Opening the book on race
A thin paperback novel creates a bridge between students in two racially isolated schools
As they file off the bus and into Minneapolis North High School, the students from suburban Eastview High are self-conscious about their whiteness. They count among their group of 60 a few Asian-Americans and a solitary black student. But it is the collective impression of pale skin, blue eyes, and blond hair that marks them as visitors to this beige brick building, where 8 of 10 students are African- American.Skip to next paragraph
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Their smiles reveal excitement and mask nervousness. As they travel through the halls, past a wall sculpture made of metal from a neighborhood gun buyback, Joy Hanson's 11th-grade English students overhear a comment they've been expecting for weeks: "Look at all these white kids!"
Once they spread out around the tables in the art room, the only place available that's big enough, it's their hosts' turn to feel outnumbered. Melissa Borgmann's 15 senior English students trickle in, offer a few greetings, and wait for the teachers to make a formal introduction.
In these beginning moments, no one knows for sure if the bridge they are crossing into unfamiliar territory will be strong enough to hold them. After all, it is just a thin paperback novel that has brought these groups together. But their teachers have every reason to believe that the students, just like Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," will come out stronger for having made this journey.
Ms. Hanson and Ms. Borgmann, both of whom are white, have been planning this day ever since they met last summer at a conference. They both had the opportunity to teach Hurston's book, a tale set in Southern black communities in the early 1900s, so they decided to collaborate.
After this initial get-together, the teens will continue to e-mail one another, and the North group will take a trip across the Mississippi River to Eastview, to see for themselves why residents of Apple Valley sometimes call it "Happy Valley" instead.
If nothing else, many of the students will be exposed to "the other" for the first time as real people rather than the stereotypes they were able to rattle off during class discussions before the two groups met.
When gang violence near North makes it onto the evening news, it will no longer be the dominant impression the Eastview kids carry in their minds. And the urban students will know that kids from the suburbs are not all snobby and formally dressed.
Just the anticipation of this personal exchange has prompted students from both schools to look at the book they're reading with a new level of curiosity and commitment. For some of them, English has been transformed into the most cutting-edge class in their busy schedules.
Around the United States, a growing number of educators see it as part of their mission to expose students to a wide variety of cultures. It's essential preparation, they argue, for life in America, not to mention the rest of the world.
But how to do that has been the subject of considerable debate especially as it can draw teens into some of the thorniest issues in their world: gender inequities, religious differences, sexual orientation, and racism.
Finding and teaching the right materials can be a challenge. Teachers often plead for funds to add books to their reading lists that will engage a broader spectrum of students. They have to figure out how to address touchy subjects with which they may have little experience and which their students are hesitant to discuss. And they sometimes face school boards or parents who worry that lessons that used to focus on a unified sense of "America" are falling by the wayside in an era of hyphenization.