Sunday, March 1, 2015

Etiquette and being a good neighbor

This past week I had the opportunity to sit in on part of a 90-minute block 9th grade English class taught by one of my colleagues at University Academy Charter High School. I was particularly eager to visit her class because I knew she was planning to use materials from our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird unit on etiquette and gender roles.
The teacher began the class by leading the students in briefly reflecting on the previous days’ discussion on what it means to be a good neighbor. They had used the graphic organizer from our unit on Roosevelt’s inaugural address to reflect on which characters in the novel exemplify “the policy of the good neighbor” that Roosevelt references in his speech.
Until that moment, I had never realized how well that activity would segue into the unit on etiquette, which I had perceived as applying particularly to chapters 9 or 13 in connection with Scout’s dealings with Aunt Alexandra and especially to chapter 24 when Scout attends the missionary circle meeting.
But now I saw how she had hit upon a great thematic connection central to the novel and very relevant to her students’ present-day lives: social expectations (particularly of women) and how we get along with one another. The often-unwritten social values and expectations a community holds in common and how they influence the way people interact with and perceive each other is a strong current throughout the novel and one that persists to this day. And so I was especially eager to see how the class would proceed.
The teacher began with one of the media clips we suggest – a funny 1950s instructional video on dating dos and don’ts available on YouTube – in order to hook the students' interest. (There was a funny moment when the teacher at first accidentally clicked on the next video in the playlist, a 1950s instructional video on “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband”!) The students were amused by what they perceived as the relatively stiff and formal behavior of the teens in the dating film and compared the etiquette of the dating process as depicted by the film to how teens interact with each other today. While they observed that the dating process is far more casual now, particularly as facilitated by social media, they also acknowledged that women today still face sharp judgments based on how they act and dress and whether they are perceived to “respect themselves.” However, the female students also emphatically stated that anyone they might date would have to accept them for who they are,
The teacher used the students’ comments to segue into the essential question of the etiquette unit: Does a girl have to be a lady? The students offered their definitions of what it means to be a lady. The teacher then asked if they knew what etiquette means. One of the female students was able to make sense out of the term by describing her experience attending a cotillion.
The teacher then introduced the excerpt from the etiquette guide, explaining that it had been published not long before the time in which Mockingbird is set. She read aloud the introduction to the excerpt and drew the students’ attention to the discussion questions alongside the reading, explaining that the questions should signal to students how and when they might need to adjust their rate of reading to make sure that they fully understand the text.
Unfortunately, at this point, I had to leave to teach my next class. But the teacher later showed me the students’ annotations and comments they had written alongside the text in response to both our guided reading questions as well as their own discussion. It was gratifying to see that the students had engaged so deeply with the text – and made so many meaningful connections between Mockingbird and their own lives – with their teacher’s excellent guidance.
In our conversation following the class, the teacher said she appreciated the flexibility of our units: activities for each informational text that can be undertaken at any point in the study of the novel or in relation to particular chapters that are directly relevant. This flexibility allows teachers to move back and forth between Mockingbird and the different units. Indeed, my colleague said she planned on going back to some of the other activities on the good neighbor and etiquette as the class gets further on in the book. Meanwhile, the discussions the students had this week laid valuable groundwork in terms of allowing students to make insightful connections and build background knowledge; they are ready for chapter 24 when they will see how Scout has to negotiate both the prescribed gender expectations and rather un-neighborly behavior by some of the ladies at the missionary circle meeting.

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