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Changing things up a bit…

After three years of Huck Finn as the Summer Reading Text for College Prep English to Sophomores, I decided I needed something that felt a little more relevant, something that was relatable, still Southern, but dealt with race relations in a way that Twain did not. I also wanted something that received the same acclaim from my past students when someone mentioned Twelfth NightТ or The Great Gatsby. I settled on The Secret Life of BeesТ by Sue Monk Kidd.

First, let me say that the response to the novel was really positive. From day one, there was plenty of discussion about the historical context and how it related to what has been happening in our country currently. Students were engaged in the female protagonist, and were truly invested in what happened to her, as well as the Boatwright sisters throughout.

We spent a few lessons discussing the concept of “Internalized” versus “Externalized” Racism. We also discussed “Unconscious Bias”. In my planning I included a news clip from earlier in the year that featured two black men being arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. I assumed that most of the students would have been familiar with the story, and we would spend the start of class explaining how that could link to our definitions. What I wasn’t expecting was to have to explain the actual news story itself to so many of my students. I don’t know if it is a reflection of general teenage ignorance, or if it is a reflection of a lack of awareness to the outside world around them. Maybe a bit of both?

After explaining what had happened, and looking at a few more articles featuring the event, I was met with shock, surprise, and unfortunately, a few who were clearly unphased. It wasn’t until when one particular student said, “but I don’t get it. All they were doing is sitting in Starbucks waiting for someone. I’ve done that a million times at The Depot (local coffee shop) and no one has ever told me to leave!” that penny finally dropped. It actually started to make sense to the students in my fourth period class. Why did this happen to one group of people, but has never happened to me?

Yes, we had a better understanding of the topics, and yes, they were able to identify and explain where these types of racism happened in the novel, but by the end of the week, I could see that students were thinking about their own actions, and their own interactions with others differently.

One thing I’d like to finish with is that I had never taught this lesson before that class. I’m not normally nervous when teaching new topics or ideas, but for some reason, I was nervous for this one. I hope I got it right.



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