+ Two Very Different Classes Read “Of Mice and Men”

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In a state — New Jersey — largely stratified by race and wealth, students in Westfield say they live in a privileged bubble, while Plainfield students are nearly all black and Hispanic, two-thirds being poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Winnie Hu, in the NY Times, writes that when the eighth-grade class at Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield read Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” they spoke mostly about the loneliness of a minor white character known as Curley’s wife.

A Plainfield eighth grade class opened to the same chapter but spent most of the hour on the sole black character, Crooks.

The classic 75-year-old novel is about two migrant workers desperately seeking their own land.

These two sets of students are engaged in an unusual literary experiment.  They are collaborating in a study of the book with the  intention of learning lessons “between the lines” of Steinbeck’s prose.

Today, the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday, 130 of the eighth graders who have been reading Steinbeck side by side and trading questions Wikispaces, Skype and visits to each others’ schools, students are gathering for a final chapter in this project, which hopes to teach them as much about themselves as about Lennie and George.

Matthew Kalafat, Westfield teacher, tells students “If you become experts in Steinbeck, beautiful, but that’s not my goal.  This is just a tool to get us to understand our world.”

In one Westfield lesson, after students were introduced to the black character Crooks, many were less sympathetic to Curley’s wife after she threatened to lynch Crooks.

Mr. Kalafat asked whether Curley’s wife was being unfairly judged by the migrant workers.  Were the students judging her unfairly?

Westfield and Plainfield are linked by a railroad line but not much more.  In a lesson on November 21, Plainfield students were asked to describe Westfield.  “Snotty,” they said.  “Rich. Clean.  Fantasy.”

Westfield students, asked to describe Plainfield, said “fried chicken; hair salons; ghetto; gangs.” 

 A Plainfield student who had never stepped foot in Westfield said he was struck by the differences between the two school buildings: Roosevelt in Westfield was three floors to the single floor at Plainfield’s  Cedarbrook .  Roosevelt offered more choices in the cafeteria as well. 

He said “I didn’t see any African-Americans there.  I actually haven’t been to a school like that before.”

At that first meeting, over Steinbeck and sandwiches, students found connections.  Winnie Hu, in the article, writes that

They love the same music (hip-hop), though not necessarily the same clothes (Banana Republic in Westfield, Aeropostale in Plainfield).  The strive to have friends and go to good colleges.

“When I went to their school, I thought it was going to be really boring,” said Kennedy Adams, 14, of Plainfield.  “But then they started to actually talk to me, and I understood they were going through the same things I’m going through.

Adams said he’s now linked to 10 Westfield students on Facebook, and he attributes that to “this book.”

Those in Westfield said the project gave them a glimpse into a different world right on their doorstep.  They noted that it taught them more empathy.

As part of the exchange, each student made a “dream board” of goals and aspirations to be shared with the group today. 

One Westfield student dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and living in a big house.  Another wants to go into medicine and make a lot of money. 

Plainfield students wrote about finishing high school.  They want to land college scholarships.

A Westfield student noted that “We were all shooting for the stars, and they just wanted to get out of town.”

Derrick Nelson is the assistant principal at Roosevelt in Westfield.  He grew up in Plainfield, and has taught in that district.  When he moved to Westfield, his former colleagues teased him about sitting in an office, “drinking tea all day.”

Nelson teamed up with a longtime friend and Cedarbrook’s former principal, Frank Assante, to develop the project.

For the entire NY Times article, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/education/studying-steinbeck-new-jersey-students-find-common-ground.html?_r=1&ref=winniehu

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