Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli

Maniac MageeReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Genre: Realistic Fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

I might be a little bit in love with this book.

In particular, I loved the whole “race” bit – as in skin color, not the actual racing. Maniac Magee’s city is divided into the west and east side, with Blacks and Whites on opposite sides. As a young child, he truly is “color blind,” a word many of us educator folk cringe at. Color blindness means one does not see skin color and race (okay, yes, I know race doesn’t exist and is a social construct…), which is a large part of many people’s lives. Not seeing color means not seeing a huge part of people’s identity. But Maniac does not see color in a very innocent way, which is why he has no qualms about living on the “wrong” side of town.

Although the book is now categorized as a “classic,” it’s also relevant in that it can evoke conversations about segregation, racism, and lack of understanding between people of varying backgrounds:

  • Why do Whites and Blacks live in separate parts of town?
  • Are cities still segregated like that? (Spoiler: yes)
  • Why do the twins’ dad create the “bomb shelter”? (I can’t remember names when I listen to audiobooks!)
  • Why did some Blacks not want Maniac to live in their part of town?

Despite this book having insights into race, Spinelli surprisingly made at least 3 derogatory references to Natives. Very disappointing. However, if this book were to be taught as a class text, that’s something that could be dissected – why was that language offensive? How can the author, a White man, portray one racial group in a positive light but say such negative things about another?

I loved loved loved that Mars Bar, the bully, becomes friends with Maniac Magee. We’re able to see that Mars isn’t a bad kid and is just putting up a front – which also can create conversations about acting cool, manliness, integrity, and bullying.

Maniac Magee as a character isn’t very dynamic. In fact, he’s a rather flat character. But I almost think that, in this book, having a flat main character fits because we need to focus instead on the kid’s situation rather than how he changes throughout the story (or doesn’t change).

The reading level is pretty low, but I wouldn’t suggest it to ELLs because it’s got lots of Black English that could be confusing if they were to read it. I think that if it were read aloud to them and they were able to follow along, it would be easier. The Black English could also be used as a lesson on Ebonics and “standard” English. How does Maniac Magee talk compared to Mars/Amanda? Why do they talk differently? Is there a “right” way to talk? (Spoiler: no)

Over all, this book would be fantastic as an all-class test at the lower middle school level and lower.

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Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Shine, Coconut MoonReading level: 5.5
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school (middle school okay too)

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

Shine, Coconut Moon was rather “meh” for me. It’s the author’s first book, and it’s not written incredibly well (not like I could do any better). Much of what happens and is said seems forced, and it just doesn’t flow very well. I regret that I lack the language and knowledge to explain further.

The premise of the book is great: an Indian-American teenager starts to discover her identity just after the September 11th terrorist attacks when she meets her turban-wearing uncle. (India is not an Arab country, by the way.)

The beginning with Sam and Molly talking about sexy lingerie and “doing it” with the boy who’s the “real deal” was unnecessary. I was even more irritated because that would be the only part that would make the book not appropriate for school. For that reason and the fact that the main character is a senior in high school, scholastic recommends it for 9th grade and up. I think middle school (girls) might like it too. As much as that lingerie scene was unnecessary, one could argue that both girls were being careful with their bodies, were waiting for the “right” boys, and weren’t jumping into doing anything unsafe or inappropriate. They’re just being high school girls.

Towards the end, Molly and Sam drink alcohol and eat 2 pints of ice cream and other junk food. I was more appalled at the unhealthy amount of calories they were consuming, but parents might take issue with the drinking part. The girls have a fun time drinking, but, beneath it all, they have to cover it up, and they feel some guilt. It’s not explicitly stated that they feel guilty, but they know they shouldn’t be doing it. Unlike Tippy drinking alcohol in It Ain’t All For Nothin, there are no repercussions, although drunkenness (by Mike and other boys) is definitely not a good thing in Sam’s eyes.

I found it rather unrealistic that Sam, at age 17 or 18, becomes interested in her background and family because 1) it took so long and 2) high schoolers tend to be moving away from their family…right? It was also weird to me that she is just now beginning to realize the racism in society as well as her being different: “As I look around the table, I notice something I’ve never noticed before: I’m the only brown face here” (63). After all, isn’t middle school the time when kids are hyper-aware of their differences? After facing bullying in elementary school, Sam is just now thinking about how she’s the only brown-skinned girl in a sea of White faces? Hmm.

At the same time, I appreciated the author bringing to light some feelings that non-White people have: being the only person of color in the room, at a table, or in a classroom.

Near the middle of the book, Mike makes this comment in passing: “Phil Taylor and Todd Hamilton got fired last week. The company’s hiring illegals under the table for pennies a day.” Mike’s mother replies, “I hope they tighten those borders like they said they would. Especially now – it’s such a scary world out there” (127). I expected Sam to jump in and defend the immigrants, but she doesn’t. She (rightly) gets upset about the stereotyping of Apu in The Simpsons but is silent when it comes to defending any minority that isn’t South Asian/Indian. I think the author missed a huge opportunity to give us a lesson about the culture of power, being different, and just having a moral compass.

As much as I took issue with a lot of parts of this book, I think students (girls), would like it. It is a pretty good story about digging in your past, bringing together a broken family, and dealing with discrimination. And let’s be real, that book cover is going to draw in the girls…despite the cheesy tag line: It isn’t always easy to find your true self. *sigh*

25 Websites for Educational Equity

Here is a link to an article from edchange.org written by Paul Groski in which he lists and explains 25 websites related to educational equity. If the link is broken, search for the author’s name and “I don’t want to live without them: Twenty-five web sites for educational equity.”

The author gives sufficient explanations about how to best use each resource he lists, so I don’t do the same here. The article was written in 2005, so some resources may be outdated, but it’s a good starting place.

The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights

Here is a lesson plan about the similarities between the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and the Civil Rights Movement (if I may borrow the term) of the contemporary LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex) community. The lesson (from Teaching Tolerance) is for grades 9-12 but it can probably be adapted for middle school. See this blog post for resources about teaching about the n-word.
Even if the teacher doesn’t want to devote so much time to this lesson or subject, this lesson is at least full of ideas about possible discussions and activities for relating the Civil Rights Movement to contemporary struggles.
Objectives:

Students will:

  • Learn how Bayard Rustin was an instrumental figure in the modern civil rights movement.
  • Develop an awareness of how individuals have the ability to simultaneously advocate for multiple causes, even if they conflict or overlap.
  • Analyze the connection between civil rights and gay rights.
  • Understand the similarities and differences between racism and heterosexism.
  • Explore how individuals, their beliefs and actions evolve over time.

Essential Questions:

  • Who was Bayard Rustin and why is he one of the twentieth century’s most important political organizers?
  • What challenges did Bayard Rustin confront as a gay man involved in the civil rights movement?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements?
  • In what ways has our society changed for the better for LGBT people, and what improvements remain to be made?

Materials Needed:

Central Text

In this lesson, students will study the similarities between the modern civil rights movement and the current gay rights movement, through the words of Bayard Rustin. Earlier in his life, Rustin was open with his sexuality in private circles, but remained publicly silent about his homosexuality. Later in life, Rustin was more vocal, and became a vociferous advocate for gay rights in ways that had eluded him in his earlier years. In this lesson, students will discuss the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements, as well as the dilemma black LGBT people often find themselves in while involved with social and political movements.

(Note: The recommended central text for this lesson uses the n-word. For information on the n-word, review Teaching Tolerance article “Straight Talk About the N-Word” and the accompanying toolkit.)

Word Work

In this task, you will read parts of the “Gays are the New Niggers” (see handout).

(Note: The recommended central text for this lesson uses the n-word. For information on the n-word, review Teaching Tolerance article “Straight Talk About the N-Word” and the accompanying toolkit.)

  1. Read the first seven paragraphs. While reading underline these words: heterosexist, appropriating, pacifism, Gandhian and villainized.
  2. After you have finished reading, discuss how each vocabulary word is used as an entire class or with a partner.
  3. Following the class discussion, independently define each term using your own words, and explain how it applies to Bayard Rustin’s life and activism. Remember to use complete sentences.

Close and Critical Reading

Read and Response

(Note: Number the paragraphs from 1-31 for the reading “Gays are the New Niggers.” Treat indented quotes like they are paragraphs. Suggested divisions: Excerpt 1: Paragraphs 8-11; Excerpt 2: Paragraphs 14-16; Excerpt 3: Paragraphs 25-28; Excerpt 4: Paragraphs 29-31.)

  1. In groups, analyze the excerpts and react to them. (Note: Consider doing this task as a jigsaw.) What is the statement being made? What reasoning is used to make the statement? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  2. When reading, it’s important to analyze or deconstruct the text. Consider some of these suggested questions from the Center for Media Literacy: Who created this message? How might different people understand this message differently from me? Whose point of view is presented? What reasons might an individual have for being interested in this message? (Note: For more information on media literacy, visit the Center for Media Literacy.)
  3. Read “Gays are the New Niggers” again and complete the graphic organizer about the life of Bayard Rustin. In what organizations was Rustin active? When was he involved with these organizations? What cause or movement did the organization support? What role did Rustin play with the group? What leaders and activists did he meet due to the diversity of his political activism?

Community Inquiry

Discuss Rustin’s accomplishments and their significance. Is it possible to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the civil rights movement without also discussing Bayard Rustin? How did Rustin directly influence Dr. King’s leadership philosophy? How did Dr. King feel about Rustin’s homosexuality? Did Rustin’s sexuality impact the ways in which he was able to contribute to the civil rights movement? What does Rustin’s relationship with Dr. King reveal about the connection between gay rights and civil rights? Are gay rights separate from civil rights? Do you think that gay rights and civil rights should be studied separately, or should they be taught together? 

Write to the Source

Using the completed Graphic Organizer as your resource, reflect on what you learned about Bayard Rustin and how your understanding of him evolved throughout the activity. How did Rustin contribute to the civil rights movement despite the challenges he faced as a gay man?  What does Rustin’s life and activism represent about him as an individual, as well as how ideas, perceptions and people evolve over time? What accounts for the changes in Rustin’s willingness to openly advocate for gay rights in his later years? Did Rustin change? Did society change? Support your answer using examples from the text. Your answer must include examples that demonstrate how Rustin changed or did not change.

Do Something

Create a Bayard Rustin Award at your school. Each year, recognize a diverse group of students who embody the qualities that made Bayard Rustin such an important activist. With the help of a faculty mentor develop a list of personal qualities and other criteria that will be used to select recipients. Bayard Rustin’s birthday is March 17th. Honor Rustin’s legacy by announcing the group of students chosen by their peers to receive the award on that day. Give each student a certificate for the award.

Common Core State Standards (English Language Arts Standards)

Reading

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Writing

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening

1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Language

1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Straight Talk About the N-word

Here are some resources from Teaching Tolerance about teaching about the use of the n-word in your classroom. They recommend that at least one African American adult is there to teach or facilitate discussion. The following resources are for grades 9-12, but I suppose they could be adapted if not used as a starting point to discuss the word with younger students. And let’s be real, none of us wishes to teach about the word because we don’t want to say it ourselves (says the young, white female).

The first resource is sort of a FAQ about the word:

The n-word is unique in the English language. On one hand, it is the ultimate insult- a word that has tormented generations of African Americans. Yet over time, it has become a popular term of endearment by the descendents of the very people who once had to endure it. Among many young people today—black and white—the n-word can mean friend.

Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word “nigger” (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.

“When I first started talking about the idea of the course,” Lester recalled, “I had people saying, ‘This is really exciting, but what would you do in the course? How can you have a course about a word?’ It was clear to me that the course, both in its conception and in how it unfolded, was much bigger than a word. It starts with a word, but it becomes about other ideas and realities that go beyond words.”

Lester took a few minutes to talk to Teaching Tolerance managing editor Sean Price about what he’s learned and how that can help other educators.

How did the n-word become such a scathing insult?
We know, at least in the history I’ve looked at, that the word started off as just a descriptor, “negro,” with no value attached to it. … We know that as early as the 17th century, “negro” evolved to “nigger” as intentionally derogatory, and it has never been able to shed that baggage since then—even when black people talk about appropriating and reappropriating it. The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history.

Why is the n-word so popular with many young black kids today?
If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment. People like to talk about it in terms of public and private uses. Jesse Jackson was one of those who called for a moratorium on using the word, but then was caught using the word with a live mic during a “private” whispered conversation.

There’s no way to know all of its nuances because it’s such a complicated word, a word with a particular racialized American history. But one way of getting at it is to have some critical and historical discussions about it and not pretend that it doesn’t exist. We also cannot pretend that there is not a double standard—that blacks can say it without much social consequence but whites cannot. There’s a double standard about a lot of stuff. There are certain things that I would never say. In my relationship with my wife, who is not African American, I would never imagine her using that word, no matter how angry she was with me. …

That’s what I’m asking people to do—to self-reflect critically on how we all use language and the extent to which language is a reflection of our innermost thoughts. Most people don’t bother to go to that level of self-reflection and self-critique. Ultimately, that’s what the class is about. It’s about selfeducation and self-critique, not trying to control others by telling them what to say or how to think, but rather trying to figure out how we think and how the words we use mirror our thinking. The class sessions often become confessionals because white students often admit details about their intimate social circles I would never be privy to otherwise.

What types of things do they confess?
In their circles of white friends, some are so comfortable with the n-word because they’ve grown up on and been nourished by hip-hop. Much of the commercial hip-hop culture by black males uses the n-word as a staple. White youths, statistically the largest consumers of hip-hop, then feel that they can use the word among themselves with black and white peers. … But then I hear in that same discussion that many of the black youths are indeed offended by [whites using the n-word]. And if blacks and whites are together and a white person uses the word, many blacks are ready to fight. So this word comes laden with these complicated and contradictory emotional responses to it. It’s very confusing to folks on the “outside,” particularly when nobody has really talked about the history of the word in terms of American history, language, performance and identity.

Most public school teachers are white women. How might they hold class discussions about this word? Do you think it would help them to lay some groundwork?
You might want to get somebody from the outside who is African American to be a central part of any discussion— an administrator, a parent, a pastor or other professional with some credibility and authority. Every white teacher out there needs to know some black people. Black people can rarely say they know no white people; it’s a near social impossibility. The NAACP would be a good place to start, but I do not suggest running to the NAACP as a single “authority.” Surely there are black parents of school children or black neighbors a few streets over or black people at neighboring churches. The teacher might begin by admitting, “This is what I want to do, how would you approach this? Or, how do we approach it as a team? How can we build a team of collaboration so that we all accept the responsibility of educating ourselves and our youths about the power of words to heal or to harm?” This effort then becomes something shared as opposed to something that one person allegedly owns.

How might a K-12 teacher go about teaching the n-word?
At the elementary level, I can imagine bringing in children’s picture books to use in conjunction with a segment on the civil rights movement, because students talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Look at some of the placards [held by white people at 1960s civil rights] protests and see if some of them have been airbrushed or the messages sanitized. Talk about language, about words and emotion, about words and pain. Consider the role of words in the brutal attacks on black people during slavery, during Jim Crow, during the civil rights movement. Consider how words were part of the attacks on black people.

Depending on how old the students are, a teacher might talk about the violence that involved lynching and castration, and how the n-word was part of the everyday discourse around race relations at the time. Then bring in some hip-hop, depending again on the age. If these are middle school students or high school students, a teacher can talk specifically about hip-hop and how often the n-word is used and in a specific context. … There are many ways that a teacher can talk about the n-word without necessarily focusing on just one aspect—like whether or not Huck should have used the n-word when he references Jim [in Huckleberry Finn]. Any conversation about the n-word has to be about language and thinking more broadly.

What should teachers keep in mind as they teach about the n-word?
Remember the case of the white teacher who told the black student to sit down and said, “Sit down, nigga.” And then the teacher is chastised by the administration and of course there is social disruption. He said, “I didn’t say ‘Sit down, nigger,’ I said ‘Sit down, nigga,’ and that’s what I hear the students saying.” I’m thinking, first, you are an adult, white teacher. Secondly, do you imitate everything that you see and hear others doing or saying? At some level, there has to be some self-critique and critical awareness and sensitivity to difference. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean that I do it even if and when I surely can.

In my courses, I’m more interested in raising questions than in finding answers to them. I think the questions lead to potential self-discovery. It’s not about whether or not a person uses the n-word. I try to move the class beyond easy binaries—“Well, blacks can use it, but whites can’t.” That line of thinking doesn’t take us very far at all. What we are trying to do, at least the way I have conceptualized and practiced this discovery, is so much more. The class strives to teach us all manner of ways to talk about, think about and to understand ourselves, and each other, and why and how we fit in the rest of the world.

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The second resource is a lesson plan with discussion questions for grades 9-12. I won’t post the whole thing here. The link also leads to a few other resources on the subject. If the link is broken do a google search for search through the Teaching Tolerance website for “Portfolio Activity for “Straight Talk About the N-word.””

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The third resource is a video called “A War For Your Soul” about the plight of African Americans. I haven’t seen it, but it’s only 20 minutes long. If the link is broken, do a google search for the title and you can find it on a variety of websites for free. Maybe if I get a chance to watch it, I’ll do a proper review.