When I read Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I knew it would be a fantastic whole class novel. In this post, I will help you determine if it’s right for your class, point out the perks of teaching it, and also hopefully help steer you away from some pitfalls.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a young adult novel about a high achieving black teen named Justyce McCallister. When trying to help a drunk ex-girlfriend, an officer wrongly arrests him. This injustice opens his eyes to other racial biases in the world and makes him aware of how the world often perceives young black men.
To cope, he begins writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to process and journal his feelings.
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Is Dear Martin the Right Whole-class Novel for your Students?
If you’re thinking about teaching Dear Martin as a whole class novel, you’re first going to want to get real about your classroom population.
I’m going to be totally up front with you: this novel is not going to work in a wealthy, mostly white classroom. At least, not as a whole class novel (you may have some takers if you’re doing independent reading or choice lit circles).
Almost all of the white characters in this novel have some pretty negative character traits. They’re hard to relate to. While the main antagonist does find redemption, it’s not until the last couple of pages and that might be a long walk through white guilt for some students.
This one is going to be hard to get by a group of white, conservative parents too.
I used this novel with a special group of students. My last section of American Lit was basically the remedial section; students who had previously flunked their entire freshman year made up the class. My classes, in general, are split evenly between whites, blacks, and Latinos, but this class leaned slightly more toward minorities.
The leaders in this class were a group of bright, passionate, and vocal young ladies. I knew from meeting with them prior to the beginning of the class that they wanted “drama” in their classroom literature (don’t they always? Sigh.).
Had I not known all of this about my class, I probably would have planned for a less controversial novel. However, given the racial and ethnic makeup, the students’ lack of success with traditional novels, and the desire for drama in their literature, I felt pretty good about moving forward with Dear Martin.
Another factor will be your students’ age. It may be tempting to put Dear Martin in your eighth-grade class because of the reading level, but I caution you that the content is probably more high school appropriate.
I taught it to my sixteen-year-old sophomores. That felt like a good fit, age-wise. I know another teacher who uses it for a summer school unit for students going into ninth grade.
There are a couple of uses of the N-word and some difficult situations (like Justyce’s wrongful arrest) in the novel. Know your students and their level of maturity before incorporating this novel into your class.
Also, remember to get approval from all the right channels. Send those notes home and warn your principal before diving in. (Need some tips on getting a controversial novel approved? This blog post may help.)
The Perks of Dear Martin as a Whole Class Novel
When we started reading Dear Martin, my students were hooked. The beginning of the novel has everything a disengaged teen wants to hear about: how hot a girl is, underage drinking, and injustice from authority. There were vocal outburst and people shushing one another during reading.
My students were taunting the kids who missed the first chapter, lording their reading experience over the others. It was wonderful (especially knowing how little success my students had previously had).
The reason behind my choosing Dear Martin, however, went beyond the excitement of the plot. I was looking for a book that would be high interest (check!), but also a low reading level.
After my previous success with The Hate U Give, I had learned the importance for students to see themselves in a text and that text having immediate relevance. I wanted to repeat this for my sophomores.
Dear Martin definitely accomplished this for my students, but in a much shorter span of time. It is only 224 pages (as opposed to the 444 pages of The Hate U Give). This is great for readers with a shorter attention span, or for units that can only be a few weeks long.
The Lexile for Dear Martin is also listed as HL720. This equates to about a 4th or 5th grade reading level. Depending on your students, this may be way too low. However, for my remedial course, this was perfect: high interest, but not so difficult as to turn off students.
This mix of high interest but low reading level is the true strength of Dear Martin as a classroom novel. Additionally, it introduces students to complex, social justice issues and serves as a great entry into courageous conversations.
I have found that realness and relevance are especially important to reluctant readers. Part of why readers are reluctant is that they don’t always see the point in reading a text. They can’t connect, and the content seems to have no bearing on real life.
When students feel that literature is immediately relevant, they are much more likely to engage.
The Difficulties in Teaching Dear Martin
I would love to tell you that teaching Dear Martin was all rainbows and butterflies, but it wasn’t perfect. Not everyone loved it. I had a student (a white male) who wrote in one of his writing prompt responses that he wasn’t connecting to the text.
I can see how the story could be alienating to your white students (which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing!). Unfortunately, I have yet to find a novel that can truly engage each and every student.
The story also tends to drag a bit in the middle. Some of the students who were super engaged in the beginning tended to be over it by the middle. When students miss a day or two (or if you have a holiday break, snow days, etc.) this can be one that’s hard to re-engage in the middle.
The character death in the middle of the story also seemed to deflate many readers. By then, the constant racism had begun to wear on them. If I were to teach it again, I may plan some kind of hands-on activity in the middle of the novel to keep students going and focused while the plot finds itself again.
By the end of the novel, my students and I were all a little worn out from the dreariness of racial injustice. To combat this, I recommend focusing on some of the other themes of the novel, like identity and maybe planning a parallel project where students can choose their own injustice to research.
I hope that this post helped you determine if Dear Martin is the right fit for your classroom. If you think it may be, but are now overwhelmed with planning, check out my Dear Martin resources. You’ll find reading questions, quizzes, an introductory activity, and my personal favorite–a comprehensive reading journal (pictured above).