Balancing Perspectives: An Integrative Text Set on Racism and Housing

In my post series about text sets, I’ve outlined research on text sets from cognitive, disciplinary, and critical perspectives.  Each of these perspectives offers specific aims for what a literacy unit’s texts might look like. But how might a teacher bring them together? How can a teacher aim for building cognitive capacity for reading challenging text, disciplinary literacy practices for literary interpretation, and critical consciousness of deep conceptual issues? It's a lot to consider, but below I lay out how a teacher might navigate the intersections of these issues in designing curriculum.

The text set is tied together around the issue of racism and residential segregation in the US in the mid-20th century and today. It’s certainly a rich and complex issue, bringing together historical narratives with powerful literary voices. And it’s also relevant today: while some students may live in racially integrated cities, research from UC Berkeley released this summer shows that 81% of large American cities were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. So it’s a topic poised to engage rich and complex discussions in many US classrooms. Below I lay out a potential architecture for a text set that would intertwine cognitive, disciplinary, and critical goals (part of this thinking comes from a recent article of mine as well).  

An Gateway/Hook/Conceptually Rich Opening Text: The Racial Dot Map

All three text set models suggest that an opening text should set the stage for the unit’s exploration. The Racial Dot Map, produced by researchers at the University of Virginia based on 2010 Census Data, can do so in multiple ways. It’s a scaleable map of the entire US, coded by race.  Cognitively, it serves as an accessible text to hook students’ interest: they can explore their own city and neighborhoods to see actual data on racial composition and compare it to the assumptions they may have drawn from their experiences.  Disciplinarily, the map invites students and teachers to propose scenarios related to a compelling disciplinary question such as “How do the racial compositions of neighborhoods shape characters and settings in literature?”. Critically, it invites students to re-examine assumptions they may have made about the degree and type of racial segregation nationally and locally and invite discussions of how people living in certain neighborhoods experience different realities.  

Ultimately, the map is an easy way for nearly any student to access complex data about a rich topic – it offers low-floor high-ceiling opportunities for analysis. This might serve as a powerful motivator for students to engage in the rest of the thinking and reading of the text set. Teachers might craft many variations of compelling opening activities with the map. 

Scaffolding Texts: Contrasting Voices, Building Knowledge, Forays into Literature

All three perspectives suggest that students should build on their gateway text experience. From a cognitive perspective, students might need to read informational texts about racism in housing segregation.  This might include excerpts from their US History textbook’s discussion of suburban life in mid-20th century America or videos  videos showing a short history of housing segregation and redlining in America (warning: video contains some explicit language). These texts support students in building accessible knowledge to prepare them for the more challenging texts to come. 

From a disciplinary perspective, texts scaffolding students in disciplinary interpretive work might prepare students to interpret symbolism in drama (in preparation for reading A Raisin in the Sun) by asking students to interpret symbolism in cultural data sets including photo essays.  Students could be asked: in what way might minor details in photos convey a larger literary meaning?  Students could read poems like Gwendolyn Brooks’s The Bean Eaters or kitchenette building  and examine them for affect-laden language, preparing them to notice the affective elements of characterization and setting in Raisin. 

Building texture texts around a central conceptual frame means students should be exposed to counterstories about housing discrimination. Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park includes both stories and counterstories, and is written in accessible dialogue but with rich interpretive opportunities for students to infer character motives as the tension across multiple generations of Black and White Chicago families builds during the play. 

Apex Texts: Literary and Historical Accounts of Racism and Housing 

Ultimately, the three models each have their own goals: complex text comprehension, literary interpretation, and critical consciousness. Two powerful works can help students meet these goals: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and excerpts from Richard Rothstein’s The Color of LawWorking together, these texts provide literary form and style, syntactic and organizational complexity, and contrasting viewpoints on the complex issues of racism in housing. Students can examine the trajectory of the Younger family’s narrative within the larger historical context of Color of Law’s historical research. While Color of Law might need to be excerpted, teachers might be able to find parts of the book that specifically reference the legacy of housing segregation in their own communities. I was particularly struck when the book cited evidence from Cleveland, OH, where I live and teach. 

Conclusions: Managing Three Complex Goals

It is possible that the combination of these three goals (cognitive, critical, and disciplinary) might dilute the focus on each of them. That is, with a three-part epistemological foundation, students might not master any of the three skills.  Consequently, I would encourage any teacher to allow this text set extended time – it might take a full quarter or even more.  But, in my view, all three goals are worthy: an English course should be developing students as motivated readers of complex texts, as complex interpreters of rich literature, and as critical interrogators of the ideological assumptions in their texts and their world.