Every so often, when the planets are aligned just so, it seems I begin new units of study in several of my classes at once. It’s tricky because it means I have to think through each of those new units in terms of what I’ve done with the topics in past years, but through the perspectives of the students in this year’s class. I rarely approach a topic in exactly the same way twice. At times like this, I wish I could just sprinkle a little magic dust over my lesson plans to ensure success.
Each class has a different personality, and what works this year may be a total disaster next year. That’s the down side of having small classes—sometimes only four or five students. If there’s one strong personality in the group (which, let’s face it, there always is) and that one student is game, then I can just have fun with the unit planning. If that student has a negative attitude, all bets are off, and I have to craft my lessons with much greater care. Even more challenging is the fact that I have some students in two or three different classes. This year is one of those years.
My junior English class just finished their study of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, a piece of classic literature (if 20th century works can be called classics) that I can count on the juniors to enjoy. And why not? It’s got suspense, hangings, sex, and outrageous mob mentality. From this, we’re moving into a unit on race relations in America. The centerpiece of this unit is the novel Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes, a fictionalized account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Since it’s a part of our area’s history, I think it’s an important piece of literature. Again, this is a novel I’ve assigned before and one that students generally enjoy.
The twist to this year’s study is that we are planning to collaborate via Skype with seventh grade students in another school after both classes have studied the topic. The seventh graders are reading a different book about race, so the Skype call should allow us to compare what we’ve read. As the older students in this joint effort, my students will be viewed as virtual “mentors” to the younger ones. I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous.
Neither the other teacher or I have ever done this before, so I’m not sure yet what form our collaboration will take. While there may be some unpredictable challenges, this is the part that excites me; I’m nervous about my students’ attitudes toward the Skype with younger students. There are some very vocal and often negative personalities in this group of eight. I’m giving careful thought to the discussions and activities we engage in prior to the Skype session and hope to foster some deep reflections with students.
Working in my favor is the fact that our students typically are sensitive to class or racial injustices and will likely have strong opinions. The novel creates a relatable human story from a very brief factual incident between a young black man and young white woman on a “whites only” elevator in a downtown Tulsa office building. These two characters are essentially forgotten in the ensuing violence which left a thriving community in ashes and dozens of black citizens dead. It’s impossible to be indifferent to the story. With the help of well-aligned planets and a little sprinkle of magic dust, my students will see the upcoming collaboration as an opportunity to express their opinions while influencing the opinions of a group of younger students.
Oh, what the heck. I think I’ll forego the magic dust. Instead, I’ll trust in the story and the history to stir up enough passion to make this a valuable experience for both groups of students. (But if I keep my fingers crossed on Skype day, I hope you’ll understand.)