The following blog post was written by Lauren Hathaway, an Eye On Education editorial staff member.
In a recent article from The New York Times, “Split by Race and Wealth, but Discovering Similarities as They Study Steinbeck,” Winnie Hu reports on an innovative collaboration between two New Jersey eighth-grade classes who have embraced the study of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as a way to connect with each other and better understand their world.
The literary project brought together eighth-grade students from Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield and the Cedarbrook K-8 Center in Plainfield to read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men side by side via Wikispaces, Skype, and in-class visits with each other. While most students at Roosevelt are white and generally more privileged, the students of Cedarbrook, two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches, are mainly black and Hispanic. The students from each school came into the project with different expectations and stereotypes of each other; yet when they sat down together for the first time to discuss Steinbeck over lunch, they quickly began to connect, bonding over similar tastes in music and common aspirations. Wu quotes one Cedarbrook student, Kennedy Adams, who admits that he expected his visit with the Roosevelt students to be boring. “But then they started to actually talk to me, and I understood they were going through the same things I’m going through,” he said.
The collaboration was conceived by Derrick Nelson, who has lived and worked as an educator in both Plainfield and Westfield and is currently the assistant principal at Roosevelt. Though the demographics of the two towns differ significantly, Nelson has found that students from both towns struggle with many of the same issues, including peer pressure and academics. Nelson worked with former Cedarbrook principal Frank Asante to develop the eighth-grade Steinbeck project, which ultimately cost less than $1600 for busing, supplies, food, and books for Cedarbrook.
By studying Steinbeck together, the students from Westfield and Plainfield not only became familiar with Of Mice and Men but were exposed to alternate viewpoints, challenged to understand and appreciate each other’s differences, and encouraged to connect the literature they read to the world around them.
Do you think this type of collaboration should be encouraged in more schools? Leave a comment below.