Each year, my fourth grade classroom contains approximately twenty-five students. About ninety-five per cent are African American students, with a few Hispanics and an occasional white member. These proportions reflect the general population of my school. Students range in age from nine to eleven. They come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and home situations. Their academic ability and the level of their general knowledge also vary considerably. A number are below level academically. While some have difficulty reading, a few qualify for New Haven’s Talented and Gifted Program. Generally their basic skill level is not high, but many have potential well beyond what they are presently achieving. Some are members of families with multiple problems. Few of their lives are without difficulties. Many parents or guardians are supportive of school, though a few are not. Most want to be helpful but are not sure what is the best way to go about assisting. Often the struggles of everyday life interfere with their efforts.
As is the case with many of us, most of my students have survival stories, some more dramatic than others. All of them are aware of hardships endured by the circle of people they consider family members and friends. Some of the stories they have heard or lived result in happy endings; others don’t. Some they are willing, even eager, to tell; others remain unspoken. In the beginning, these personal stories will be discussed informally. Something as simple as achieving a high school diploma or going to college or hairdressing school can be the basis for a discussion about overcoming odds. Towards the end of the unit, a more formal approach will be made regarding this personal material. Each tale of survival will act as a springboard for further study. They will lay the groundwork for the presentation of the three individuals whose stories form the core of this unit. Newspaper stories, especially those surrounding local events, are also effective in helping students recognize how people manage to overcome problems.