Ali McMillan, this week’s Educator of the Week, has taught middle schoolers of multiple cultural backgrounds on three different continents. Inspired by her diverse teaching experiences, Ali encourages her students to consider multiple perspectives, points of view, and social stereotypes in order to reach a deeper understanding in and out of the classroom. Currently she is an English teacher at West Feliciana Middle School in St. Francisville, Louisiana.
For your Nat Geo Educator Certification, you created a project about cultural, ethnic, and geographic stereotypes—a very multidisciplinary lesson for your English/Language Arts class. What did that look like?
Students began by reading the book Monster by Walter Dean Myers, which is a story about a 16-year-old boy named Steve who was on trial for murder. As his story unfolded, the students were able to see the world through his eyes. They then searched through magazines for pictures to represent sensory details from the story—things Steve might see, smell, touch, hear, or taste in his native environment of New York City. I wanted students to learn about the geography of New York, but also to imagine Steve’s life on a really concrete level.
Next, the students went outside to explore our native environment, a rural area in Louisiana. As they took a nature walk, students were asked to make observational notes about how Steve would view our world and what sensory details he might find very different from his own environment.
Then, students were asked to compare and contrast Steve to themselves, making notes based on what they knew about him from the story. Finally, we shared and discussed what the students had written. Through the discussion, we addressed cultural, ethnic, and geographic stereotypes. The students finished the activity with a written reflection on what they learned.
It sounds like the project was much more than a book report. How did your students react to this type of assignment?
It definitely culminated into something more than a book report. My students were captivated by Steve’s story and perspective, and although his situation was much more serious than anything they’ve experienced, they could still relate to his thought process and the relationship he had with his parents and little brother. I could have finished the project with that connection, but with the additional components of the magazine and the nature walk, the students took their learning and understanding that much deeper.
The discussion we had after the nature walk was awesome, and this level of thought and consideration weren’t present before the extension activities. We dived into questions regarding social stereotypes, author’s perspective, and the narrator’s point of view. The students really sympathized with him, which had a lot to do with the particular point of view from which the story was told.
What types of changes in attitudes or perspectives did you observe in your students?
I really enjoyed this lesson because the students had so many “ah ha” moments throughout the project. They began the novel as they would any assignment, but by the end, they were discussing it in the hallways and during lunch. They identified with the characters on a real human level, and Steve’s character was brought out of the book and into their lives. They were really attentive to and inspired by the story; one student even wrote a song about the book!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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