Friday, March 22, 2019

Is it time to replace Mockingbird?

In response to a Tweet by teacher Jacqueline Stallworth (@thebigseablog) about why she stopped teaching TKAM, Laurie Halse Anderson recently asked her Twitter followers, “Are you still teaching To Kill a Mockingbird? Why?” The result has been a vibrant, energetic discussion. We encourage students and teachers of TKAM to read and think about these critical issues (as teachers in Duluth, Minn., have been doing so recently), and we want to celebrate the fact that many of us are claiming space in our schools and/or via social media to think carefully about the complex issue of what we think students should read and why. For us, this is an exciting, important discussion with no simple answers.

That said, we have a few points to add on this topic.

The most important thing, we think, when considering what texts should and shouldn’t be taught in the classroom is the ultimate goal: We want students to read. If they don’t read, nothing else really matters. And no one should underestimate the challenge of getting students today to read. We love/hate Penny Kittle’s video, “Why Students Don’t Read What Is Assigned in Class.” As teachers, we work hard to engage our students with the texts we are teaching, but there is no shame in admitting that this is one of the biggest challenges English educators face. Each of us as teachers brings different skill sets to this challenge. Each of us finds different texts exciting and relevant. Just as importantly, each student, each class of students, and each moment in the classroom can render one text the perfect text to teach and another text a heavy lift.

Next in importance to the issue of getting students to actually do the reading, we think, is the challenge of getting students to be thoughtful, critical readers, who can understand and articulate why reading matters and what’s important about a text. We’ve written and talked about Audrey’s first year-college students’ memory of their high school experience with Gatsby, for example. Her students had vague recollections of symbols, the green light, and rich people. Some remembered the idea of the American Dream. Few could articulate an idea of why Fitzgerald’s text matters or why it’s worth reading. 

If students can’t articulate what matters about a text, does it really make a difference whether they pass their eyes over the pages? Or remember that the green light was a symbol of something? Or that the text somehow connected with some vague idea about the American Dream?

Of course, it’s hard for a teenager or early college student to articulate why a text matters. But surely that’s one of our critical tasks in the classroom. 

Having paid respect to the challenges of getting students to read and to read critically, we can turn to the questions: Is it time for TKAM to be replaced? Has the time come to update this text?

Perhaps. Aaron Sorkin has tried an update of sorts in his new Broadway production, which, among other things, underscores the links between the current American and international climate of white supremacy and the historically-specific racism of Bob Ewell, Maycomb, and the 30s KKK. Like Spike Lee in BlacKKKlansman, Sorkin uses TKAM to connect the past and the present and to remind us of our ugly history and its many-tentacled connections to today.

Sorkin struggles, however, to do more to give voice to the African-American perspective in TKAM. He tries some tweaks, but ultimately, the focus and perspective in his play, as in Lee’s novel, belong to Scout and Atticus, not Calpurnia and Tom Robinson.

Whatever else it may be and whatever it may do in terms of interrogating issues of race and justice, TKAM is not a novel written from an African-American perspective. It does not offer students the opportunity to read a narrative that represents the viewpoint of an African-American writer or character. And surely we can agree that our students deserve to see many different perspectives, written by a range of different writers, in the texts they read. That’s one argument for replacing TKAM. There are many, many wonderful rich and complex texts by authors of color out there, and students deserve to see a variety of texts and authors in the curriculum and the classroom

That said, we can’t wait for a revision of TKAM from the perspective of Zeebo, Calpurnia’s son, or Lula, the African-American woman who objects to Scout and Jem’s presence in the church, or perhaps one of Tom’s children. Young writers out there, get going!

Such a re-writing would be particularly important because TKAM is such an important text in American cultural history. That may not be reason enough for it still to be taught, but TKAM’s cultural capital makes it a particularly useful text for students to be able to think critically about. For some of us, the ability to navigate and think critically about this text is one reason to still teach it. In fact, it is a valuable opportunity to teach students how to “read against” a canonical text.

How do we get students to do that work of thinking critically about TKAM? How do we ensure we are teaching this complex and problematic text well? For us, paired texts are the key.

In Using Informational Text to Teach TKAM, we offer selections to make it easier for students to do this kind of work. A brief reading on entails, for example, unpacks the class politics of Maycomb, allowing students to understand the complex caste system within Maycomb, and why the Ewell’s poverty is different from the Cunningham’s. Excerpts from memoirs by the Scottsboro boys allow readers to think critically about Scout’s youthful and clueless perception and representation of the near-lynching of Tom. Consideration of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s decision in Loving v. Virginia contextualizes Dolphus Raymond’s drunken subterfuge and reminds us that both in the 30s when the novel was set and in 1960, when the novel was published, interracial marriage was criminal in some areas of the U.S. We also include pieces by Stephen Jones and David Margolick that raise questions about Atticus’s heroism and the continued challenges for lawyers of representing politically unpopular clients.

The publication of Go Set a Watchman created even more possibilities for engaging pairings. We have a piece, to be published in Mockingbird Grows Up: Re-Reading Harper Lee Since Watchman, edited by Jonathan S. Cullick and Cheli Reutter (U of Tennessee P, 2020), centered around Calpurnia and the representation of black women, particularly nannies. Our lesson opens with a photograph, titled “Quaker Oats’s Aunt Jemima,” which depicts the seemingly loving relationship between an older black nanny and her young white charge and aligns with young Scout’s untroubled view of a nurturing Calpurnia. We then add to the discussion an excerpt from “Interview: A Perspective on the 1930s,” which offers a discussion among three now-elderly white women who, like Scout, grew up with black nannies in the 1930s South, which allows students to see the women’s blindspots about the loving, “wonderful” black people with whom they interacted. Next, we add an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American woman who worked as a domestic in the 1930s South and subsequently founded the National Domestic Workers Union, in an audio excerpt, archived at the Voices of Labor Oral History Project on the Georgia State University Library website. In her own powerful and challenging language, Bolden describes the narrow “chalk line” African-Americans had to walk to earn low wages in the limited employment options available to them. Bolden’s focus is not on the attachment between white children and their black caregivers but instead on the “system” of domestic labor in which those caregivers were respected -- but only within the house -- paid poorly, and forced to walk a fine line of acquiescence and silence. 

When we then turn to the relationship between Scout and Calpurnia, students have built an informative context in which to consider the relationship between Scout and Calpurnia. They are now ready to examine the key moments foregrounding that complex relationship, including Calpurnia’s “double life” and “command of two languages” at church in Mockingbird and the hostile, remote Calpurnia in Watchman who stiffly assumes “company manners” and rejects the now-adult Jean Louise.

Should TKAM still be taught? There’s no easy answer here. But what’s critically important is that we keep asking the question – about TKAM and about all the texts we teach. Which texts should we teach and why? The answers surely should change, from time to time, place to place, classroom to classroom, and teacher to teacher.

Ultimately, what matters most is that we have and continue to have these sorts of discussions about the books, like TKAM, that we teach.

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