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Exploring Race, Class, and School Integration with The Long Ride

The Long Ride 

Written by Marina Budhos

Published by Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2019 

ISBN: 978-0-553-53422-1

Grades 6-8 

Book Review

“Twelve is the best and twelve is the worst. It’s the breathless swoop at the top of the Ferris wheel, dangling and wishing you could stay. It’s the moment when the wheel’s about to drop, and you’re scared, but it’s thrilling too. Because twelve is when you clutch for everything to stay the same. But it’s also when you’re tipped forward, ready for something new” (p. 9). So reveals Jamila Clarke, the narrator of The Long Ride, just before she begins 7th grade. For Jamila and her neighborhood classmates, the new school year also brings with it a forty-minute bus ride to a new school on the other side of Queens. It’s 1971, and New York City is implementing a school integration plan. Jamila’s White mother grew up on Long Island; her Black father grew up in Barbados, with Indian ancestry. As a result, Jamila has never fully fit in with her predominantly White classmates in Cedar Gardens. But she was always buffered by her mixed-race best friends Josie Rivera, Latinx and Jamaican, and Francesca George, English and African-American. The new school offers the promise of acceptance, even popularity. But nothing goes as planned. Francesca’s family sends her to a private school in Manhattan, and Jamila and Josie are set on different paths at JHS 241. Over the course of the novel and the school year, Jamila and her friends encounter traditional coming-of-age experiences within the larger context of a city and a country experiencing historic socio-cultural and economic shifts, transitions, and divisions in addition to the war in Vietnam. For independent and curricular explorations, The Long Ride offers readers a snapshot of a girl, a city, and a country trying to forge a new identity and a foundation for the future. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Digging Deeply into Definitions. On the first page of the prologue, readers are introduced to the concept of Integration. An exploration of the promise, possibilities and challenges of integration is woven throughout the novel. Before reading the novel, have students compare and contrast various dictionary definitions of the word. How does each definition shed light on the other? What is missing from some? What questions do students have about the word? Periodically throughout the novel, have students refer back to these definitions and begin to develop their own definitions. By the end of the novel, have students further refine their understanding of what the word means in the abstract, in the historical context of this book, and in the present.  

Exploring Setting: New York City, 1971. Do students have the schema to visualize New York City in 1971? How much do they need to know? What do they already know about the 1970s? Begin with a brainstorm of what students know about the 1970s more generally, and document their questions. Next, have students explore digital resources to learn more about New York City at the time, such as this photo essay from The Atlantic magazine. Students can use the filters in this online collection from The New York Public Library to find pictures of Queens in 1971. While these photo essays have been vetted, there are many photo essays available online about New York City in the 1970s that contain photographs with content (nudity, prostitution, drugs) not appropriate for the middle school classroom. As always, be sure to preview any online content you share with students. If students are interested in how Jamila and her friends dressed, this webpage has curated photos of women’s fashions from the early 1970s as has this webpage. Please note that most of the women in these photographs are White. 

Visualizing Your Community in 1971. After your students explore New York City in 1971, they may want to explore what your local community looked like in the 1970s. Work with your local historical society, local history museum, town hall, or local library to curate a collection of photographs that can be shared with your students digitally or in-person. How does your village, town, or city look similar to when it did in the 1970s? How does it look different? What is different about the people in the photographs? Did different groups of people live in your community then as compared to now? What did those people wear? What jobs did they do? How are they similar to and/or different from Jamilla and her family and friends? You may want to have parents or grandparents of your students come in and speak about their own memories of being children in the 1970s. If they can bring in artifacts like phones, calculators, etc. that would be ideal. 

Popularity in Middle School/Junior High. On page 5 of the novel, before Francesca learns that her parents have enrolled in a private school, she announces to Jose and Jamila, “We’re going to be so popular!” Jose says that she doesn’t care, while Jamila seems to like the idea. What do your students think about the concept of popularity? What does it mean to be popular? Who gets to decide and why? Can you really be popular if it’s a goal you set out to achieve? Or is popularity a by-product of something else? Have your students ponder these questions at the start of the novel. At the end of the novel, have students return to these questions, and consider whether or not Jamila became popular at JHS 241. Do they think popularity matters to Jamila? Does it matter to them? Why or why not? 

After School Rituals. On page 70, Jamila shares her after school rituals. After her long bus ride, she comes home, lies on her bed for half an hour, and then looks out her window to see if her friends are around. If they are, they walk to Carvel and get ice cream. What are your students’ after school rituals? How do they transition away from the school day? What chores and responsibilities help or interfere with that process? What advice do your students have for one another for establishing balance in the afternoon? 

Talking, Not Texting. In the novel, Jamila looks forward to her evening telephone conversations with John. When John calls, Jamila has to “drag the red phone from the hall, and sit on the floor in my room, back against the door. That’s as far as it reaches, the curly cord stretched tight” (p. 70-71). Share photos of 1970s phones. How do your students use the phone? Do they have landlines? Do they have their own cell phones? What do they do most frequently with their phones? Ask students to participate in an experiment over five days. Have them sign a pledge not to text with friends over that five day period (recognizing that some may need to text with family members regarding pick-ups, drop-offs, younger siblings, etc.). Have them agree to call at least one friend a night and talk on the phone for a minimum of ten minutes (as compared to Jamila and John’s hour!). Have them take notes after each phone call documenting how long they were on the phone for and what topics of conversation surfaced. After the five days are over, have students compare and contrast the experience and consider what their lives would be like if they could only talk, and not text. How are they different? How did it feel not to text? Did they get better at using the phone or having conversations? 

The Long Ride and Vietnam. After reading The Long Ride, provide your students with the opportunity to learn more about the conflict in Vietnam that runs as a current of concern throughout the novel. What do your students know about Vietnam? Some students might want to read the autobiographical verse novel Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, about one girl’s experience fleeing Vietnam and immigrating to Alabama in 1975. Some students might want to read a history of the war leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. Still others might be interested in learning about a range of experiences across the chronology of the war in Elizabeth Partridge’s Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. 

Being 12. Allow students to self-select one of the following novels, which feature seventh grade protagonists, to read in literature circles/book clubs: The Long Ride, The Way to Bea, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. As a whole class, read Gary Soto’s classic short story, “Seventh Grade.” What tensions do students see in the story? How does the protagonist interact with others? How do others respond to him? Use this story as a catalyst for considering the challenges of friendship, school culture, and romantic relationships that seventh graders face. Next, have students begin their small group work. Periodically, bring students together in jigsaw-ed groups to compare and contrast their novels. Finally, have them explore the audio podcasts from WNYC’s series Being 12, which focuses on the real lives of twelve year-olds in New York City in 2015. Let students write their own fiction, nonfiction, or poetry about being (by and large, approximately) twelve years old. This might be an ideal opportunity for students to conduct  “Story Corps”-like interviews of one another and put together a podcast. Or, students could create photo essays of their lives, including selfie portraits, and ruminate on being 12 through accompanying poetry and prose. Note: This teaching idea originated in our 2015 entry on Goodbye Stranger.

Diversity, Inclusion, People and Change. In Chapter 10, Jamila’s family discuss the ways in which Jamila’s maternal grandparents disrespect her father and make all of them uncomfortable. Jamila is always surprised while her father is never surprised. He suggests, “Most people never change. It’s the world around them that changes.” What do your students think? Do people who have racist, sexist, zenophobic, homophobic, or transphobic beliefs, concious or unconsious, change? Can they change? How and why? Do people change because the world changes around them, does the world change around people because other people change, or is it something in-between? Have students read this quote to four or five people –  tweens, teens, or adults – and have them record their responses. Have students bring their responses to class to compare and contrast and consider further.   

Albers Color Theory.  Chapter 16 is entitled “Color Theory.” Within the chapter, Jamila and her classmates begin their art class. The second week, Miss James has the students experiment with Josef Albers theory of color, which asserts that”[a] color’s quality is always in relation to another color. Color is really about perception. It isn’t stable” (p. 124). Collaborate with your art teacher so that your students have the opportunity to experience what Jamila and her classmates do. Once completed, ask your students to consider why Budhos may have included this chapter in the book. What might students infer about these concepts of color in Jamila’s life? In their lives?  

Middle School/Junior High in the Past. In her Author’s Note, Marina Budhos shares that the novel grew out of her own experiences in public school in Queens in the 1970s, and the busing plan implemented by New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Provide students with the opportunity to interview adults in their lives or within the community about their experiences in middle school/junior high. If it will be challenging for students to do this on their own, arrange to have adults from the school and larger community visit your class to be interviewed. If possible have the adults bring an artifact and/or a photograph from their middle school/junior high years to share. As a class, develop a core set of questions together that can serve as the spine for student interviews. Have students record these interviews on phones, tablets, or laptops. Have each student create a written and visual portrait of the adult they interviewed. As students look across the portraits, have them identify the similarities and differences across time and location. How are the experiences of community members similar to Jamila’s experiences? To those of your students’? How are they different, and why? 

Critical Literacy

“Us” Versus “Them.” At the start of the book, Jamila reveals that she and her friends have “always been different from the other kids in our neighborhood” (p. 3). At the end of the book, she is still wrestling with being different.  In Chapter 23, Jamila considers how she is treated because she is mixed race: “The exhausting things me and Jose and Franesca put up with. The weird questions in kindergarten. Eyes gliding over us at the lunch table” (p. 178). Her father tells her that it is “a lot easier to be on one side or the other. It’s harder to be in the middle. People don’t like the middle. That’s the bravest thing of all” (p. 178). As your students read the novel, have them track the use of “us” versus “them” language throughout, from all of the characters. How often does Jamila use that language? Josie? Francesca? The adults? John, Darren, Johanna? Have students also keep track of when they hear “us” versus “them” in their daily lives in the cafeteria, on the bus, in stores, and in the media. Allow students time and space to process these conversations, within the book, within their lives. Where do they fit in? Where do they not fit in? When and where do they feel in the middle? What changes can they make to their own use of language, to allow others to feel more comfortable? Students might be interested in the projection that children of color will become the majority of youth in 2020. How might this change dynamics about “us” versus “them?” How might it increase those dynamics? 

School Integration in New York City. When students think about desegregation of schools and the integration of schools in the 20th century, they often think about iconic images from the American South in the aftermath of Brown versus the Board of Education. But we know that school desegregation efforts began far earlier with advocates such as Sarah Roberts in 19th century Boston and Sylvia Mendez in California in the 1940s. Have students read about the history of segregation within New York City’s public schools, and about the current efforts lead by students and families to integrate NYC schools today. What has changed and what has stayed the same since Jamila’s fictionalized experience in 1971? Why hasn’t more integration taken place? What forces are at play? Students may want to conduct research about segregation in school districts around the country and ongoing integration efforts, or they may want to look at the history and current reality of your school district. If so, partner with your school or public librarian to access available resources. 

“Ability” Tracking. One thing that becomes very clear to Jamila over the course of the school year is the unfair ways in which some students are denied the same quality of education and rigor that other students receive. Jamila is put in the “SP,” the Special Program for “advanced students.” Jamila grows increasingly aware of the ways in which some students, like Josie and Darren, may never get the academic support or rigor they need in order to achieve their full potential. Once “behind,” always behind: different text books, different content covered, segregated classes. As students read and discuss the novel, ask them to consider their own beliefs about and experiences with tracking. To what extent is your school and district tracked? In what kind of language arts class is this book being read? What resources do some students have access to in your school or district that others don’t? Recent articles included in the Further Explorations section below help your students consider the pros and cons of tracking. After exploring these resources, as well as other resources that you can gather with your school or public librarian, allow students to choose how they want to share their thinking about tracking. Some students might want to record podcasts or TED talks, while others might want to write position papers or letters to your principal and district leaders. 

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Marina Budhos Official Website 

Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

“America in the 1970s: New York City,” The Atlantic, July 22, 2013 

“Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s,” New York City Public Library 

“Segregation has been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years,” The New York Times, March 26, 2019 

“The Fight to Desegregate New York Schools,” The Weekly, The New York Times, October 18, 2019 

“New York City Students are Fighting for School Integration,” PBS News Hour, June 28, 2019 

“Tracking and Ability Grouping in Middle Level and High Schools,” Archived Position Statement, 2006, National Association of Secondary School Principals 

“To End High School Tracking, We Need to End Tracking in Elementary School,” Natalie Wexler, Forbes, August 10, 2019 

“A Bold Effort to End Algebra Tracking Shows Promise,” Education Week, June 12, 2018 

“The Upside of Academic Tracking,” The Atlantic, March 31, 2016

“Getting on the Right Track: How One School Stopped Tracking Students,” Teaching Tolerance, Summer 2019 

Books 

Alexander, K. 2014. The crossover. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Goodman, S. 2016. The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial. Ill. by E.B. Lewis. Bloomsbury. 

Lai, T. 2011. Inside out & back again. Harper Collins. 

Messner, K. 2016. The Seventh Wish. Bloomsbury.

Partridge, E. 2018. Boots on the ground: America’s war in Vietnam. Viking Books for Young Readers. 

Schmidt, G. 2007. The Wednesday wars. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Soto, G. 1990. Baseball in April and other stories. Harcourt.

Tonatiuh, D. 2014. Separate is never equal. Abrams Books. 

Sheinkin, S. 2015. Most dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the secret history of the Vietnam War. Roaring Brook Press.  

Stead, R. 2015. Goodbye Stranger. Random House.

Yeh, K. 2017. The way to Bea. Little, Brown and Company. 

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.

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