Sunday, December 11, 2016

Using 'Loving' to teach 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

There’s lots of talk about the recent film Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the interracial couple who triumphed in the Supreme Court over Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. It’s a sweet film, and one that takes an intimate approach to the subject in a way that is sure to be embraced by teachers. Loving contrasts the quotidian events of rural life and love with the broader politics of racism in the United States in a way that mostly charms, even if it is somewhat frustrating in its deliberate focus away from the Civil Rights Movement.

In an interview with NPR, Nichols discusses how he first became aware of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and their battle with anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia when he was introduced to the HBO documentary on the Lovings in 2012. Nichols says, “[F]or that to be the first time that I heard about Richard and Mildred Loving was kind of unacceptable to me. I think this is something that people more than just law students that have taken constitutional law classes, you know, should have a familiarity with, especially now.”

We couldn’t agree more. So many of our nation’s signature Supreme Court cases are unknown to the people of our nation. And many of the decisions, like Loving v. Virginia, are actually relatively accessible and deeply engaging. They certainly are readable by, as Nichols writes, “more than just law students.”

In fact, we think many Supreme Court cases make terrific, engaging companion texts to some of our most commonly taught literary texts.

For example, we use an excerpt from Loving v. Virginia in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill A Mockingbird. The case serves as the informational text-center of our unit, “What’s Up with Mr. Dolphus Raymond?” Studying Loving v. Virginia gives students the legal context with which to understand the fact that the white Dolphus Raymond could not legally marry the African-American mother of his children. Scout may or may not be aware of this prohibition, which makes it all the more inaccessible to students today. Reading Loving v. Virginia together with Mockingbird reveals the deeper gravity and historical resonance behind Raymond’s drunken masquerade. Nichols’s Loving surely deserves a place in our classrooms as well (even just the 2 1/2 minute trailer for the film does fine work in unpacking for students the taboos against interracial marriage).

Indeed, reading Mockingbird together with Loving v. Virginia is one way, we think, in which the Common Core helps us engage students in “difficult conversations” (Chadwick 91) about race, class, and social injustice. Jocelyn A. Chadwick references these “difficult conversations” in her excellent discussion of teaching Huckleberry Finn in the November 2016 issue of English Journal. Her essay forms one of several companion pieces to Peter Smagorinsky’s provocative essay on whether it is “time to prohibit Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn” (75).

Leaving aside the issue of teaching Huck, one issue that struck us in the debate in EJ was Smagorinsky’s worry about the Common Core’s “emphasis on reading within the four corners of the page while sublimating emotional responses in service of textual analysis” (80). This worry seems to echo earlier concerns that the Common Core would force English teachers to put aside literature in favor of instructional manuals.

The Common Core, however, asks us to broaden, not narrow, our students’ reading. Students are sometimes asked to read “within the four corners of the page,” but the Common Core also introduced the informational text standard and emphasized the important skill of putting different kinds of texts into critical conversation. Anchor Standard 9, for example, asks students to “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (CCSS, 2010). Explicitly, this standard articulates a reading practice in which students use multiple texts to build an “informative context” that expands beyond any singular close examination of a solitary text.

Particularly for texts like Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, that informative context can be just as important as the emotional context. Emotional responses to literature can and should retain a place in our classrooms, but we also have a responsibility to help place those responses within the complex and politically difficult historical context that students often can’t access from the literary text alone. After all, Scout and Jem think Dolphus Raymond is a drunk because they have no context within which to understand his actions and behavior. Informational texts, like Loving v. Virginia and Nichols’s Loving, make sure our students don’t make those same mistakes. These companion texts to Mockingbird are crucial tools for us to use in meeting the Common Core Standards, building literacy across a range of text types, and facilitating difficult but critical classroom conversations.