This is the second post in the “Complex Books, In Context” series. Check out the first resource guide on Wonder by R.J. Palacio here.
In our quest to provide diverse and inclusive texts to our students, we must also be intentional about how we use texts that address social inequality issues. If we use our lessons to only focus on the characters or the craft, we miss an important opportunity to help them understand the world around them. When we lean into the complexity of a book, young people can begin to understand hard realities, with our support, before experiencing those issues in their own lives. We cannot prepare them for engaging in complex conversations if we avoid the tough stuff in our classrooms. Students, like everyone else, need to practice this skill. One clear way we can support them is by helping them learn to see the social context surrounding a story, whether that story is in a picture book or YA novel. To “zoom out” on any text, ask the following questions and collect resources (in collaboration with your team). Remember that not all resources need to be for students, but can be used to help educators deepen their understanding as they prepare for lessons on complex social inequality issues.
- What are basic terms/concepts relevant to this story that we all should understand first?
- What data/statistics should we know to really understand what’s happening in this story?
- Let’s think about what has happened in the past leading up to this story. What historical events do we think are important to know about for us to really understand what’s going on?
- Are there laws or policies relevant to this story that we should know about? Are there social movements that have focused on the issues in this story?
- Cultural beliefs are ideas or stereotypes that are commonly held in a community or society. What cultural beliefs should we be familiar with in order to truly understand the story?
Think of these resources like providing a map for students to navigate what they are reading and place the story in context.
Genesis Begins Again tells the powerful story of a thirteen-year-old struggling to overcome internalized racism and an unstable family life as she learns to love herself. The book offers several opportunities to explore tough social issues with your students–eviction, bullying, colorism, stigma, self-harm, mental health, addiction, verbal abuse, and family trauma–through the lens of a very relatable middle school character. Use the examples below as a guide to help you facilitate these types of conversations in a way that disrupts stereotypes and allows students to see the big picture.
The following are examples of definitions you would collect to lay the groundwork for your students–to make sure everyone is speaking the same “language.”
Anti-Bias Education Glossary
ADL | Definitions
Classism: Prejudice and/or discrimination against people because of their socioeconomic status (how much money their families have or do not have).
Culture: The patterns of daily life learned consciously and unconsciously by a group of people. These patterns can be seen in language, governing practices, arts, customs, holiday celebrations, food, religion, relationships, family roles, clothing, etc.
Identity-Based Bullying: Refers to any form of bullying related to the characteristics considered unique to a person’s identity, such as their race, religion, sexual orientation or physical appearance.
Implicit Bias: The unconscious attitudes and stereotypes and unintentional actions (positive or negative) toward members of a group merely because of their membership in that group.
Intersectionality: The examination of overlapping and connected social systems that compound oppression for individuals who belong to multiple marginalized social groups based on their race, gender, class, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc.
Historical, Political, and Cultural Context
These are examples of resources that allow educators to help students “zoom out” from Genesis’s story to the larger social context, to better guide conversations on social inequality.
How Much Do You Need to Earn to Afford a Modest Apartment in Your State?
National Low Income Housing Coalition | Interactive Website
Use this interactive tool to explore the hourly wage required to afford a two bedroom rental home by state.
Still Separate, Still Unequal: Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality
The New York Times | Lesson Plan
Racial segregation in public education has been illegal for 65 years in the United States. Yet American public schools remain largely separate and unequal — with profound consequences for students, especially students of color.
A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America
NPR | Podcast
The term “redlining” comes from the color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the country, designed to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages. Anywhere African-Americans lived or lived nearby were colored red to indicate to appraisers that these neighborhoods were too risky to insure mortgages.
Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life
Vox | Article, Infographics
We often talk about increasing wealth inequality, but something we should be even more concerned about is what is happening to our neighborhoods. There are now more extremely poor neighborhoods and more extremely rich neighborhoods. We’re seeing two divergent Americas, one with money, and one without.
Chika Okoro: How colorism shapes our standards of beauty
Chika Okoro addresses a phenomenon she’s experienced all her life: colorism. In this eye-opening talk, Okoro shares coping strategies along with steps that could help eliminate this insidious and destructive mindset of discrimination.
These examples offer guidance for educators who want to explore social inequality issues with students. The intention is to help educators consider these types of issues before talking with students.
- Genesis’s mother works a low-wage job and cannot support the family on her own. Have your students look up the minimum wage in your state and discuss whether a parent could support a family working full-time with that income. Show them how many hours you would need to work in your state to earn enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment and discuss their reactions.
- Have your students look up and compare the racial demographics of Detroit and Farmington Hills to start a conversation about residential racial segregation. Together, explore the story of the wall built in a Detroit neighborhood in the 1940s to keep a black neighborhood and a white neighborhood segregated. Ask them to think about how the impacts of racist policies of the past can stay with us, even when we no longer have those policies.
- Genesis describes how different the Farmington Hills school is compared to the schools she attended in Detroit. They are all public schools, so why are they so unequal? Help your students explore how schools are funded in the United States and facilitate a conversation about what they find out.
- Genesis’s grandmother described the internalized colorism in her family and the “brown paper bag test.” Your students might read this and conclude that a preference for lighter skin is somehow “natural” because it happens in communities of color. It’s very important that we help them place this story in historical and cultural context and understand that colorism is a product of European colonialism and American slavery. People from groups that have been marginalized are just as susceptible to absorbing cultural biases as are people from dominant groups. To help students understand this concept, ask them to reflect on other examples of how we can internalize negative stereotypes about our own groups (e.g., the way that girls can internalize sexist ideas about obtaining the “perfect” body and then cause harm to themselves or others).