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Talking Racism in a COVID Classroom

Talking Racism in a COVID Classroom

Each of the last two springs, I made a virtual trip to Fulton Avenue School #8 in Oceanside, New York, to talk with sixth-grade students about my novel Night on Fire, depicting the Freedom Riders.   

For the event, set up by teacher Ivy Cibrano, families would read the book together, then gather in the school auditorium to discuss the story and the all-important topic of racism. I took part via the Internet, answering questions and posing new ones, projected as a giant head at the front of the auditorium, my version of the Great Oz.

The Pandemic   

This spring, because of the pandemic, the students had been studying from home, but Ivy was determined to continue our annual event. In April she sent me an email:      

“These are unprecedented times and the students are loving your book. It makes me so happy to watch their reactions and hear their comments. I am videotaping myself reading the book aloud. They watch the video and respond. Once a week we have a virtual book talk. I would love to surprise them when we finish and invite you to our virtual book discussion.”

I was all in. A week before, Ivy sent me a page of the kids’ favorite quotations from Night on Fire. I was gratified to see their choices:   

“First you dream it, then you build it.” – Ema
“There are two kinds of people in the world: watchers and riders.
     I want to be a rider.” – Noah
“Keep trying. Keep the faith.” – Ebonny
“The bell was silent, but inside me it kept on ringing.” – Kyla

The Visit 

The day of the event, I combed my lengthening hair, plopped down in front of the computer, and entered their virtual classroom. There were cries of what, I’m hoping, were surprise and delight. I dove into their discussion, and they fired off questions—good ones, questions that challenged me and made me think: 

“Would you like to go back and travel with the Freedom Riders?”
“When you were our age, how were African Americans treated?”
“Why is the story narrated by Billie (who is white) instead of by
     Jarmaine (who is black)? 

I answered as best I could, encouraging the students to be riders, not watchers, and to keep reading. Next spring, Ivy and circumstances permitting, the families will meet in person, and I’ll join them once again to discuss the always crucial, always current topic of racism.

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