I inadvertently picked the hottest day of the year to read Mr. Lincoln's Way to the students and have them talk and write about some of the themes. But we managed...
After yesterday's introduction to some key vocabulary, and a pre-reading connection to other books we've read this year that include themes of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, we did a "picture walk" of Mr. Lincoln's Way so that students could make some predictions about what this book might be about.
Today, I read it to them, pausing to think aloud and also to clarify any confusing vocabulary ("atrium", "bolted" and a few other 'tricky-for-ELLs' words). Then, I sent them off to have grand conversations in their groups.
Later in the day, we debriefed as a class, and students wrote about both the book and their group conversations, as well as their resultant reflections, in their learning journals.
Defining the N-Word
One topic that arose was the use of the word "Nigger". (One of the characters in the book nearly uses this word to describe his school principal.) Interestingly, some students had never heard this word before! Those who had heard it knew that it was a "bad word". One mixed-race student in my class noted that she was neither allowed to say nor write this word.
Can a "Bad Word" be Reclaimed?
I told them about a movement within the black community to "reclaim" the N-word. Students were intrigued. I asked them if they thought that using this derogatory word often, in a NON-derogatory context, within the black community, decreased its negative power. They had varying ideas about this.
Below are some students' voices, as well as the "Sly and the Family Stone" anti-racism anthem they made me play for them at the end of the day, after I told them about the title! :-)
I have experienced racism. In grade 1, somebody called me "nigger". I didn't know what that word meant until today. Now I know to tell someone, because it is a strong word!
When I was a little kid playing on the playground, somebody said 'you are black', so I told him 'who cares?' So then, the next day, his friends bullied me.
Once, when I saw someone being biased, I tried to help the person being discriminated against. But the biased person told me it was none of my business!
For homework, I simply wrote the word "Nigger" 10-15 mins on the board. Most of the students were able to infer that that meant they should chat with someone at home about the book we read and wrote about today in class, and their feelings about some of the themes and comments that arose.
As a precaution for the less astute children and their poor parents, I also added some of the key vocabulary we had learned ("racism", "bias", "prejudice", etc.), lest they misunderstand my noble intent!