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Deepening Students' Racial and Textual Understanding Through Condensed Writing

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Prejudice. Racism. Identity. These words have a great deal of power in today’s world, especially for teenagers who are just beginning to discover who they are and who they want to become in a world where race and culture are hot topics in the national discourse. Our job as educators is to explore these topics with sensitivity, compassion, and sincerity.

One way to broach this difficult conversation is through literature. And I recently discovered a creative way to help students articulate the racial perspectives and issues contained in a text.

After reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in my co-taught sophomore English class were introduced to The Race Card Project pioneered by Michele Norris in 2010 and popularized on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Simply stated, the goal of the project is to generate a unique conversation about race by getting people to write about racial experiences or perspectives in just six words.

For the class project we modified this slightly, giving the following directions: “Think about the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. How do they view race? Racism? How would they describe their own racial identity? Their town? The trial? There are lots of ideas to explore. Write two race cards. They can be for the same character or two different characters. You may also write one card about yourself if you wish.”

—Wikipedia

I was hesitant about how the students would react and if they would truly be able to analyze the characters in a mere six words. I stood before the class amazed as they each took pen to paper and avidly tried to condense their thoughts, while taking on the perspectives of Lee’s beloved characters of Atticus and Scout Finch. Many students counted their words on their fingers and gasped in dismay when the word count was off. Some worked together to provide feedback and validation. Regardless of whether they worked independently or collaboratively, the students were actively engaged in a meaningful student-centered learning activity. I was also deeply moved by how many students chose to write race cards for themselves and candidly shared their experiences with racism, prejudice, and xenophobia.

Making Connections

So often we ask students to elaborate on their ideas; however, there is something beautiful about watching them struggle to define their thoughts in so few words. In sharing their race cards, the students were able to engage in a larger conversation about racism in America. They used the novel to make connections to current events and examined the underlying causes of prejudice and how we can work together to foster acceptance, celebrate our differences, and affect positive change in our school and our community.

Here are some other ideas on making The Race Card Project work in different classroom settings:

  • Make it anonymous if students are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts directly.
  • Make digital cards and post them to Google Classroom.
  • Create Race Cards for historical or famous figures in social studies.
  • Use Race Cards to examine works of art or songs.
  • Use the “6 Word” format as a formative assessment to monitor understanding of a concept.
  • Make positive Race Cards to celebrate and improve school climate.

Many educators struggle to find a balance between teaching content and teaching critical thinking skills. The act of synthesizing information and ideas into concise statements is a way to teach a higher-order thinking skill through content.

There are many ways to customize this activity for students of all ages in all subjects. This engaging activity is accessible to a broad range of learners and can be particularly powerful for English-language learners and students with disabilities who can be intimidated by longer writing assignments while still being challenging for our advanced students. It allowed me to build a bridge between literature and students' everyday lives and gave them the opportunity to be reflective listeners and effective communicators.

The Race Card activity has become an annual tradition in my classes and each year I am awed with the candor and insight the students are each able to express in their six words. Incorporating the "6 Word" philosophy into your practice is a simple, yet powerful way to get students engaged in meaningful conversations about content. Are you up for the challenge?

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