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A Novel Approach to Diversity

A scholastic fish-out-of-water tale encourages classroom dialogue about diversity, racism, and friendship.

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Having spent her childhood in the suburbs of Baltimore, Md., and later teaching for a year in a predominantly black and Latino junior high school in Washington, D.C., young-adult author Pamela Ehrenberg knows what it’s like for a person to navigate an unfamiliar setting. Such experiences provide the backdrop for Ehrenberg’s award-winning novel Ethan, Suspended.

Pamela Ehrenberg
Pamela Ehrenberg

After being suspended from school, 11-year-old Ethan Oppenheimer finds himself plucked from his cozy suburban home in Philadelphia and forced to move to his grandparents' time-warped house in Washington, D.C. There's no cable, no Internet, and dinner is at 4 p.m. Worse, he has to learn the ropes as the only Jewish kid at a black and Latino school characterized by remedial music lessons, economic disparities, and racial tensions.

Teachers can use the novel to introduce their middle and junior high schoolers to themes of diversity, racism, and friendship, says Ehrenberg. Ethan’s experience and subsequent transformation can be a springboard to highlight lessons on tolerance and cultural sensitivity.

You place the character Ethan in an unfamiliar social and cultural setting, where he mostly learns the ropes with the help of a few new friends. What role did his teachers play in helping his adjustment to his new environment?

Many middle school students feel at one point or another like they're flailing, but Ethan does receive guidance from teachers to help him adjust. His music teacher, Mr. Harper, works with him after school to teach him the oboe and spends his own time transcribing music so Ethan can participate in the jazz band—a stable social and, in this case, community service outlet in addition to the musical learning it provides. And Ethan's after-school remedial oboe lessons incorporate a fair amount of guidance on meeting challenges and demonstrating persistence. Actually, one criticism of the book came from a retired school librarian who doubted whether any teacher would really spend this much time helping one student without extra pay. I assured her I had seen many examples of this type of dedication at the school where I taught.

Also, Ethan's social studies teacher intervenes on Ethan's behalf when Ethan is experiencing harassment, and I think the way he holds Ethan to high academic and personal standards also demonstrates his style of caring. I think Ethan's teachers are a wonderful resource for him, even if it takes him a little while to avail himself of their help.

How do you imagine teachers using Ethan, Suspended in their classrooms?

In addition to its use in English classes, the novel has strong curricular tie-ins to social studies, particularly the Civil Rights era, and a school music program also features prominently in the book. I worked with the publisher to create a discussion guide, which is available on my Web site www.pamelaehrenberg.com and the publisher's site www.eerdmans.com/youngreaders. It suggests pre- and post-reading activities and discussion questions; it also includes vocabulary words and thematic connections. I would also love to hear from teachers about ways that they've used the book successfully in the classroom. I invite teachers to contact me through my Web site, and if there is interest, I'm happy to post additional curricular ideas on the site.

Share Your Experience

Have you used Ethan, Suspended in your classroom? Contact Pamela Ehrenberg with your feedback, questions, and curricular ideas.

This spring I'll be traveling to upstate New York, to a rural junior high in which two teams of 100 students each will be reading the book. I'm looking forward to learning how they use it in their classrooms and how it helps to focus their discussions of issues in their community. And I'm honored that the novel was named one of Book Links magazine's "Best New Books for the Classroom" and was included among VOYA's "Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School". I hope this means that students in a wide variety of classroom settings will have opportunities to explore with their teachers the various questions raised by the novel.

What is the best way for teachers to address the issue of cultural diversity in the classroom?

Fortunately, folks far more knowledgeable than I am have attempted to answer this question through the creation of standards. The Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium “core" standards, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the standards for various content areas established by specialized professional associations all address the need for teachers to incorporate diversity into the curriculum and to consider diversity when making pedagogical decisions. Themes running throughout these standards include what teachers need to know about cultural diversity, how to teach in ways that are respectful of and relevant to students' experiences, and the importance of believing that all students can learn.

As an educator, I think it comes down to respecting the whole student—their culture, their background, everything that helps to shape their perspective and their sense of humor and whoever they are as a person. As a first-year teacher, I respected my students very deeply on an individual level, all 128 of them. But I struggled with a lot of the common classroom-management issues that would have enabled them to learn as much as they could have. Part of my thinking as I was writing Ethan, Suspended, was that the book might be a way to show my former students how much I continue to value and respect them.

And of course, as someone with an English-teaching background, I believe strongly in the power of literature to initiate and continue conversations. Kids can address all kinds of challenging themes such as justice, tolerance, and standing up for what's right, by examining their own views through the lens of a fictional character's experiences.

Speaking of cultural diversity, Ethan is often confused because he doesn’t fully grasp the significance of the socio-economic or race-related tensions among some classmates. This is not an easy issue for teachers to address head-on. Do you suggest educators address this in the classroom?

I think educators need to address the factors that impact their students' learning and cultural, socio-economic, and racial diversity—tensions arising from misunderstandings in these areas would certainly fall in that category. At the same time, it's important for teachers to recognize the limits of their expertise and know what resources are available to them.

In many cases, teachers' expertise is limited. Certainly, when teachers come from the same community as their students, from communities facing similar tensions, or if they have gained knowledge and experience through their years working in the school and community, they can be valuable members of a school team that includes counselors and administrators and work to address these issues. But not all teachers have this expertise—that was certainly the case with me.

I could express concern to an individual student who missed school when his brother was hospitalized with gang-related injuries, but for me, on my own, to attempt to address head-on the dynamics of Washington, D.C.'s gang tensions would have gone beyond my qualifications and could have done more harm than good. For many teachers, creating a stable, safe, and effective learning environment and attempting to create a respite from tensions rather than addressing them head-on can be a valuable contribution to students' lives and learning. And, of course, the role of one-on-one interaction, the benefit students gain from a caring mentor who takes an interest in their lives and makes clear his or her own values, can be a tremendous resource as well.

How can teachers address the issue of cultural diversity in classrooms that are not diverse?

Teachers can go a long way toward helping students see all the types of diversity around them. When I was an AmeriCorps member in the Appalachian area of western Maryland, which is known for limited racial and ethnic diversity, I participated in an exercise that revealed a surprising diversity in terms of birthplace, family roles, religion, and socio-economic status. Obviously teachers won't want to put students on the spot in terms of revealing personal information, but students can come to understand "hidden" types of diversity, and projects involving the community can help students appreciate various types of diversity around them.

Teachers can also partner with classrooms in other communities to create opportunities for multiple groups of students. And, of course, teachers can use literature and other arts to expose students to forms of diversity they may encounter in the future.

In his new environment, Ethan learns some profound lessons about cultural sensitivity and building interracial friendships. Do you think these are age-appropriate lessons for middle and junior high school children? What role do teachers play in making students aware of the complexities of race, culture, and socio-economics?

One of the things I love best about middle school and junior high school students is their optimism about repairing the world and improving on the efforts of their parents' generation in all sorts of areas, including cultural sensitivity and interracial friendships. Teachers have valuable opportunities to engage students in thoughtful dialogue around books, historic and current events, scientific discoveries, works of art and music, and countless other areas shaped by race, culture, socioeconomics, and other forms of diversity. Through these conversations, students and teachers can broaden their perspectives in ways that wouldn't be possible alone. I'm honored to have this chance, through Ethan, Suspended, to join in these dialogues and to learn from students and their teachers.

-Danielle Woods

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