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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Brett Noble

Rooted in Place: Teaching Students to Look Ahead by Reflecting Back

Brett Noble doesn’t just want his students to understand what they’re reading—he wants them to relate those stories to their lives, values, and aspirations so that they can experience the power of literature more deeply. In Eastern North Carolina, that means treating the living history in their backyard like its own text. In his essay, Noble describes how closely reading Zora Neale Hurston introduces his eleventh-grade English literature and writing composition students to college-level rhetoric—and the complex social fabric of their community.

I’m booking it from the cafeteria to my classroom, and I still have no idea how almost every one of my students has beaten me to class again.

“Mr. Noble, I think we need to go ahead and ace this reading quiz so we can talk about what in the world Janie is getting herself into with Joe,” says A’Shauna, with a finger on a passage she’s ready to cite for evidence. We’re nearing the middle of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the 1937 coming-of-age tale of Janie Crawford, an African-American female protagonist, whose odyssey toward self-discovery in the rural South takes her through three marriages. “So she just leaves her grandma’s arranged marriage to run off with Joe and now they’re up and starting an all-black town?”

“Did that really happen, Mr. Noble?” asks Isaiah, keying in on the idea of founding an all-black town as he thumbs through the book. “Although, it does seem like the folks in Eatonville are already starting to segregate by class.”

The expectation of students coming to class “having read and understood the material” is sneakily the most rigorous language in the Common Core. It may sound straightforward, but truly understanding a text is a complex task. My students know that I will do whatever it takes to make sure they understand what they’re reading at home—even if it means responding to their texts with questions the night before we discuss a book in class. “Can you quiz me?” is easily the most common text message I receive each night, and I use it as a launch-pad to push their understanding—and excitement—before they walk in the door. We open every class with a quick reading comprehension quiz, but then we spend nearly all our precious time together on the skills students will be expected to apply in college: analyzing and evaluating complex texts.

Mr. Noble answers a student's question.
He also makes himself available after hours via text and often receives requests from his students to quiz them.

My students don’t beat me to class from the cafeteria because they want to summarize the plot—they’re excited to discuss the moral and character implications in their own lives.

Eastern North Carolina is as rich in history as it is in peanut, cotton, and tobacco fields. Halifax County is one of the most economically distressed counties in the state. It’s also one of a few counties in North Carolina that maintains a vestige of the Jim Crow era: Despite the total student population in the county declining to under 7,000 in 2017, there are three superintendents, three school boards, three central offices, and three racially disparate and inadequately resourced school systems. It’s not uncommon for students to be zoned for schools far from their neighborhoods to maintain de facto segregation. In 2015, the two predominantly black districts ranked last in our state in achievement. Suspension rates are up to eight times higher in those schools, and dropout rates are similarly disproportionate. Located on a peanut field across the Roanoke River in Northampton County, KIPP ENC Public Schools adds yet another layer of complexity, drawing students from several counties, including some who commute almost two hours in each direction to attend our school.

Built on a peanut field, KIPP Pride High School draws students from several rural counties in Eastern North Carolina.
Gaston and the surrounding towns are rich in peanut, cotton, and tobacco fields.
Mr. Noble encourages his students to think about their lessons in the context of their community.

This socioeconomic landscape is in many ways another challenging text that my students are constantly reading—and living. For decades, the Halifax County NAACP and UNC’s Center for Civil Rights has sued for students’ constitutional rights to a sound, basic education. Earlier in the year, our class closely read a recent legal briefing and invited the Halifax County NAACP president himself to speak to the disparities and its effects on our community. They’ve learned that while the confederate flags they pass by on the way to school play a factor, so too does the method of tax distribution, with millions of public dollars distributed unequally among the three systems. When it comes to studying the biography of the American Dream in all of its moral, socioeconomic, and literary complexity, my students have to look no further than out the bus window.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel that has become a rite of passage for my juniors. For many, it’s a novel that feels like porch time with Grandma: a sacred place where cultural identities and worldviews are passed down through storytelling. With encouragement, students confirm this observation of Hurston’s cultural and vernacular kinship as they pull out their phones and research the author: Hurston conducted most of her anthropological studies in the rural South, and was even a professor at NC Central University in Durham, a historically black university that many of my students consider attending in a few years.

Students begin preparation for our Socratic seminar by gathering evidence and making inferences with their shoulder partner. What evidence supports the claim that Joe establishes himself as a leader in Eatonville? What leadership qualities and characteristics of social intelligence does Hurston laud in Joe? What does she lambaste?

A student consults his shoulder partner.

Jerrick hones in on the imagery of Joe’s house in contrast to those of the rest of the town: “Hurston compares Joe’s leadership style to a slave master because his house is ‘painted a gloaty, sparkly white,’” he says, identifying figurative language worth unpacking, “while ‘the rest of the town looked like servants’ quarters surrounding the ‘big house.’”

“Joe is the leader of Eatonville,” Brianna notes. “Shouldn’t his house be bigger than everyone else’s?”

The question invites an energetic, evidence-based debate. Students model social intelligence by sharing the mic and listening to each other’s arguments so that they can build upon them.

“Earlier in the text, Joe said he wanted to be a ‘big voice’ and he put the work in,” argues Erica. “He bought the land and he put the store and post office in place; he can do what he wants because he earned it all by himself! If the others don’t want to work as hard or take the lead, they can’t be mad that his house is bigger than theirs.”

“You’re right that he is a leader who has worked to build the town,” acknowledges Zion, “but all the money from the store goes right back into his pocket. How is the rest of Eatonville ever supposed to move up in this system?”

“That’s a good point,” Erica responds, “and it makes me want to qualify what I was saying. Is there a way where Joe can have a big house and not be seen as a slave master by the rest of the town? Is there a way he can use his leadership to help lift up everybody in Eatonville, including himself?”

“I mean, it’s just like school,” adds Serena, making a connection. “Some of us act like if you put the work in, you should get the credit and if other people don’t, that’s their problem. It’s harder to lift everyone else up.”

“So would you be fine if you were the only person in this class to go to college? Or would you feel better if you went and helped others do the same?”

After hearing multiple voices and perspectives, the class pauses to process their thoughts through a summarizer activity.
Students independently outline the debate using a sentence frame: “In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been ____. On the one hand, ____ argues ____; On the other hand, ____ even contends ____. My own view is that _____ because ____."
These sentence frames help students develop a well-reasoned argument while writing with increasingly sophisticated syntax.

For a class of students who are all dedicated to fighting for social justice, the different approaches to leadership and community uplift in the book strike close to home. Everyone can agree on the issue while simultaneously disagreeing on solutions.

“How might Joe’s house function as a metaphor for the education system in our community?” I ask, pushing on this tension.

Students relate their close reading of the text to the same complexities they see each morning as they wait for the right yellow school bus to pick them up. They are torn by the diversity of opinions in the room. All of them believe in everyone’s right to a sound, basic education, but that alone is not going to solve the problem.

This is how productive political discourse begins. The complex syntax frames that my students use to acknowledge their peers’ opinions while asserting their own are the same ones they will use to one day solve far more challenging problems than the ones they grapple with in my classroom. This system of inequality is real, yet here on the peanut field, we are planting the seeds of change. 

Mr. Noble encourages his students to connect the anchor text, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with higher-level texts and their own experiences through an essay prompt of their choice.
While the anchor text in this case is considered a less rigorous book for 11th grade, it serves as a springboard to rigorous supplemental texts that students will likely read again in college.
They may choose to explore Hurston’s language of feminism alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto, examining whether and why it’s problematic to use language like Tea Cake “lets” Janie be herself or that he “gives” her a sense of independence.
Or, they may choose to put the novel in conversation with The Great Gatsby to offer a greater perspective on the American Dream and what it means to be American.
Whatever they choose, as students explore these worldviews, their greatest responsibility will be to put them into conversation with their own beliefs—especially as they play out in the context of the social injustices in their own rural community.

When I think about relevance in the classroom, especially in the face of education networks working to write one curriculum for teachers across the country, I can’t help but think that the most local issues are the ones we must keep sight of. After all, it was Halifax County native and civil rights hero Ella Baker who said that “in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” Connecting curriculum to local places and issues is a necessary part of our work.

As a teacher who wants to instill in my students a passion to strengthen their community and fight for social justice, I need to create the safe space for them to practice rigorous and oftentimes uncomfortable thinking in relevant contexts.

As a teacher who wants to instill in my students a passion to strengthen their community and fight for social justice, I need to create the safe space for them to practice rigorous and oftentimes uncomfortable thinking in relevant contexts. When my students choose whether or not to board a bus to attend a Moral March protest at our state capitol, I know they are doing so of their own volition because they have made informed decisions that inspire them to take action.

Toward the end of the year, Kayela and Shannon rushed up to me in the cafeteria, phones out and mouths agape. Through Twitter, they were thrilled to discover that, as a result of student protests, the original name for a UNC-Chapel Hill campus building honoring William Saunders, a 19th-century graduate and trustee who was also a confederate flag-waving leader of the KKK, had been scrubbed. In its stead, an unofficial plaque named the building after Zora Neale Hurston, to “honor and remember all the African American students who studied at UNC unofficially before our university’s integration.” (Officially, it was renamed Carolina Hall, “in remembrance of all those who have suffered injustices.”)

“We’re going there on our next college trip, Mr. Noble,” declared Kayela, beaming with pride and a sense of belonging. “We need to take a selfie!”