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Novel Helps Fisher Students Engage in Difficult Conversations

February 23, 2017

Over the course of the academic year, students at St. John Fisher College will have learned the skills and tools needed to engage in difficult conversations about identity, race, privilege, and equality through the reading and analysis of All American Boys, a young adult novel published in 2015.

Students skype with the authors of All American Boys.

Students skype with the authors of All American Boys.

Written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, the book explores an incident of police violence through the eyes of two teens—one black and one white—and how they react to the bubbling tensions among their families, friends, school, and community in its wake.

Dr. Joellen Maples, as associate professor in the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education, read the novel when it was first published, and sat on the judging committee that selected it as a recipient of the Amelia Walden Book Award, which honors novels that are engaging and relevant to today’s young adults.

Struck by the message the book delivers, Maples wove it into curriculum for several of her classes, including Content Area Literacy courses, which pair her students with seventh graders from the Rochester City School District’s School 58. Through a program called Mentoring Matters, Fisher undergraduates hold a book club and literacy clinic with the middle school students.

In the fall, both groups read All American Boys, and together with teachers and professors—and in one session with a school resource officer from the Rochester Police Department—discussed and analyzed the major themes of the book.

“It was very interesting to see the impact the book had on the students and adults in the room,” said James Flagler ’17, an inclusive adolescent education and history major. “I think it really helped bridge a gap; instead of adults and students, we were all peers discussing the topics of the book together.”

Devyn Fairbairn ’18, an adolescent education and mathematics major and Honors student, said that the experience in the book club taught her a lot about how to engage future students.

“I now understand that I need to teach topics in a way that draws students in, so they come to class excited to learn, and I should bring up sensitive subjects and promote openness and respectful discussion in my classroom,” she said. “They are capable of having difficult discussions, and it is important for me, as a future teacher, to create a comfortable atmosphere for them to share their thoughts and opinions.”

Dr. Arlette Miller Smith, associate professor and director of the African American Studies program, also included the book in several of her courses, including a Leadership and Diversity course in the Executive Leadership Doctoral Program, Young Adult Literature and The American Dreams through the English Department. In her undergraduate courses, the focus was on creating a space where students felt comfortable talking about the subject matter, which explores concepts including racial bias, identity, and white privilege from several perspectives.

For Ebony Virgo ’18, a business management major who read the book in Miller Smith’s Young Adult Literature course, the in-class discussions of the novel explored how relatable it was to events happening in society today. She said the book spawned questions about how to move past being a silent bystander in a situation to engaging in discussion.

“I think there should be more open discussions of these topics,” Virgo said. “It’s important to sit down, share our opinions, and ask what we should do to solve these issue.”

That line of thinking is exactly what Miller Smith hoped the book would elicit.

“The book really leaves us with some extraordinary questions,” said Miller Smith. “How are we going to talk to each other? How do we understand what the lessons are and learn and teach them together?”

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, the entire Fisher community will have an opportunity to tackle some of those questions during American Dreams, Dilemmas, and Dialogue: A Campus and Community Read. Scheduled for 6 p.m. in Cleary Auditorium, the event will provide attendees who have not read the book with a synopsis and analysis of the novel, led by students in Miller Smith’s class.

Students in Dr. Jenna Rossi’s Brave Conversations Honors course will then lead small group discussions around different themes from the books. The students, who have developed skills in sustained dialogue over the course of the semester, will have pre-determined prompts to enrich the conversation.