Middle school students need to see themselves in the books they read, and they need to write about personally meaningful experiences. Over the years, we've updated and diversified our book list, and we've developed writing assignments that tap into students' lived experiences, passions, and dreams. But we also seek to help them contextualize their experiences, so that they ask not simply "Who am I?" but also "Who am I in relation to you? Who am I here, in my neighborhood, living my intersecting identities, my beliefs, and my values? Who am I now, in this historical moment? And who do I want to become?"
To help students begin these conversations right as they enter middle school, we've added the book Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, to the sixth-grade curriculum. Same Sun Here is written as a correspondence between Meena, an Indian girl who's immigrated to New York City, and River, a white boy living in rural Kentucky. As different as Meena's and River's lives are, both love okra and mountains, both miss their fathers, whose work takes them away from home, both have strong relationships with their grandmothers, and both fight forces that threaten their homes. Both value honesty, learning, and taking action against injustice. Each struggles at times to understand the other, and they both make missteps and assumptions. But they work past their differences and form a strong and mutually supportive friendship.
As we've read this book, we've explored how people use images from their lives to introduce themselves, what it means for people to understand and support one another, and how having something in common can go much deeper than liking the same food. We've used dialogues, whole-class discussions, writing prompts, and drawing to discover and deepen our thinking. In some ways, the process of doing this work has mirrored the content, as we've found different ways to express ourselves, connect to one another, and become a community of learners.
At the end of the unit, students will work with a classmate co-author (just as Silas House and Neela Vaswani co-authored Same Sun Here) to write a dialogue that explores a common interest, passion, or value from their two different perspectives. We're using the word "dialogue" to mean any meaningful interchange: students might decide to write letters like in the book, emails, a conversation written as if for the stage, or another format. However they choose to approach it, they'll create work product that has the potential to be personally meaningful and connect students to one another—which seems important at the beginning of sixth grade, when students from the two lower divisions and students new to ECFS become one community.