Haunted By the Mockingbird Part 3

Posted on January 9, 2020

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See Haunted By the Mockingbird (Part 1) here

See Haunted By the Mockingbird (Part 2) here

The third and, I hope, final, problematic incident related to Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, happened in the last five years of my career. For me, it is the most problematic one of all.

It was exciting time for me as an English teacher. After two decades without a coherent English Language Arts curriculum, the district had adopted a comprehensive K-12 ELA curriculum that was created by practicing Michigan teachers. For me, the most exciting aspects of the curriculum were that it included lessons on Media Literacy; all grades, K-12, started the year with Writer’s Workshop; and best of all, it required only ONE, short, whole-class novel for ELA9.

While TKAM is a novel, it’s NOT short, so it was time to move it to “choice reading” rather than assigned texts for ninth grade students. I was happy to send it on its way. I would no longer be required to try to navigate the racist ideas and tropes of the novel; I would no longer have to try to justify making students read it. Good riddance!

I packed away my heavily annotated copy of TKAM and looked forward to seeing AHS students finally have the opportunity to become REAL readers: readers who choose to read and abandon books; readers who follow their interests wherever they lead; readers who were in charge of their reading lives. I couldn’t wait to have the kinds of conversations with students about books that I’d been hearing about from colleagues in districts with Independent Reading-focused ELA curricula. I knew that when they were free to read what they liked, my students would read a LOT more! And they did! Students who considered themselves “non-readers” were weirdly surprised by the enjoyment they experienced in reading books of their own choosing. After the first year with the new curriculum, I was delighted with the HUGE increase in books read by my students. I did teacher research and collected data, gathering evidence to convince any doubters that our students WILL read MANY books–if THEY choose what to read. I wrote a series of blog posts about it; you can find it here.

However, not all English Department members were ready to embrace Independent Reading. Trying to convince a young colleague to try it, I pointed out that the curriculum only allows for teachers to select one, SHORT novel for whole-class reading, so TKAM no longer fit. It was then that I was once again shocked by how this novel could bring me trouble.

This time, I was faced with an outright lie, by a young teacher who had not too recently left the college classroom. I don’t know where she matriculated, and perhaps what she said had not been influenced at all by her college education, but she actually claimed that “colleges require students to have read this novel when they arrive.”

I couldn’t believe that someone so young, in the twenty-teens, could hold such a view. There is NO such book! Colleges do NOT require ANY specific books be taught in high school. That is not a thing.

I reminded my colleague that I work with and talk with many English Education professors, through my work with Eastern MI Writing Project, MCTE, and NCTE, and that, although I could double-check, I was quite sure that her assertion was not supported by evidence. I asked her to supply such evidence if she had it. She, of course, had none.

Then she changed her argument. She asserted that the novel helps raise student awareness about social issues such as poverty and racism. I pointed out that the novel and classroom discussions about it can be a source of microaggressions for Black students and students in poverty, and that although Atticus is held up as someone to admire, he fails, ultimately, at saving Tom’s life, who dies at the hands of police. I reminded her that many of her students, including quite a large percentage who considered themselves “non-readers,” often refused to read the book, which made them unable to be successful on assignments tied to the novel. I recalled how, in the year before, I had seen students sleeping in class while she played the audiobook and expected them to follow along…

She was unmoved. It didn’t matter that the novel did not meet the requirements of the district’s curriculum, and it didn’t matter that students could be harmed if teachers weren’t able to create a safe space for all in the classroom. She would continue to assign it.

I was left feeling very sad and frustrated. We’ve known for decades that the key to creating successful readers is CHOICE. I’d finally won that right for the students by working to bring in the new curriculum, but their teacher could deny it, simply because she felt like it.

The NCTE Position Statement on Independent Reading lists these CORE VALUES:

As English language arts teachers, we

  • provide protected opportunities within our classrooms that allow students to increase their volume of reading through independent reading of self-selected texts.
  • recognize the importance of access to texts at a wide variety of reading levels, about a plethora of topics and interests, that offer multiple perspectives in classroom libraries and school libraries.
  • support readers through small-group and 1:1 conferences.
  • book-match to ensure students have accessible, high-interest texts.
  • build enthusiasm for reading.
  • cultivate a community of readers through modeling of independent reading and conversations about reading.
  • “build intercultural understanding” through literature (Short, 2009, p. 2).

My young colleague was unconvinced to implement Independent Reading in her ninth grade classes, but also, she left the district by the end of the year, as many new teachers do. I hope that her replacement, and the other department members, realize that by implementing the district curriculum, they can create strong, flexible, enthusiastic readers who will read more books than they ever imagined. And it makes teaching a LOT more FUN! Reading is something that most people ENJOY, when they’ve chosen what to read.

Now I really hope that this incident is the last time that TKAM will bring me pain.

Good riddance, Harper Lee, for real this time!