Without thinking too hard about them, sometimes lessons have a nice way of coming together, as has especially been the case with my Junior and Senior classes this semester. We started off with the first of three approaches to reading I’ve found to be the most effective. That approach is reader’s theatre where each student is given a copy of a play, we sit in a circle, and the students pick parts to informally read as we periodically break into discussion along the way. The play of choice was A Raisin in the Sun. It’s about an African American family in Chicago during the civil rights era, and in considering the historical context, we drew parallels to the American Indian Movement around the same time. While reading the play, emphasis was placed on sources of empowerment such as identity, culture, solidarity and family, and we discussed key terms such as segregation, assimilation, discrimination, inequality, and prejudice. Then, once we finished reading and watching the 1961 production starring Sidney Poitier, the students were given an essay assignment asking them to choose a character and describe sources from which they drew their strength.
About the time the students began the essays, though, the elementary building flooded, and there was the large interruption of first combining classrooms in the high school wing, then transitioning into our temporary trailers with several days missed in-between. The time lag put an end to the unit, and I’ll be honest, there was a couple week stretch where the main goal was survival. Movies were shown. Games were played.
But survive we did, and near the end of the transition, the students had the opportunity to utilize the newly reopened library and engage with the second approach to reading I’ve found effective, that being, independent reading, which allows the students to develop and explore their individual interest. The only requirement, outside of participating in an opening class discussion on reading strategies, is reading a book they enjoy during the period and writing a review for their fellow classmates at the unit’s end. I will also add, it’s a nice way for the teacher to take a break when spaced between activities with other preps, and it also allows them to model my favorite thing to model…reading!
Once the student’s finished their short book reviews, I assigned a longer writing assignment—a career goals essay in which I first gave them an MBTI test, then I counseled them on careers they might consider based on their results, and finally, I asked them to imagine their future: “What kind of lifestyle do you want? What career would allow you to achieve this lifestyle? How will you achieve this?” Although, each question was a little more specific. I wanted specifics and graded them based on the specifics they provided.
This brings me to the unit just completed—considerations of the American Dream. Seeing as at that point they’d never read Of Mice and Men, that’s the material I choose to elaborate on the discussion. It was also the material I had, and it worked perfectly for the last approach to reading I’ve found effective… A read aloud, that is me reading aloud and modeling my thinking along the way. The students enjoy it too, and I let them color from adult coloring pages or draw what they can imagine, which I imagine provides a nice escape. Sometimes just creating a safe and relaxed atmosphere is victory. But they are attuned to the material too, which I gather from questioning, and I focused on obstacles the numerous characters face toward achieving their vision of the American dream, especially in the circumstances that may mirror the student’s own or others they know in their community. It is an important discussion to have, and it tied nicely into the societal barriers we initially discussed like prejudice, inequality, etc.
So that’s where we’re at. The students took a test over Of Mice and Men today, and before moving onto an essay focused on its themes, I had them watch a video of James Baldwin standing before a Cambridge audience in a debate against William F. Buckley. The topic considered: “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin himself draws direct parallels between African Americans and Native Americans and I’d hope, now, my students could draw on prior knowledge to do the same.
We still have a couple weeks left yet before the semester’s end. They’ll return to independent reading once they’ve completed their essays, then have another writing assignment, then we’ll start reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog—a book I’ve just ordered a classroom set for, and which according to Goodreads “takes readers to the heart of the Native American experience. As the story unfolds, Dan speaks eloquently on the difference between land and property, the power of silence, and the selling of sacred ceremonies.” I’m excited to take a breather over Christmas break and start to delve in.