The group of 31 high school juniors gathered at the Eastern Michigan University Student Center late this past November had little in common with the 18 EMU juniors and seniors they were meeting with, except one thing: They had all recently read the same novel.
Angie Thomas’s young adult novel, “The Hate U Give” follows 16-year-old Starr Carter as she navigates between the urban neighborhood she lives in and the predominantly white, suburban school she attends.
The differences between the two communities are heightened when Starr’s childhood friend is killed by a white police officer, the officer is investigated for the murder, and Starr must speak up as the only witness of the shooting.
“I read this novel during the summer with my book club,” said Torie Anderson, a teacher at Harper Woods High School. “After reading it, I knew that it was something that I wanted to share with my students. I knew that this book needed to be taught in schools, and so I made the decision to purchase a classroom set of the novel.”
Anderson, an EMU alumna who graduated in 2010, worked with Annette Wannamaker, a professor in the EMU Department of English Language and Literature, to organize the event after the two educators connected on Twitter when Anderson posted in September that “My students are hooked. “The Hate U Give” Unit Plan coming soon …” and the two educators realized they were teaching the same book at the same time, but in very different contexts.
“In our field, we believe that diverse books like “The Hate U Give” are vital because they can create mirrors where underrepresented readers can see themselves and their cultures represented,” Wannamaker said. “They also create windows that help us all to learn more about cultures that are not our own.”
Anderson said she bought copies of the novel for her students because seeing themselves and their culture represented in a work of literature can open up reading for them in ways that a traditional curriculum might not:
"The engagement that my students had while reading this novel was unparalleled to anything I've experienced in my career as a teacher,” she said. “Reluctant readers became enthralled. My students would enter the room and the first thing they would ask me was, ‘Are we reading today?’”
One of Anderson’s students said of the novel, “I personally don't like reading, but this is one of the best books I ever read. It speaks the truth about black life and talks about the real stuff that is happening to black people and people in general daily.”
Wannamaker said, “While some EMU students come from communities such as the one depicted in the novel, many don’t. In a lot of ways, the two communities in the book resemble our two communities. What, we wondered, might our students learn from one another if they all got together to share their perspectives about the novel?”
On Thursday, November 30, the Harper Woods students and EMU students met on the Eastern campus for a class meeting of “CHL 450: Children’s Literature: Criticism and Response.”
It was an opportunity for the high school juniors to participate in a college-level course and to meet and meaningfully interact with advanced college students. It was also an opportunity for EMU students reading, researching and writing about children’s and young adult literature to interact with young adult readers.
"’The Hate U Give’ is a novel that asks young people to think deeply and critically about some very difficult current issues,” Wannamaker said. “Those include police brutality, school segregation and inequality, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, white privilege and white ally-ship, and the economic, social, historical and political forces that have worked to shape this cultural moment.
“It is also a book that highlights the importance of education, activism, and community-building.”
The students who gathered quickly moved from awkward introductions to meaningful discussions of their varied perspectives on the book’s different subcultures and communities, soon discovering what they know and don’t know about each other.
Kaitlyn Johnson, a junior at EMU, said, “Being able to talk with the students shed a whole new light on “The Hate U Give.” They pointed out some things I had never noticed. It was such a cool opportunity to share thoughts and experiences with each other. I didn’t want the conversation to end.”
Anderson said her favorite part of the gathering was getting to step back and watch her students hold their own while having conversations with the college students.
“I wanted to jump in the whole time and kind of hold their hand and guide them through the conversations about the novel, but I didn’t,” she said. “That was probably the hardest thing I've had to do as a teacher in a while. But they surprised me and they rose to meet my expectations.
“Today was definitely one of those days that made me love my job.”