Eighth graders at Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield and Cedarbrook School in Plainfield wrapped up this year’s Plainfield Westfield Exchange Program on February 1. Meeting in Roosevelt’s cafeteria, the students shared their opinions of the Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men and one of its major themes: The struggle to achieve the American Dream.
The students from each school studied the novel for four weeks, which included two visits between schools to share ideas. Roosevelt also established an online wiki for students from both schools to communicate between meetings and discuss multiple analytical questions about the text.
On February 1, in small groups or speaking individually, the 8th-graders expressed their opinions of the existence of the American Dream in the novel as well as in reality, the reaction to murder and death of some of the novel’s characters, and the minority experience in the 1930s and today.
In addition to examining the connections between the novel and the world, the students were asked to reflect on what they learned from each other and each community during the exchange program. Every table of students included a facilitator from either Westfield or Plainfield who helped encourage discussion or answer questions.
Following the discussion period, the Plainfield 8th graders remained for lunch and attended afternoon classes with their Westfield counterparts.
Marking the second consecutive year of the exchange program, Stewart Carey, Principal of Roosevelt Intermediate School, said, “What a wonderful opportunity it is for both our students and the Plainfield students to explore the essential questions of ‘The American Dream.’ In today’s world, where diversity is the accepted norm and collaboration valued in finding successful outcomes, it is important that our students learn (at an early age) the need to work together and understand varying points of view.”
Matthew Kalafat, 8th-grade Language Arts teacher at Roosevelt, who coordinates the program, added, "Research shows students at this age learn much from interacting with fellow students. By setting up a context in which students from two different communities can communicate, our students were able to learn much more than they normally would have. Both communities were able to gain unique perspectives about these themes because of our dialogue."
The exchange program continues to receive praise, as it did in its initial year when news of its success reached Penguin Publishers, which invited students to record their interpretations of the novel for a new eBook. On January 22, the Westfield Board of Education heard a presentation regarding the eBook and the curriculum from Kalafat and his co-founder of the program, Derrick Nelson. Nelson, who was Assistant Principal of Roosevelt last year, is currently holding that position at Westfield High School. Freshmen at the High School, who were in the program in 2011-2012, also addressed the Board with positive comments about their experiences in the Plainfield exchange program and being filmed in the Penguin corporate offices in New York City.