B. H. James and Elizabeth James are public high school teachers in Stockton, CA. Their second book, “A Sea of Troubles” has just been released, published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishing. This book focuses on strategies schools can use to discuss the “sea of (societal) troubles” students are currently dealing with: from abuses of power, to systemic racism, to surviving school shootings, the book aims to honor issues students are dealing with daily.
A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality has been designed for classroom teachers struggling to address the overwhelming issues facing our world today.
Written for educators at the middle-school, high-school, and college levels, A Sea of Troubles pairs iconic, often-taught works of literature (Shakespeare, Animal Farm, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird) with nonfiction works to address social, racial, and gender inequities. As high school English teachers themselves, Elizabeth James and B. H. James, have included concrete activities, assignments, and discussions ready for the classroom.
By embracing the Common Core’s emphasis on the inclusion of more nonfiction, the authors have demonstrated how to incorporate meaningful informational texts into their favorite units of literature. A Sea of Troubles shows teachers how literature and informational texts can work together, to enhance each other, and, by extension, enhance student’s abilities to critically think and respond to the sea of troubles that pervades society.
“Are you keen to explore contemporary issues with students but more than a little bored with the titles in your curriculum? Sea of Troubles offers a model for re-envisioning how traditional texts are taught. Elizabeth and B.H. James describe instructional moves designed to demonstrate how literature “reflects the world and the world is reflected in fiction.” Whether you teach online or in person, their lessons integrating informational readings with literary works are sure to enliven classroom conversations.” – Carol Jago, past president, National Council of Teachers of English; author, “The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis”
“Elizabeth and B.H. James have written an elegant, sophisticated, and eminently useable text that English teachers will find energizing to read, even if they don’t teach the texts under consideration. Not only do the pair offer us new ways to both think about some of the most commonly-taught texts (Merchant, Raisin, Mockingbird) and teach these texts in conversation with nonfiction, but they do so in a way that is respectful and deeply optimistic about the possibility that English teachers might use literature to arm students with the skills to meet the sea of troubles that is our world and write the new book that we all need.” – Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle, authors of the “Using Informational Texts” series
“This book is designed to begin a very needed conversation in our classrooms today about social, racial, and gender inequities, done in the hope to help heal our nation of its acquiescence toward injustices that surround us today, guiding teachers to help students articulate and connect their own lived experiences to find meaning and relevance in the textbooks on the shelf. As we hope students forge their own ‘brave new world,’ the lessons in this book will activate the innate student and teenage desire to question and challenge the world around them, to state what goes unsaid about power and control in their own lives, to see the function of literature as more than an academic exercise, but as a call to embrace the full humanity of every human being.” – Natalia Trevino, author of VirginX and Lavando La Dirty Laundry
“Always student-centered, Elizabeth and B.H. James marry their cutting-edge call to pair literary and informational texts with concrete activities and assignments that are ready for the classroom. Activating old texts canonized in Common Core Standards for of-our-moment conversations, they show othering—where one gender, race, religion, or identity is stigmatized—to be a central, troubling feature of both literature and life. That agenda-setting insight opens doors for students to learn of bigotry today via Shakespeare, redlining in Chicago via A Raisin in the Sun, authoritarianism in 2020 via 1984, and structural sexism via The Handmaid’s Tale.” – Jeffrey R. Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump
The Way Forward: Final Words on Our “Sea of Troubles”
Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird: two books that demonstrate the tragedy of growing up in a world that is not as it should be. A world in which the adults have failed to create a world, for their children, that is safe and that is just.
But, two books in which the children, initiated into that world, move it forward.
On the morning of February 14, 2018—for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL—it was just Valentine’s Day. By the end of the day, for those who survived, it was a new world. A world in which the adults had failed to keep them safe.
And for several of those surviving students, it was a coming-of-age, and a call to action. They organized. They marched. They changed minds. They changed laws. They are still going, moving their new world forward.
Just over two months later, the Parkland students—specifically Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Alex Wind—were featured on the cover of Time Magazine as part of the 2018 Time 100, with an accompanying essay by former President Barack Obama.
President Obama said the following:
America’s response to mass shootings has long followed a predictable pattern. We mourn. Offer thoughts and prayers. Speculate about the motives. And then—even as no developed country endures a homicide rate like ours, a difference explained largely by pervasive accessibility to guns; even as the majority of gun owners support commonsense reforms—the political debate spirals into acrimony and paralysis.
This time, something different is happening. This time, our children are calling us to account.
The Parkland, Fla., students don’t have the kind of lobbyists or big budgets for attack ads that their opponents do. Most of them can’t even vote yet.
But they have the power so often inherent in youth: to see the world anew; to reject the old constraints, outdated conventions and cowardice too often dressed up as wisdom.
The power to insist that America can be better.
Seared by memories of seeing their friends murdered at a place they believed to be safe, these young leaders don’t intimidate easily. They see the NRA and its allies—whether mealymouthed politicians or mendacious commentators peddling conspiracy theories—as mere shills for those who make money selling weapons of war to whoever can pay. They’re as comfortable speaking truth to power as they are dismissive of platitudes and punditry. And they live to mobilize their peers.
Already, they’ve had some success persuading statehouses and some of the biggest gun retailers to change. Now it gets harder. A Republican Congress remains unmoved. NRA scare tactics still sway much of the country. Progress will be slow and frustrating.
But by bearing witness to carnage, by asking tough questions and demanding real answers, the Parkland students are shaking us out of our complacency. The NRA’s favored candidates are starting to fear they might lose. Law-abiding gun owners are starting to speak out. As these young leaders make common cause with African Americans and Latinos—the disproportionate victims of gun violence—and reach voting age, the possibilities of meaningful change will steadily grow.
Our history is defined by the youthful push to make America more just, more compassionate, more equal under the law. This generation—of Parkland, of Dreamers, of Black Lives Matter—embraces that duty. If they make their elders uncomfortable, that’s how it should be. Our kids now show us what we’ve told them America is all about, even if we haven’t always believed it ourselves: that our future isn’t written for us, but by us.
It’s worth repeating: “Our history is defined by the youthful push to make America more just, more compassionate, more equal under the law.”
Romeo and Juliet, through their deaths, ended the feud between their parents. Their tragedy healed the rift that had caused so much violence.
Tom Robinson was dead. Atticus wanted to appeal, but Tom was shot seventeen times in the back, desperately trying to escape a world that he knew would offer him no justice.
But after her brother had been already hardened by the fact of that injustice, Jean Louise Finch looked at the novel’s other Other—deemed “Boo” Radley by the society that had decided he was a monster—and called him by his name: Arthur.
And in the novel’s final image, she stands on the Other’s porch and sees the world—her world—through his eyes.
If Boo Radley is a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of Otherness, it takes Scout to move it forward.
It is our children who will guide us through the Sea of Troubles. And we have the honor and the duty, as teachers, of preparing them to do so. That is the true work of an educator.
In order to dismantle historically ingrained patterns and systems of oppression and inequality, our students must recognize them.
So the only way to, in good conscience, allow students to meet the Sea of Troubles that they will inevitably inherit, is to show them—to arm them against those systems and those patterns. Perhaps then, they’ll have the chance to do better than we’ve ever done…and write the new book.
About the Authors:
B. H. (or Bill) and Liz James met in 2008 when they were both young teachers in the English department at Franklin High School in Stockton. They fell in love and married in 2011, and published their first book together, “Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature” in 2016. That book focused on making sure the shift to Common Core was not a shift away from rigor or high expectations in the classroom. Since 2016, Bill and Liz have worked with school districts all over California, bringing strategies they use in their socio-economically diverse Title 1 classroom in Stockton to teachers all over the state.
Their philosophy is simple: everyone craves and responds to great storytelling. Therefore, they insist on keeping challenging, difficult, often college-level material in their classroom–every classroom, despite age, so that students can truly understand literature.
In the midst of 2020, their new book, “A Sea of Troubles” was born. When they found themselves overwhelmed by not just the amount of pertinent news all around them, but the anxiety and uncertainty that accompanied such a daily deluge of (often troubling) information, they knew their students were dealing with it, too.
This book aims to take real-life issues of injustice and model how to discuss these historic patterns in a classroom. The idea is simple: injustice is both very personal and very universal. Therefore, incorporating applicable informational texts within a unit of study provides both a personal narrative of the human cost of injustice, as well as a way to look at one character’s story as part of a larger historical narrative that is still playing out in students’ lives today.
So, for instance, a student studying “A Raisin in the Sun” can study it as great literature, and learn about characterization and climax and syntax. But with the James’ approach, that unit of literature will also include the supreme court case “Hansberry v. Lee” and red-lining maps of their own neighborhoods so that they also understand how a prejudiced housing system resulted in a lack of investment in the neighborhoods that they may still live in today.
The Jameses used books and plays already in most classrooms (like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984”) and reimagined how education can pivot toward a 21st century study of how these stories are reflections of inequalities and abuses of power that, despite time and place, keep happening.
For more information, to request a copy of A Sea of Troubles to review or an interview with the authors, please contact Kelsey Butts at Book Publicity Services at Kelsey@BookPublicityServices.com or (805) 807-9027.