Can Reading Bridge Racial, Socioeconomic Gaps?

Study after study shows the achievement gap in education between students of different cultures and economic backgrounds. Recently, two New Jersey schools successfully used literature to show students how 'the other half lives'. Can this experiment be a model for other schools to use books to bridge racial and socioeconomic gaps?

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Some Children Left Behind

Despite the best efforts of the No Child Left Behind law, the achievement gap between white and minority students continues to widen.

For example, in August 2011 the Alexandria Times reported that black and Hispanic students trailed 17 and 19 percentage points, respectively, behind white students in local schools. Unfortunately, such disparity is seen in many parts, particularly urban areas, of the United States.

In some cases, it might be difficult to bridge this gap when such cultural diversity exists even within a classroom. Language and other disparities between white and minority students, sometimes even between teachers and students, clearly exist.

But what if these students could better understand each other? What if through reading students could gain an appreciation for how their peers live? Could this one day help in some way to narrow this widening gap?

Using Fiction to Learn Facts

John Steinbeck once said, 'Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other.'

These words could very well apply to an experiment conducted recently in two New Jersey middle schools: the Cedarbrook K-8 Center in Plainfield, where students are mainly black and Hispanic, and the more affluent and mostly white Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield.

Eighth-graders in both schools were assigned to read Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men,' which portrays characters of different social and racial backgrounds. The students of the two schools studied the book at the same time and spoke about it with each other via Skype and in-person visits.

By having the students study characters such as Crooks, the black stablehand, and Curley's wife, a lonely white woman, make connections to their own worlds and then discuss their thoughts and observations with each other, it was hoped that they could gain a better understanding about how the other lives.

For the most part, it worked. In some cases stereotypes were stripped away and students came to realize that, social class and race aside, they were all just teenagers who even tended to have the same interests and hopes for the future.

'They're learning the same things, so they know that one school is no better or worse than the other,' Cedarbook teacher Eleanor Hemphill, who was involved in the New Jersey experiment, told The New York Times in January 2012.

One student from Plainfield even added students from Westfield as friends to his Facebook page as a direct result of this project!

Closing the Gap?

So how can this experiment impact the achievement gap between white and minority students, or wealthy and non-wealthy students?

Maybe it can't, at least not directly. Of course much has to come from teachers, school administrators and maybe even legislators before this gap can begin to narrow.

But how much of an impact would it have on the success of poor minority students if they realized that their white or more economically stable peers were in some ways no different than they were? That they in many cases like the same clothes, the same music, the same TV shows? That they had the same desires and aspirations for their futures?

Maybe the study of literature in just the way that it was done in Plainfield and Westfield could help to bring a unity between students not just in different schools but within the same classroom. As some studies have shown, removing comparisons during tests, whether it be race or gender or social status, has resulted in better performance by all students.

At the least, this manner of studying could build an understanding between the classes and the races that may carry over into adulthood, a lifelong lesson that could lead to a greater harmony down the road. An understanding that could very well lead people to 'be kind to each other.'

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