When you need to tackle hard topics at school

5:00 AM

I watched our country become justifiably enraged over the death of yet another African-American man and the flippant, entitled response of a white woman to a black man. At the same time that we sent two astronauts up to the International Space Station, we witnessed some of the most awful behaviors of our humanity. 

I'm still so unsettled by the death of George Floyd and I want to have conversations with my students.  A third of my class are students of color.  As white teachers, we are in a position to recognize our privilege and have frank conversations with our students about what racism looks like and see if together we can find a better way.

One small thing I have been doing is paying attention to buying more diverse books for my classroom.  I want my students of color to read about people who look like them and I want my white students to read books where the main character is a person of color.  

Here are some recommendations, based on books that have been well-read by my students in 6th grade, in no particular order.
Jordan is a 7th-grader who loves to draw.  He wants to go to art school but his parents decide to send him to a prestigious private school where he'll have more opportunities than they did.  He's middle class and a person of color, and so he stands out on both counts at school.  This graphic novel explores the tiny things kids do to other kids to keep them down, and Jordan tires of having to keep his cool when he doesn't always want to.

In some ways, his challenges remind me of Starr's in The Hate You Give (which I highly recommend, but for older students) as she navigates her neighborhood and the primarily white school she attends.
Edie knows that her mother is Native American.  She also knows that her mother was adopted by a white couple.  But she can't get any answers from her mom about her birth family, because her mom doesn't know.  And then one day, Edie finds a box up in the attic filled with letters.  And pictures.  The letters are signed by "Edith" and the pictures look just like her, down to the gap between her two front teeth.  Who is this woman?  

What she uncovers is horrible.  But it connects her to her family in ways beyond what she ever expected.  Christine Day has written a compelling story about this twelve-year-old and her friends, whose characters seem very real.  She touches briefly on the travesty that was inflicted on native and 
black people even into the mid-20th century.  
Genesis keeps a list of all the things that are wrong with her, and the list is long.  Her family gets put out of their house, her father drinks and gambles.  She gets called "darkie," "eggplant," and "charcoal," even by her own family.

Genesis knows that her dark skin is the root cause of all these problems.  When she and her mom have to move in with her grandma because there's nowhere else to go, Genesis finds a music teacher in her new school who thinks she has a promising voice.  Who feeds her Etta James and Billie Holliday albums.

This book won the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award for new talent, and several awards for best middle-grade novels of 2019.
 Based on author Mariama Lockinton's own experience as a trans-racial adoptee, this is Makeda's story, as she struggles to figure out who she is.  Especially after her family moves from Maryland where her best friend, Lena - also African American and adopted into a white family lives - to New Mexico where her father has taken a position as a cellist with the New Mexico Symphony.  

Coming into her new school in the middle of the year,
"Ugh, why do you talk so white?"
"This is just how I talk..." 
"So you're like Obama? An Oreo?"
 "Kinda. Wait.  What's an Oreo?"
"You know.  When you're all black on the outside but really white on the inside."
Mariama Lockington wrote this because she couldn't find any stories like hers in books when she was trying to figure out who she was.
Historical fiction and written from a white girl's point of view (which may be a detraction for some) I used this book as a read-aloud a year ago to introduce my students to history many 11- and 12-year olds don't know existed.

Alice Ann moves with her family from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi in 1964 because her father is an FBI agent investigating the deaths of three Freedom Fighters, college students who helped African-Americans register to vote, and who were killed for it.

Alice Ann wants to be liked by the girls she calls the Cheerleaders.  But when Valerie Taylor is the first African-American to start at her school, Alice Ann has a hard decision to make.  Ally herself with Valerie against the popular girls or join with them to let Valerie know she's not wanted there?
In a death eerily similar to that of Tamir Rice's in Cleveland,  Jerome is a 12-year old boy playing with a toy gun when he's killed by a white police officer.  Jerome becomes a ghost, unable to be seen by anyone except other ghosts.  He watches with sadness, the devastation and anger his death has unleashed on his family and his community.  

Two other characters play important roles: Sarah, the police officer's daughter, his age and alive, grappling with what her father did, and the only person who can talk with Jerome.  The other is Emmett Till, a ghost who helps Jerome process his uncalled-for death, just as he had to process his own more than 60 years earlier.  Navigating the world of ghosts, many killed by racism, Jerome comes to recognize that he can't do anything; it's the people who are still living who can make the world a better place.
I found this book hard to put down.  Maleeka is a dark-skinned, smart, poor girl.  She wears clothes her mom makes (poorly) for her.  When her best friend lends her clothes to wear, she's thrilled.  Until Char asks her to give them back.  In front of a group of kids.  

Into that mix walks a new teacher, Miss Saunders, a well-traveled, intelligent teacher with a big blotch of white on her face.  But she's comfortable in the skin she's in.  And slowly, she teaches her students to accept who they are, too.  Enough so that Maleeka finally decides to confront some of the bullies in her life.
I can't speak to this one yet, because I just started it.  It's hard to put down because, in typical Jason Reynold's style, the words just draw you in.  And make you not want to put it down.  But I need to.  To write this blog post.

Folks, these are a few recommendations here, and there are many, many other books out there.  These books need to be read by you and by your students.  So there's some hope that we can make the world a better place.


by Mentoring in the Middle

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