These are the 5 Essential Questions that transformed the way I teach Jason Reynold' novel Long Way Down in my classroom.
I immediately loved Jason Reynolds the moment I picked up Long Way Down for the first time. The way my eyes were pulled around the page, the evocative language, and powerful analogies, I knew high school kids needed to read this book!
Initially, I hyped the book up as part of an independent reading unit I was working on with my Grade 10 class. I just wanted to get the book into the hands of kids. I didn’t make any lesson plans or essential questions.
I beelined it to my reluctant readers and sure enough, within minutes they were drawn in and settled down, enthralled by the book that “reads like music”.
Students blasted through the book, some in three days. When I prompted students about what they thought about the book I realized that a lot had missed the deeper meaning of the story. Students were clearly pulled in by the words and provocative content but struggled to read between the lines, missing out on Reynolds’ messages to youth today.
After that I knew that I wanted to teach Long Way Down as a whole class novel. I downloaded the audiobook, and set to work, looking for the right way to lay the foundation.
These essential questions have been revised many times, and have been transformative for my Canadian students who not as familiar with the historical and sociocultural context of the novel.
How does a person's community influence their choices?
Reynolds was able to relate to rap music because it related to his lived experiences. To a community that has gun violence and police presence but was still called home.
Both, Latifah and Reynolds, remind us that we need to discuss neighborhoods and communities without the labels of “good” or “bad”.
And actually there is research to support this too - Check out the research of David Weisburd in his article The Law of Crime Concentration And The Criminology of Place, 2015
The discussion needs to simply begin with how communities influence people, their choices, their logic, their perspective.
Essential Question 2.
Why is it difficult to break cycles of violence?
Cycles and patterns are a motif that comes up throughout Long Way Down and I knew I needed an essential question about it.Students easily understand that “The Rules” create cycles of generational violence in Will’s neighborhood. The Rules are short and simple: no crying, no snitching, always get revenge. But more importantly, students need to consider why fathers and sons, friends, and brother continue to teach each other these “rules”. The ghosts that Will encounters in the elevator reveal the different reasons for following the rules and continuing the cycles of violence and trauma. Lack of community support programs and systems poverty, toxic masculinity, denying men the space to release emotions are just some of the systemic inequalities that make the cycles of violence and trauma difficult to break out of.
Essential Question 3.
How is toxic masculinity harmful to individuals and society?
Toxic Masculinity is a fascinating buzz word that works great as an essential question. My students loved discussing this term and were able to make many real-life connections.
This essential question allows you to facilitate and direct the classroom conversation around toxic masculinity, moving it beyond a catch-all phrase for negative male behaviors.
I use this definition in my classroom:
- Rival gang Rival gangs in Will's neighborhood are fighting for turf dominance.
- Will suppresses his grief and emotions over the death of Shawn.
- Will is pressured to be self-reliant and not depend on anyone.
- Buck and Will's father glorify violence.
- Will is told to be more masculine and tough.
Essential Question 4.
Why is the ability to show emotional vulnerability an asset and not a weakness?
- Berné Brown
Will only shows emotional vulnerability at the end of the story, and that is when he connects with his brother. On the other hand, Will’s father does not show him any vulnerability and Will’s perspective of him is changed.
Lastly, when Will’s mother was crying in the kitchen, if he was able to be vulnerable with his mother then they might have shared a moment of deep connection.
Essential Question 5.
What are the limitations and possibilities of revenge
This essential question can be discussed in the context of Will’s dilemma. To shoot Riggs or not to shoot Riggs.
Why do people fantasize about revenge? Why does it sometimes feel so good to even just think about getting revenge on someone? Do people ever regent instances where they sought out revenge?
I found a really interesting article that discusses revenge from an evolutionary perspective.
On the other hand, what are the limitations of revenge? How would Will continue along the cycle of violence? How would revenge make his situation worse? How would it devastate his mother?