The theme of the American Dream in literature is one that transcends social and economic barriers, making it an ideal topic for discussion.
At , approximately 65 eighth graders in Language Arts teacher Matthew Kalafat's classes are discussing the American Dream; both their vision of it as well as the way it is presented in John Steinbeck's classic novel 'Of Mice and Men.'
While examining this work of literature and all its themes is nothing new, this year the classes have expanded their literacy circles beyond their four walls. On Tuesday, Jan. 17, the students will travel to Cedarbrook K8 Center in Plainfield to discuss the novel with their counterparts.
The brainchild of Roosevelt Assistant Principal Derrick Nelson, a Plainfield native who spent nearly a decade in urban education, the program began in the fall.
Nelson found Kalafat to be the natural fit to lead the inaugural "trial by fire year" because he, too, taught in Plainfield. By coincidence, many of the children Nelson taught in elementary school went on to become Kalafat's students in middle school.
In November, Plainfield students paid a visit to RIS and broke into groups of six to share their thoughts and unique perspectives of the novels and its themes. The students visited for four periods and shared lunch together.
“The interaction between the students was better than I could have dreamed," said Nelson. "I think we have put together something that will help to broaden students’ views and philosophies. We’ve always been able to provide students with various components of learning. What we have done in this program is provide students with an experience that will hopefully stay with them for a lifetime."
Nelson said while the schools are only four miles apart, they might as well be 400 miles apart.
"Kids are kids but by the same token there are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. They would benefit greatly from interacting with each other because they live in cocoons, two different types of cocoons, but they're still cocoons," Nelson said.
Kalafat said so far the program has been "a tremendous success." Both he and Nelson have received positive feedback from parents who said the novel is being discussed at the dinner table and piquing the interest of younger siblings who hope to share a similar experience.
"The kids have had a fantastic time," said Kalafat. "Both schools were nervous, very nervous. I think it was cool for kids in Westfield, again, talk about stereotypes, they assume the kids in Plainfield will be cocky or more confident, but what they don't realize is that they are probably more nervous than the Westfield kids. It's eye-opening because their perception of the Plainfield kids isn't necessarily true."
Kalafat said the students have been more conscientious about completing their homework because they know it will be shared with the students in Plainfield. The children have also created 'Dream Boards' and dioramas filled with images of stereotypes of the American Dream as well as images of their actual views of the American Dream.
Though the program has been widely commended, Kalafat feels there is room for improvement. He hopes to "tweak" the Wiki through which the students have been communicating. The Language Arts teacher said he hopes to make it more interactive, allowing students a chance to engage in a more conversation-style, larger debate of the core issues the novel presents, such as how women and African-Americans were treated during that time period in history.
"Research shows that students learn more from other students more than they learn from teachers," Kalafat said. "Middle school is a very social age. In the classroom, the catchphrases for the past decade have been 'collaborative learning' and 'lit circles.'
"Teachers become more facilitators and not the sage on the stage. So this is just an extended lit circle to a degree. Where instead of the kids speaking with fellow Westfield kids, they're going to speak with Plainfield kids, so the richness and the depth of the lit circles is expanded exponentially by doing it with another town. That's the crux of the program."
The students at RIS will Skype with the Plainfield students this week. During the meeting on Jan. 17, the classes will share their Dream Boards with one another. They will also participate in a wrap-up activity, discussing the final controversial events in the book and then watch the film version together.
"It's one of those things that you don't realize how good the idea is until you put it out there," said Kalafat.
For more information on the program, visit the Plainfield-Westfield Wiki.