EdWeek currently features an inspiring piece by David B. Cohen about teaching Mockingbird. Cohen talks about the ways in which his views and teaching of Harper Lee’s seminal and influential text have changed, particularly in light of his current reading about institutional racism and economic oppression in the historical period of the novel.
Indeed, as Cohen writes, “even if the book stays the same, the reader changes over time.” So his current reading of Mockingbird is different from what it was some twenty years ago, based on who he now is but also what he now knows about the broader context of the novel.
We might amplify Cohen’s important comments with a reminder that the readers of Mockingbird today are not just us, the teachers, but also our students. What broader context and particular reading do students today bring to the table in order to make sense out of Harper Lee’s text? What do we as teachers hope they will take away? How can we help them see the connections between this very historically specific story of Maycombe and today’s American universe, replete with tensions about race, economic inequality, social justice, etc.?
Cohen writes that a text like Mockingbird is never at risk of feeling “stale and overused” because it contains such “rich material.” But he also emphasizes, so rightly, that by “adding relevant new learning,” we “keep the experience fresh.” Indeed, that is the difficult but exciting task of the skilled English teacher.
When we select innovative and engaging informational or nonfiction texts in order to provide a potent context for both us and for those many students for whom Mockingbird can seem an alien text describing a foreign world, we do our jobs well. There is no one Mockingbird; which version of Harper Lee’s novel will you offer your students this year? What texts will you curate for them in order to shape their first or second encounter with what Oprah Winfrey calls “our national novel”?