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New Kids on the Block

By Robin Cooley

To help facilitate discussion throughout the story, I have a large graphic organizer on chart paper at the front of the room that indicates whether the characters' actions place them in one of three categories: active racism, passive racism, and anti-racism. (See box, page 50.) I also give the students their own copies to help me see where their thinking is about the characters. I have all of the characters' names on Velcro so I can place them in different boxes when their racist or anti-racist behavior changes.

My fifth graders have the easiest time categorizing the characters whose behavior is actively racist. The most obvious racist in the story is Winnie's neighbor, Mrs. Landon. Mrs. Landon does not want the Garbers living in "her" neighborhood and starts a petition to get the family to leave, letting the Garbers know they are not wanted. "Now, I have nothing against the Garbers personally. I just want our lovely neighborhood to stay the way it is. As I'm sure you do." She also hammers a sign into the front lawn of the Garber's house that said, "GO BACK WHERE YOU BELONG. WE DON'T WANT YOUR KIND AROUND HERE!!!!!!" Because Mrs. Landon says and does these things, my students had an easy time identifying her racism. Mrs. Landon never moves from the "active racism" category.

Mrs. Landon's daughter, Clarice, also shows active racist behaviors in the story. We had a lively discussion on where to place Clarice's name. Some students did not want to put Clarice in the "active racism" box because they think her actions are her mother's fault. They wanted to put her in the passive box. But some students argued that because Clarice actually says to the Garber children, "My mother says I can't play with any colored kids," and she helps her mother hammer the sign into the lawn, that makes her behavior actively racist.

Throughout the story we see that Winnie's mom, Mrs. Barringer, is also actively racist. At the beginning of the book when Winnie tells her mother she is going to meet the new family, Mrs. Barringer says she will bake some brownies for Winnie to bring to them. But after she finds out they're black, she "forgets" to bake them. At this point in the story, some students inferred that Mrs. Barringer forgot on purpose and put her name in the "active racism" category. Other students argued that we didn't know enough about why the mom forgot to bake the brownies, and they put her name in the "passive racism" section. In the middle of the book, when Winnie asks her mother why she doesn't do something to help the Garbers, her mother replies, "Because it really isn't any of our business, Winnie. Your father and I don't believe in getting mixed up in other people's lives. These things will work themselves out. Daddy and I are not crusaders." The students agreed that her comment constituted racism, but disagreed on whether it was active or passive. But when Mrs. Barringer decides she wants to sign Mrs. Landon's petition, and considers moving rather than having to live on the same block with a black family, they all agreed to move her to the "active racism" category.

We also had lively discussions around Winnie's father, because his behaviors required the most inferencing. At first, students were eager to put him in the "active anti-racism" category because he refuses to sign Mrs. Landon's petition. When I asked the class to explain why he did not sign it, one student exclaimed, "Because he wants to do the right thing. He doesn't want to make a family move out of the neighborhood just because they're black." When I asked the students to go back into the text and find the paragraph that supports this, they couldn't do it. They realized that we do not know Mr. Barringer's motivation for not signing it. Most of the students agreed to put his name in the "passive racism" category. Even later in the story, when Mr. Barringer organizes a block meeting, the class agreed that he couldn't be moved into the "active anti-racism" category because it's not clear his motives for organizing the block party meeting have anything to do with helping the Garbers.

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