Austin Wordell
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A Cultural Studies Approach to

A Tale of Two Cities and Economic Inequality

In this unit an 11th grade English class will examine A Tale of Two Cities, along with the historical and cultural contexts of the novel. Through the lens of the novel and 19th century England, we will then approach the subject of modern economic inequality in America. The goal of the unit is for students to think critically about the theme of economic inequality, analyzing it from different points of view. Ideally students will see how economic forces shape their daily lives and how they interact with others. By examining the cultural and historical background of A Tale of Two Cities, it should become apparent to the students the perennial nature of economic issues, and how this literacy work can shed light on our own economic and social condition. external image Tale_of_two_cities,_by_Phiz.PNG

In A Tale of Two Cities the English novelist Charles Dickens explores, among other themes, the social conditions and class conflicts of London and Paris during the revolutionary era. Dickens captures the massive social and economic gap between the French aristocrats and the peasantry, prior to the French revolution. The story unfolds as the French peasantry violently revolts against the aristocracy in response to their economic hardship and political disenfranchisement. Dickens points out that England, while avoiding a Revolution, still mirrors some of the social inequalities of France. The problems of France are not particular to that country but are more universal that many would like to admit.
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Since a cultural studies approach to studying literature does not view a text in isolation, prior to the reading of Dickens the class will read and discuss texts that situate the context of the novel. Short selections of both Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, along with Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man will give students an understanding of the debates surrounding political events in France. The selections present polar opposite views on the French revolution. Students will have an opportunity to evaluate competing political and economic claims as they approach the novel.

Intersected with readings from the novel the course will include non-fiction works and film clips that address income inequality in modern America. Students will watch parts of documentary “Park Avenue” by Alex Gibney. The documentary recounts recent economic history and examines the massive disparity of wealth between Park Avenue in Manhattan and Park Avenue in the Bronx. The documentary is from an egalitarian perspective and claims that the American Dream is severely comprised by entrenched inequality that has formed in recent decades.
Another perspective, from a decidedly non-egalitarian point of view would be provided by reading a few passages from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand argues against government regulation of the economy and the view that inequality is a severe problem. As a third reading the class will include passages from Barbara Ehrenrich’s Nickel and Dimed. The book chronicles the struggles of the author as she tries to live on minimum wage jobs. Nickel and Dimed is a very personal account, designed to give readers a feel for how economic issues play out in daily life. In response to reading Nickel and Dimed students will be encouraged to reflect upon their families’ economic condition and the inequality they might observe in their community, or surrounding area. external image Nickel_and_Dimed_cover.jpg
Students will be asked to reflect upon questions such as, how might their lives be different if they had more or less money, and how might one’s socioeconomic standing effect their worldview. The cultural studies approach to literature, properly understood does not shy away from controversial issues. The theme of wealth inequality might prove controversial, especially in certain settings. Teaching about inequality might be viewed as “against the American spirit” of a classless equal opportunity society, or be interpreted as stirring up class warfare and discontent. Inevitably any solution to income inequality will involve politics and that subject will almost surely lead to disagreement. Instead of avoiding this controversial issue it’s important that teachers create a safe space where students can discuss inequality without being shackled by political correctness or fear of judgement. Teachers can “create freedom” by simply allowing and respecting multiple viewpoints to be voiced within the classroom.
A class field trip at the end of the unit will take the students to some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in their community to get a concrete experiences of wealth inequality. If the class is successful in exploring the connections between A Tale of Two Cities and modern daily life, then it’s inevitable that many students will desire to become involved in these issues in a very personal way. Towards the end of the unit students will be given the contact information of elected officials, and organizations that deal with the issue of economic inequality. Students will not be told what opinions to hold, but will be informed that they can make their voices known by participating in the democratic process.
The texts, documentary and outside activities are designed to show how the themes in A Tale of Two Cities remain important today, and are connected to one’s daily life. Ideally the secondary texts should not draw attention away from Dicken’s ideas, but rather offer parallel connections from which to draw a deeper perennial meaning from this classic work. Ample classroom discussions will be devoted to the implications and relevancy of the ideas in A Tail of Two Cities, with less emphasis on the layout of the plot and other basic facts of the text. By placing the focus off the class on the perennial ideas and conflicts in Dicken’s work, discussions will hopefully draw out meaningful questions about the nature of power, economic opportunity and justice. Questions about these abstract concepts are by their very nature opaque, leading to even more questions from which the students themselves can direct their own learning via research. A portion of class discussion will be devoted to the sharing of research findings from the day before, thus expanding the opinions and depth of knowledge presented on the subject beyond the required texts on the syllabus.
The cultural studies approach to teaching English is based upon the idea that a student’s reading and writing ability will improve if they fully engage with literature that is meaningful and relevant to their lives. Eschewing tedious direct grammatical exercises, cultural studies improves reading and writing ability the natural way; through direct literacy experiences. In part because research has shown that habitual written reflection enhances critically thinking, students will be asked to keep journals throughout the unit, reflecting upon what they have learned and what they would like to know more about. Another crucial exercise for sharpening critical thinking is the evaluation of competing claims. Students throughout the unit will have to contrast opposing ideas and interpretations of events in both narrative and non-fiction texts.
One of the major goals of the unit is to maintain high expectations for all students. Material will not be watered down for students with a recorded below average reading level. Cultural studies teachers have found that when literature is connected to a student’s life in a meaningful way, they often make sudden strides in their reading ability. An abridged version of the texts could be provided if students are having trouble keeping up with the reading. Students could be strategically paired during small group discussions to ensure that certain students are comprehending the readings.

Outline of Syllabus
Week 1
- Get to know you exercise.
- Introduction to the course.
- Go over syllabus.
- Small group and class discussion and gauge of background knowledge on economic inequality.
- Short paper due on one’s background knowledge/personal experiences with economic inequality.
- Introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, read ch.1-12 over the weekend.
Week 2
- Personal and small group reflection on the first part of A Tale of Two Cities
- Read five page segment of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France
- Personal reflection and class discussion.
- Read segment of Paine The Rights of Man
- Short paper comparing and contrasting Burke and Paine’s view on economic inequality. (time in class)
- Read ch. 12-24 A Tale of Two Cities over the weekend.
Week 3
- Finish A Tale of Two Cities
- Share personal written reflections, research.
- Class and small group discussions
- Watch Documentary “Park Avenue”
- Written reflection on documentary.
Week 4
- Read segment of Atlas Shrugged
- Share personal written reflection on Ayn Rand.
- Share research on economic inequality.
- Read segment of Nickel and Dimed
- Written reflection, class discussion.
- Short paper comparing worldviews of Rand and Dickens.
Week 5
- Class presentations on income inequality.
- Field Trip
- Final Project

Lesson Plan
- “Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, Studying Opposing Views”
This lesson is designed for an 11th grade English class. Students will be expected to compare and contrast the worldviews of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine with regards to income inequality. By examining economics students will inevitably engage with broader themes such as legitimate political power, justice, revolution and human rights. Students will be encouraged to view the texts from an interdisciplinary approach as much as possible. Prior to the lesson students will have read segments of both Burke Reflections on the Revolution and Paine’s Rights of Man. During full classroom discussion and small group discussion students will be asked to explore how ideas on the French Revolution and economic conditions shape the plot of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. Students will also be encouraged to make connections with current economic and political events.
Main Objective: Explore the similarities and differences between Paine’s worldview and Burke’s, with regards to income inequality. Explore how the political and economic events of that era shape A Tale of Two Cities.
Materials or Resources Needed
- Texts of Relevant Books
- Paper for written reflections
Activities or Procedures
- Students will be put in groups of three to share personal written reflections and discuss the readings prior to the class joining as a single group to discuss the text.Close readings of key passages from both texts will be read together and questions designed to spur further inquiry, such as how these ideas might be represented today, will be asked.

Lesson Plan
- “Park Avenue”
- Students will watch a documentary about income inequality in modern day New York City. While watching the film students will be encouraged to make connections with the book A Tale of Two Cities. Questions such as how is modern New York different or similar than the London portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities, should guide journal reflections that will occur during the showing of the film.
- Students should be made aware that income and economic inequality isn’t a thing of the past, but have in fact increased in recent decades. Students should gain an understanding that modern American urban areas are a prime display of economic inequality and draw connections to earlier forms of inequality.
- Activities or Procedures
- As students enter the classroom they will be asked to take out their journals. The teacher will introduce the documentary and write key guiding questions that connect with the broader themes of the class on the board. Preliminary questions include, what might Dicken’s say of the documentary “Park Avenue,”? Do any characters in the book remind you of any characters in the documentary? How accurately does this documentary reflect our community?

Final Project
- The final project is an attempt to bring together what the students have learned throughout the course of the unit. In a presentation to the class, students will gather together the research they have independently conducted, notes from classroom discussions, and insights from the field trip. Students will share how their views on income inequality have changed or remained the same over the course of the unit. Students will be required to demonstrate how views on economic inequality differ and how the themes presented in the literature connects to and shapes our daily lives.Students will be encouraged to take a stand on certain issues they feel passionately about, while at the same time civilly engaging those who disagree with them. Ideally, the presentations will include ideas and opportunities for becoming more engaged with the social and political forces that impact inequality in American life.

Relevant Standards
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Common Core
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.