“We Need to Speak Up and Be Heard”: Changing Worldviews with the Help of Nic Stone

By Sarah Bonner and Robyn Seglem

 

Nothing can ruin a great book like being asked to pick it apart chapter by chapter, page by page, line by line, word by word. Nothing can ruin a great book like being asked to take daily quizzes to prove you’ve read and remembered all these details. And nothing can ruin a great book like being asked to answer questions that others find more important than you do. As readers, we know this. Yet, as teachers, we sometimes ignore this. And that’s a shame because a great book can change the way we view the world. A great book can change how we interact with people. A great book can change the questions we ask ourselves and others. Just in case you doubt these statements, we’d like to take a moment to share just one example with you. And it focuses on Dear Martin by Nic Stone–a great book.

To provide a bit of context, we began working together to design inquiry units around young adult literature just more than three years ago. Our goal was and is to help kids learn to voice the questions that naturally occur to them as they read. After spending three years tweaking the process, we decided it was time to reach beyond the school community and begin asking questions and dialoguing with a wider audience. We asked our friend Sara Kajder, one of the co-editors of Voices from the Middle, to help us reach out to Nic Stone. And she did. Using Twitter, we were able to form a partnership that allowed eighth grade students from a small town in Illinois learn about Justyce’s world—a world very different from their own—and they were able to rely upon Nic Stone as one of their guides.

To prepare our eighth graders for this learning experience, we designed a series of three anchor activities that students collaborated on over a three-week time period.  Each collaborative group spent a week working with each anchor activity and were responsible for sharing their anchor work with their peers in efforts to enrich the reading experience for all students.  The anchors served as a way to create a variety of opportunities to experience the content presented within Dear Martin. These experiences included blogging and current events, interviews with expert voices, and using social media,

The first anchor enabled students to use blogs as well as nonfiction articles to make connections to the rich social topics threaded within Dear Martin. Student groups had the freedom to choose a topic connected to the book to explore more in real life context. Blog writing consisted of a basic structure that included choosing a specific section of the reading to summarize, giving an overview of the connected nonfiction article, and then a discussion that brings these two ideas together.  This experience not only allowed student groups to see the realities of the issues being discussed throughout Nic Stone’s novel, but, it also created many critical questions that played a significant role later in both our class discussions as well as our class inquiry experience.

In addition to blogging, the second anchor activity centered on interviewing people of interest that could provide both expertise and real life context to Dear Martin. Student groups were able to ask questions to experts like the local chief of police, a local Black Lives Matter activist, a TIME Magazine journalist, students who have experienced racial profiling, medical experts, and a public defendant.  Students used devices to record their interviews and linked the videos to our classroom website for all students to view throughout the week. Inviting outside community members into our classroom—both in-person and via Google Hangout—let students form deeper understandings of the novel in terms of character motives, social justice realities, and text interpretations.

One of the most impactful anchor activities established in class allowed students to use social media as a means to make connections to the text.  Student groups developed both Twitter and Facebook accounts that were designed to represent both our school and the Dear Martin text. From there, student groups used social media as a platform for comprehension—tweeting out significant details from the text—and, also to post other connected texts like articles, infographics, and research visuals (like charts or graphs) in efforts to make connections to the reading. It was in these social media forums where students began to recognize the power of their voices, tweeting out ideas such as “we need to speak up and be heard” and “let’s make sure we work against and don’t contribute to that hate.”

A turning point for our classroom began after establishing our social media accounts when students were inspired to reach out to the author, Nic Stone. One student group privately message Nic and asked if she could follow their created page in hopes to ‘like’ and comment on their created material.  Within a matter of minutes, students had a response and their social media postings became more than just an assignment.  Since our class knew that Nic Stone was now following and engaging in our social media material, student groups wanted to take advantage of this experience.

An example of this can be related to one of our in-class debates on how to pronounce one of the character’s names.  Many students argued that the character’s name was pronounced “Mee-lo;” while other students claimed “it was like Carmelo Anthony—the basketball player” and said it was pronounced “Mellow.”  Nic Stone not only settled our in-class debate, but she even used Carmelo Anthony as her example—which added excitement to many student readers because they were affirmed by the author. Another example occurred when one student group posted incorrect information—a misinterpretation of the text—and Nic was able to help the student group rethink their understanding by commenting what that specific text section was talking about.

Nic supported our readers throughout our reading because her presence created a sense of importance for the student work surrounding the novel study.  As students posted their blogs, videos, and posts, they knew their work was being viewed by a larger audience, and, therefore, the quality of that work needed to shine.

The highlight of our students’ experience reading Dear Martin came, however, when a small group of students traveled with us to the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. To this point, students had interacted with Nic via social media, which had allowed them to see the human behind Justyce’s story, to clarify misconceptions, and to generate excitement around reading the novel. However, when we provided them a platform to share with Nic Stone, a platform that privileged their voices above that of their teachers’, we empowered them to take charge of their own learning. In this space, we witnessed an authentic conversation between an author and her readers. While students were prompted to develop some initial questions prior to the event, their questions weren’t scripted, nor were they about trivial details like Justyce’s favorite meal. Instead, they focused on character motivation, author decision-making, and connections to a world that is unfamiliar to many of these rural middle school students. And the conversations were not one-sided. Nic queried the students about their responses to events in the novel, their opinions on topics that related to the novel, and their wishlist for what she should write next. The audience took turns, as well, posing questions to Nic about her decisions and opinions around the novel and to the students about what they took from their experience reading the novel. And while we piped in and every now and then, we remained largely silent. It wasn’t about teachers and students. This moment was about an author and her readers celebrating a great book. In this celebration, learning occurred.

And it has continued to occur—all because of one great book. As we write this today, we look back at how our students have used this experience to propel them forward. Through dialogue such as the ones that occurred in person, as well as online, that occurred with people directly connected to the book, as well as with those who play similar roles to those represented in the book, our students have learned the power of asking questions. They have been empowered to tackle sensitive subjects such as the danger of stereotypes, the circumstances that can lead to youth joining gangs, and the need for police reform. They have learned how to find answers to their own questions and how to relay their new understanding to a wider audience. Many have discovered or rediscovered a love for reading.

While we have left the day-to-day interaction with Dear Martin behind, for several students, the relationship still continues. For some, social media connections with Nic Stone still occur. For another who is a budding writer, she has asked Nic to mentor her this semester as she works on her self-selected passion project. And new groups are primed to discover Dear Martin because the excitement of this project has spread through the community, prompting the senior English teachers to share the novel with their classes.

So, while we cannot say that our students will leave 8th grade behind as completely different people, we can say that this experience has helped to shape them. For some, their worldview now includes searching and listening to other viewpoints that reach beyond the confines of their small town. For some, day-to-day interactions with people are now more in tune with the language we use toward each other so as not to perpetuate stereotypes. For many more, the questions they pose now are critical because they view social issues by understanding perspectives and not just a formulated, one-sided opinion. And it was all because of a great book. Thank you, Nic, for writing it.

For more information about how to use DEAR MARTIN in your classroom, email slmarket@randomhouse.com.