Students enrolled in Bill Sullivan’s three sections of English IV Honors hosted an outside and livestreamed dialogue among underclassmen at the top of Stiles Walk on November 6 and 7. When senior classmates involved in the school production of Clybourne Park began sharing insights about this provocative play in class, seniors realized the need to understand and appreciate its issues and messages regarding race. The honors students then leaned into the idea of connecting themes between Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park as well as the texts that influenced each: James Baldwin’s “A Letter to my Nephew” and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
In the opening weeks of school, English IV Honors enjoyed a deep dive into James Baldwin’s “A Letter to my Nephew,” the first essay in Baldwin’s The Fire Inside. Finding value in an interview Coates gave at the Chicago Humanities Festival insightful, the seniors appreciated going back to the summer reading and recognizing how Coates leveraged different genres—memoir, journalism, history, and poetry—in order to convey America’s history and understanding of race. As Coates confides to his son, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Responding to a project-based learning challenge where students share what they learn to an authentic audience, students synthesized their research and insights and published original material on the Between the World and Me Wikipedia page. Then, in the middle of October when classmates who were participating in the school’s upcoming production of Clybourne Park began sharing the play’s issues regarding race and its connections to Coates’ work, the seniors began to see the possibility of elucidating the links of systemic racism and how it created segregation and obstacles to home ownership for African Americans in the second half of the 20th century. The seniors also recalled how they wished community texts from their underclassmen days were explained more for their level. In this spirit, the classes reached out to underclassmen English and Leadership classes to host this dialogue.
Continuing in a project-based learning mode, seniors divided into groups for content and design goals. These groups worked asynchronously in the Microsoft Teams’ chat function and continuously adapted to new challenges that finally leveraged livestreaming technology to enhance the experience for fellow remote classmates and audience members while developing the hybrid classroom to a new level.
Each presentation was distinct in nuanced ways, and underclassmen asked different and important questions. The seniors enjoyed sharing the many themes that evolved from their classroom discussions. More specifically, students discussed and shared their views on all four texts: de jure and de facto discrimination, implicit bias, home ownership and its relation to segregation, the American Dream, and Coates’ origin for the black body motif and his view of police violence and mass incarceration.
In a reflection exercise afterwards, seniors reported a deeper appreciation for these important themes resonating through our culture. Amethyst McKenzie summed up in her reflection what many of her classmates wrote and felt when she said, “I enjoyed working with others during our project-based learning units, especially on our last presentation on Between the World and Me, Clybourne Park, and racial inequality. It was refreshing to hear my classmates' ideas, opinions, and analysis as it too developed my understanding of the reading tremendously. Listening to everyone's ideas was exciting and insightful.”