are we doing here? Aren’t we all just sort of sedated? Again, this idea of starting from a place of really believing in the dignity and quality of our students, as people, and as people who are absolutely ready to talk about this stuff as adults, because the adult world is encroaching and has encroached, even if we’ve never given voice to it. So that, to me, stays sort of the goal, I think. I didn’t know I knew that when we were writing it but now with some perspective it feels like the goal of the whole text is to demonstrate how proud we are of the work that we get to do almost primarily because we trust the students can do it and trying to show other teachers to grant that grace to students as well and believe in them enough to equip them for that sea of troubles.

John: What was it like time writing this during the pandemic?

Bill: On one hand, you know, it probably benefited us on the amount of time we had at home to work on it. On the other hand, as we’ve talked about before, it’s a book where we’re trying to connect literature to the real world, and just so much kept coming at us in the real world. It just kept shifting these chapters, we’ve got these drafts on Google Docs that we’re just rewriting daily, as the situation underneath it keeps shifting.

Elizabeth: Yeah, our first book, Method to the Madness, was about getting kids just to write and critically think and sort of some strategies for that. And we had a babysitter who could come into the home and watch the children and then we would leave the home and sit at Starbucks for three hours on Sunday and go and go and go and go and then return to our home with our small children. At one point, I took a picture of Bill and I have our laptops sort of balanced precariously on our knees, and there’s like a kid hanging from the tree house and another kid pulling his leg, and I said, I hope it’s a book at the end. This is how this is going, one sentence at a time. Early mornings, late nights, slightly distracted. It’s a blur. I know, we wrote fast, and we were trying to both make it feel timeless and timely. But, we didn’t want it to not make sense five years from now for teachers that pick it up. But, I think everybody just experienced a time warp right? How long did it take? a month? 10 months? I don’t know. I know I was wearing the same sweat pants. [LAUGHTER] But, it was crazy. And then paired with that, just this real belief that we wanted to get it out there quick because whenever we went back to the classroom, we were going to assume that our experience would mirror everybody’s experience of “It can’t be the same anymore. We have to evolve into teaching through this.” So we wanted to get it into as many hands as possible, as everybody makes that weird adjustment.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: What’s next?

Elizabeth: I was exhausted by the time we sent it off, but now I’m pretty pumped about how it’s being received. It’s so cool doing stuff like this, because, again, we work three doors down from each other and we come back to this house. It’s been such a shared experience teaching this stuff and writing about this stuff to see it out in the world and teachers all over the country really enjoying it and starting to use it. It makes me want to dig out that second volume and get all those chapters we cut out and I think I’m ready. I’m almost ready.

Bill: I think that the first book we did together came out in 2016. I think it took a lot and then when we were done, it was like “Okay, now we never have to do that again.”

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Bill: And then it took about two years and I was like “Oh well maybe we have ideas and we’ll do another one and then I guess you’re coming around to that point, again. Because I was after we finished this one, I said “Okay now we never have to do this again.”

John: It sounds like you have a good start at a second volume. So you have some momentum going

Elizabeth: Yeah, we’re not out of troubles yet. I haven’t come to the end of the list.

Rebecca: Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that list has a bottom. [LAUGHTER]

John: …a rising ocean of troubles.

Elizabeth: Indeed. Credit John with our next title. [LAUGHTER]

John: We really enjoyed reading your book and I’d love to see more of this coming out and thank you for joining us.

Elizabeth: Thank you for having us, this is really special

Bill: Yeah, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.