Preparing to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird|
by Charles Suhor,
Deputy Executive Director, National Council of Teachers of English, and
Supervisor of Multicultural Education, Prince William County Public Schools
During a discussion among the inner city and suburban teachers, humanities scholars and teacher educators who developed this study guide, many important points were raised.
Teachers in the To Kill A Mockingbird (TKM) group reported that the novel is a powerful reading experience for their students, many of whom articulate for the first time their feelings about a wide range of issues. Class discussions about Scout's growing insight into her father's character, evil and injustice in the world, and relationships among classes and races are intensely interesting - but they are not without hazard. Students, and often their parents, sometimes have difficulty with the profane language, racial epithets, absence of a Black perspective, complex family and social relationships, and violence in the novel.
Of course, good literature often poses thorny moral questions and depicts unpleasant aspects of life. But the TKM group agreed that a curriculum created with the goal of avoiding all controversial materials and depicting only optimistic viewpoints and cheerful outcomes would, at best, present a distorted view of life. The group viewed TKM as an excellent opportunity to help young people deal with many of the same issues they will face in life. They further noted that certain general procedures can be instituted to encourage a positive reception of this and similar instructional materials.
To begin with, individual teachers and English departments can select literary materials in accordance with a published selection process that clearly affirms the criteria for their choices. Institutionalizing such a policy is a buffer against a challenger's claim that an excellent work such as To Kill a Mockingbird has been capriciously placed in the English program. Advance announcement of reading lists and works to be studied is another way of dealing openly with students, parents, and community constituencies‹although it should be clear that students' readings are not rigidly limited by such lists. (See "Guidelines for Selection..." and "Students' Right to Read" in the NCTE Readings and Resources list.)
In many schools and districts, a student or parent who objects to a particular work is given the option of selecting a substitute work with parallel themes and of similar literary value. This policy enables the student to pursue worthwhile study while ensuring that no individual parent's or group's objection forecloses on other students' right to read. Mildred D. Taylor's Let the Circle be Unbroken and Earnest Gaines' Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , for example, are award-winning books that teachers have recommended as alternatives or companion pieces to TKM.
Equally important is the handling of TKM in the classroom. As with selection of works for study, the assumption here is that the teacher is a trained professional who proceeds knowledgeably and sensitively. Such a teacher will carefully choose when to teach a work that requires more prepping of students and a longer duration of study. It follows that a teacher would generally be advised not to begin the year or a block schedule with a novel like TKM that explores difficult social issues or a work that is extremely difficult to read.
The sensitive teacher will also be aware that what seems wonderful and powerful to one group of students may seem degrading to another. For example, the scene where members of the Black community relegated to the balcony stand in respect when Atticus passes may be viewed as a powerful moment to some students while for others the scene may be humiliating, and a chilling reminder of the legacy of powerlessness in America.
The TKM group strongly recommends that having students read aloud racial epithets or slurs such as "" not take place in the classroom. One teacher reported that tension was generated when a student in a racially integrated class was asked to read aloud a passage from TKM in which the "N-word" appeared. The wrenching discomfort that arose in this classroom situation could have been avoided. Predictably, reading racial slurs and profanities aloud will have a different impact than seeing such words on the printed page and then talking about them in open class discussion.
The TKM group agreed that a key to the study of controversial works is the teacher's ability to build and sustain a sense of the classroom as a safe environment. This is where prepping activities will be crucial. For example, having students discuss gender issues then and now, race relations then and now, etc. can progress to more difficult topics such as the origin and the disparaging use of the "N-word." When trust exists among the teacher and students, discussion of virtually any issue that appears in a literary context can usually be carried on productively with prepping.
Of course, student learning does not begin and end in the classroom. Students often leave the safe haven of classroom dialogue and return to school and community environments characterized by intolerance and adolescent ridicule. Addressing this, one teacher suggested ten minutes or so of debriefing at the end of classes in which students have been engaged in intensive discussion. Such debriefing has both the content-learning benefit of summing up key points discussed and the added value of providing students with a sense of closure, fortifying them with confidence in themselves as individuals capable of civility in disagreement. Teachers can then gauge the effect the discussion has had on various students and act accordingly, e.g., deal with problems individually.
Discussions about TKM during the three-day meeting were ebullient and wide-ranging, resulting in the wonderful array of new materials in this teaching guide and on the Mockingbird Website. The considerations above are advanced as prudent advice and not red flags about teaching potentially controversial works. The TKM group agreed that self-censorship rooted in fear of challenges can be a devastating form of book-banning, giving in to what Henry James once called "imagination of disaster." Using TKM, the teacher has an excellent opportunity as a curriculum-builder to engage in creative problem solving, taking time for prepping, thus providing the most edifying literary experiences possible for today's students.