Race, Identity & Social Justice
When Black and White Give Way to Gray
There’s something that happens to students in the seventh grade; they transform into teenagers. And with that metamorphosis, they discover the world does not exist strictly in black and white, but rather in a vast spectrum of gray.
“It’s the perfect melding time,” says Middle School English teacher Larry Sandomir, who takes advantage of these formative years to stretch his students’ critical thinking skills. “A lot of what we do involves looking at the world and questioning it. The students at Calhoun are fortunate because there is freedom to explore, and they are allowed to speak their minds.”
Larry’s seventh grade English curriculum, which builds writing skills and expands the students’ exposure to literary genres, uses tolerance as its central theme. It’s a subject he has taught for close to 40 years, mostly in public schools, and one he believes is at the core of the middle school experience. But the lessons are not simply about tolerance because that’s something students are taught from day one at Calhoun, says Larry. “It’s about recognizing that, when kids come into seventh grade, we have to tap into their growth and investigate those ‘gray areas’ – anything to help them wrap their heads around how and why people treat others the way they do.”
Beginning early in the school year, Larry has his students focused on issues of race, identity and society, reading such works as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. They also complete several large-scale writing projects, including the creation of their own dystopian short story as well as a unique assignment — an analysis of the musical Wicked. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the play tells the back story to how Elphaba becomes the evil green-skinned witch in The Wizard of Oz. The writing assignment, “Defying Gravity,” which Larry named after the centerpiece song in the musical production, focuses on finding yourself and speaking out against injustice. After poring over the lyrics from the show’s songs, the students submitted thoughtful responses to questions such as, “Are people born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” and “Is life fraught less when you’re thoughtless?”
It was critical for the students to see that Elphaba was treated poorly simply because of her green skin, observes Larry. But an equally crucial component of the seventh grade study on tolerance is the concept of white privilege. “For most, it’s the first time they’ve heard the term,” he adds.
“It never occurred to me the many privileges white people take for granted,” says Ade McKay, a student in Larry’s class. She cites examples such as a white male or female being certain they’ll talk to someone of their race when asking to speak to the “person in charge,” or knowing they haven’t been pulled over by the police or audited by the IRS simply because of their race.
Larry partners with Middle School social studies teacher Andrea Solomon in the second half of the year to deliver the students a powerful, interdisciplinary unit that explores issues of racism, social justice and the impact of stereotypes used by the media. Students research and present projects of their own choosing, before both teachers and classmates, on such topics as the Latino immigration debate and the negative portrayal of Native Americans as sports mascots. The integrated unit then splits back into English and social studies, but the two run parallel to each other, as Andrea moves on to World War II and the Holocaust, while Larry shifts to Elie Wiesel’s heart-wrenching memoir Night. “The year is, for sure, an emotional journey,” says Andrea. “But, in both my class and Larry’s, the key is constant reflection, and creating an environment where the students are comfortable sharing.”
The continuous conversation, debate and reflection frequently inspires the students to action, as well. “In Middle School, the kids in general are passionate on issues of social justice,” says Andrea. “They aren’t too cynical, and they recognize they can be agents of change. We try to cultivate that and provide them with a lens that maybe they haven’t looked through before.”
During their reading of Night, students debated the complexities and levels of responsibility of Holocaust participants and Hitler sympathizers, from workers in a plant making Zyklon B gas to teachers who parroted Nazi propaganda. Their conclusion was that it took a lot of people—on many different fronts—to perpetrate horror on such a level. One student mused that “not doing anything to stop the Holocaust was just as bad as actively furthering the genocide.”
“These are perfect lessons for seventh grade,” notes Middle School Director Eric Chapman. “The concept of allowing bad things to happen ties into empathy and bullying, and for students it comes down to ‘Who do you really want to be?’”
“When we study Night, we discuss the author’s idea that ‘the opposite of love is not hate—it’s indifference,’” says Larry. “That makes [the students] consider the notion that love and hate are often just opposite sides of the same coin, with both involving intense feeling. Indifference, or apathy, is a lack of feeling. That is a new concept for them to think about and forces them to consider the point that it may be easier to deal with a hateful person, because at least you can appeal to their feelings, than an indifferent one, because they simply do not care.”
On Holocaust Remembrance Day in mid-April, students reflected in their journals while listening to songs about the tragic event. The walls of Larry’s area were covered with inspirational quotes, like the words of Albert Einstein: “The world is too dangerous to live in, not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.”
Eric sees students in seventh grade learning to use their voice appropriately, discovering the difference between creative and persuasive writing, and building the foundation of who they will become. “I don’t think you get to eighth grade, where the emphasis is on politics, without the self-reflection of seventh grade,” he says. “You learn who you are, and that affects how you feel about the politics.”
Clearly, however, the seventh grade English curriculum is more than just learning the nuts and bolts of writing. “What I hope emerges after seventh grade is a student who is more thoughtful and reflective about his or her opinions, one who questions and criticizes, but looks also for answers and solutions,” says Larry, who acknowledges that it’s like walking a tightrope between trying to inspire and giving them truths, but “that balance is crucial for the kids to get—it’s part of their emotional intelligence development, which is really more important than anything.”
It seems to be working. “Before, I thought that English was just about learning grammar and writing essays,” says seventh grader Ruby Rose. “But, after this year, I’ve realized it’s so much more than that. It’s about learning how to be part of a community, being able to know yourself and others around you, and learning about the world. Ruby adds, “I like how we didn’t just skim the surface of things. We took the time and effort to go in depth and find the true meaning.”
Much of what Larry teaches is best summed up by one of those quotes he likes to post on his area’s walls. “The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”