Before Entering a Wider World - Read ; in a Largely Minority School, Literature Helps Students Confront Complex Issues of Race and Culture
Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
For students at the East Harlem School, race relations aren't simply an interesting topic to toss around in a social-studies discussion. They are a force that shapes lives and determines possibilities.
That's why the eighth-graders in Tahira Williams's humanities class are eager to share thoughts stirred by a series of books that delve into questions of race.
"This book made me want to be the opposite of a racist," says Najee Bryant, who's halfway through "Down These Mean Streets," a memoir by Piri Thomas, a Hispanic author who grew up in East Harlem. "[The narrator] was too negative. I don't want to be like him."
The autobiography of Frederick Douglass arouses equally strong reaction from Emmanuel Saldana. "It made me think about the gap between black and white people," he says. "It made me feel I have to strive even harder for an education."
"I just felt shocked about the racism," reports Jemmel McDuffie of "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. "It made me feel like I have to be really careful."
Getting these students to assess literature in terms of race relations is no problem, says their teacher, Ms. Williams, with a bit of a wry smile. "Sometimes I have to tell them to talk about something else."
The East Harlem School, a low-tuition private middle school, sets its sights on college for its 60 students in Grades 5 through 8, most of whom live in Harlem or the Bronx. Demanding academics and emotional and social support enable students to win entrance to top public and private high schools around the country.
But for many of these kids, especially those awarded scholarships to boarding schools, heading off to high school will mean entering a different world.
"They're so isolated," says Williams, now in her second year of teaching here. "They have no white friends, they know only a few white teachers. They have to learn that the world ain't 90 percent black and 10 percent Latino."
Racism is a concept these kids are quite familiar with, but many have not yet felt its sting directly.
The school makes every effort to expose its students to a world beyond their own - bringing in guest speakers and finding scholarships to send students to summer camps. But in class, literature is one of the best ways to push them to confront some of the complex issues surrounding racial and cultural differences.
A focus on Africa and Latin America is woven into the eighth- grade curriculum. …