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Long Way Down

A Long Time Coming: Finally, I Am Teaching Long Way Down

January 3, 2024

A Long Time Coming: Finally, I Am Teaching Long Way Down

Amber Chandler discusses why she chose to have her students read Long Way Down, and how she is going about teaching the book.

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Not many people know this about me, but my master’s thesis was “The [Extra]ordinary experiences of Black and/or Southern Women.” I wrote about Lee Smith, particularly a book called Fair and Tender Ladies and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I focused on how the ordinary experiences of Black and/or Southern women are extraordinarily important when it comes to generational identities, traumas and subsequent resurrections. I focused on the profound experiences of childbirth, marital relationships, defining friendships, and grief—all “common” experiences, but ones I believe wielded generation-bridging power. I’m proud of my master’s thesis from 1998, but I also have long believed that I had only scratched the surface. The true issue I want to dig into more deeply is generational identities. Because a Ph.D. is still only a spark of an idea, I’ve been wondering where and how I’d ever get to flesh out my thoughts on this topic. Cue Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down. Though the focus isn’t on women, I have been able to explore generational identities in poor families and communities while broadening the horizons of the second-ring suburban students I teach who are devouring Long Way Down. One of my students stopped by my room last period to ask for a copy of the book to give her math teacher—who is a friend of mine—because she wanted to share it. She said, “I don’t know if I want to cry or hurl this book across the room, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” How could I ask for more? We are still only about a third of the way through the close reading of the book together, so you can expect a follow-up blog in a month or so. However, in this blog, I’m going to share the three steps I’ve taken to make this unit work for my classroom community so far. 

Rationale and Approval

This is the first year my middle school has had an honors English class, and I am lucky enough to be teaching both sections. As soon as I got the approval, I knew that I needed to get started on the novel approval process that is required by my school and most others if adding a book to our curriculum. I began with this Scope and Sequence for Honors ELA that would help frame the year. (You’ll notice that I have already moved Long Way Down, which will be paired with The Outsiders, up to December. Due to the number of novels we have, I need to teach The Outsiders in February next school year.) After this was approved by the district, I knew I also had to make sure families understood why I was choosing these books and topics. 

Contrary to popular belief, I am fully willing to let families “opt out” of literature they don’t support, but I put it in their laps to provide an alternative curriculum.

Everyone knows that education right now can be contentious, and I wanted families to understand both my “why” for teaching this book and their right to not have their children participate. I’ve never had any objection to The Outsiders, even though it contains violent themes, teen pregnancy, drinking, smoking, and even a “suicide by cop.” You can check out my resources here. However, I knew that a modern book with similar themes, an f-bomb and the current political landscape might lead to some challenges. 

Do I think all students should have an education that is well-rounded, accurate, representative and culturally diverse? Absolutely. Am I willing to let a parent or two wreak havoc on my unit, potentially creating anxiety and strife for 13-year-olds? Nope. Contrary to popular belief, I am fully willing to let families “opt out” of literature they don’t support, but I put it in their laps to provide an alternative curriculum. You can read my letter here, but the gist is this: Please set up a time to meet with me to provide the learning experience you want for your child who will be working independently on the novel of your choice in a separate location. In my classroom, where I am a professional with extensive expertise, we will be learning about the impact of generational experiences on identity and personal accountability via Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I am happy to say that this year all of my students are participating, but I don’t expect that to happen every year. 

Setting the Tone and Telling the Truth

The first thing I told my students is that I’ve never taught this book. I explained that I’ve read it four times now in three months. We talk about the fact that it is written in verse, that much of what is in the book is different from our experiences, and that we have a lot to learn from voices that tell stories we don’t know. I assign them the whole book. I explain they should simply read it as an experience of a story, and we will make more sense of it after they have absorbed it. 

I wanted my students to have some context for the story they had read, some language to use in our discussions, and most importantly an understanding that just because we haven’t had the same experiences doesn’t mean we can’t learn and relate to a voice that is different from our own.

I tell them the truth. The district where I teach is not diverse; people of color make up a tiny portion of our community, and there are more people than you’d believe who have not been to the city of Buffalo, a mere 18 miles away. I explain that we have to “ground ourselves” in information before we try to interpret anything. Students devoured the book, many coming in within a day or two to tell me they had already finished it. I told them to read it again, which is exactly what I’d done. Once we had all finished the book, at least once, we began the unit by meeting the author via an interview with Trevor Noah, here. Next, we dug into “The Code of the Streets” by Elijah Anderson, a piece from The Atlantic. (Both are ideas from ThePracticalEnglishTeacher.com) I wanted my students to have some context for the story they had read, some language to use in our discussions, and most importantly an understanding that just because we haven’t had the same experiences doesn’t mean we can’t learn and relate to a voice that is different from our own. I did a lot of reading and research myself, and I adopted and adapted bits and pieces, mainly having to make changes for middle school learners. 

Space for ‘First Draft’ Thoughts 

My daughter, in her first semester at college, is taking a class that lends itself to difficult conversations. She was telling me about it, and one of the things she said she loved was that the professor had told them their classroom was a space for “first draft” thoughts. The professor explained that talking through things was an important part of learning and that sometimes you can be wrong or miss the point. In her class, you could always premise a comment you were still unsure about with “This is just a first draft thought,” and the class would understand that they wouldn’t “hold you to” what you say. The students understand that the professor may have to help you formulate what you mean or guide you away from or toward another line of thinking. 

Students of all ages need to learn to have difficult discussions, and we need to be ready and willing to support them while making sure they are culturally aware and within the boundaries appropriate for school.

When my daughter told me about this “first draft thought” idea, it was at exactly the right time. We were just beginning to dissect “The Code of the Streets,” and I was a bit nervous. The reason it’s been a long time coming for me to teach a book like Long Way Down has been that I teach middle school. If you haven’t been to a middle school in a while, it is full of hormones, desires to both fit in and stand out simultaneously, a fair amount of drama, and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (where the regulation of actions and emotions takes place) that leads to some “mistakes in judgment” and a lack of impulse control. Despite that cauldron of complications, I love the middle school students. They are a work in progress, and it allows me to give them a serious amount of grace while also helping them find themselves and develop productive and meaningful relationships and ways of thinking. 

We had our first rotating chair (a form of student-led discussion that you can read about here), and I was pleasantly surprised by the students’ care and thoughtfulness. I explained the concept of “first draft thoughts” and encouraged them to use the phrase. They immediately understood, and one of the more outspoken kiddos said, “If I say something stupid, I won’t get canceled. You can just help me figure out what I’m trying to say.” Yes. That. Exactly. Students of all ages need to learn to have difficult discussions, and we need to be ready and willing to support them while making sure they are culturally aware and within the boundaries appropriate for school.

I’ll keep you posted on the rest of the unit, but I wanted to share this part of the journey because I believe I’m not the only one who worries that difficult conversations, particularly in the last few years, are too risky or not worth the effort. As educators, we can’t shy away from learning opportunities, for “first draft thoughts” to be fleshed out and refined. The students sitting in our classrooms will be making the decisions about the next generation, and we mustn’t deprive them of the opportunity to learn from a variety of sources and voices because if we do, the Western literary canon will never expand to include all who are worthy, or as Jason Reynolds says—room for both Shakespeare and Queen Latifah. 

You can find all the resources for this novel here.  

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Amber Chandler
  Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification. She is the 2018 Association for Middle Level Educators’ “Educator of the Year.”  Amber has enjoyed a wide variety of... See More
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