More Long Distance Love

Carson Skyped into my classroom again this morning.  I invited him to come and give some background and context about Jim Crow and segregation to my freshmen as they read To Kill a Mockingbird.

A number of my babies seem to be having a really tough time with this book, which stymied me at first.  I understand that I sometimes let my own deep and abiding affection for certain novels cloud my recognition that not everyone can be expected to be as in love with them as I.  I’m working really hard to remember that I’m teaching NINTH GRADERS here; I think I’ve become so used to working with the older, more mature students that I forget, every once in a while, that these little ones probably don’t have the kind of experience, background, or education that they sometimes need to really understand and appreciate the novels we read.

I recognized that a big missing piece for my students and To Kill a Mockingbird was likely the aspect of culture; as mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly liberal Northerners, most of us have never really had to consider the legacy of segregation and racism in our everyday lives, and I think that understanding those things is crucial to really appreciating the gravity and importance of this novel.  Carson did a great job of laying the groundwork for the students’ understanding of the CULTURE of the country – not just the South, but the whole of the US – from Reconstruction on, and I think they left the class feeling like they understood a little better the way that culture informs the characters in Lee’s book.

For myself, I was quietly proud of how much I already know of what Carson covered.  I was taking notes on the board for the kids as he was talking, and at one point I had written the exact phrase that he spoke a moment later.  I joke with the history teacher at CHS that we should consider trading jobs once in a while; he’s a frustrated English teacher and I am most certainly a frustrated history teacher.  I could probably have done a decent job covering the material that Carson taught my kids this morning, but I was particularly grateful that he was willing to get up early (we’re a time zone ahead of him) and beam himself into my classroom.  I think that it’s important for my students to hear a lot of different voices.  I admire Carson’s knowledge and adore his style, and I’m grateful and honored that he agrees to share his time and talent so freely with me.

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16 Comments

Filed under admiration, book geek, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, history, I love my job, Learning, out in the real world, success!, Teaching

16 responses to “More Long Distance Love

  1. Pingback: Directing Traffic « The Blue Door

  2. I teach Mockingbird to my 8th graders and it works because a few months before, we study Reconstruction through WWI. Let’s hear it for Humanities! Integrating the worlds of English and History makes total sense to me.

  3. It does to me, too; so much so that if I’m ever delusional enough to go back to school, I’ll likely get a degree in history. I spend a lot of my time offering up context to kids for the books we read; I think being able to give those lessons myself would be exciting (though that wouldn’t ever stop me from bringing my friends and colleagues to my classes!).

  4. The joys of technology! How wonderful for your students to have the experience that Carson offered.

  5. Cal

    You’re kidding, right? TKAM was written for white suburban northerners; it was largely designed to make them feel good about themselves. The book simultaneously explained southern whites in a self-serving manner while reassuring northern whites that goodness, they were so much better than the average small town southerner–and certainly good enough to appreciate Atticus Finch.

    There are all sorts of reasons why your class doesn’t appreciate the book, but it’s not because they aren’t white southerners.

    As for them not appreciating the legacy of segregation and racism; good lord, they’ve had it preached to them every February for nine years. They get it. They just don’t like the book much. Oh, well.

    I think it would help if English teachers didn’t treat it like a religious text to be worshipped.

  6. Cal

    Your point is interesting but highly flawed in its analysis. Let us start with black history month — or as you call it, preachy February. In a world that sees and adheres to the greatness of whiteness, blacks have had to embrace a “sense” of societal servitude in relation to the notion of second class; I am not talking about Jim Crow here, brother. I am talking about the element of not being relevant in a white mainstream society. Thus, black folks created specialized literature to showcase why black is not heathen, but significant. Magazines such as Jet, Essence, and Ebony demonstrate that there is a community making progress and one that has achieved much — even in a world that still views the plight of black folks as ghetto. Sure, Cal, you can deny this — but in the end, you too have thought this.

    Seeing that many white folks are not reading the literature above, blacks found ways to break into the mainstream TV viewership. Shows like the Cosby Show told whites to back off. Stop typecasting a race due to perception. Blacks are educated and have a sense of moral value. February offers some attention to explaining black suffering, which often accompanies a corresponding emphasis on black redemption via a sense of being Afrocentric.

    I have yet to meet an English instructor that used this work as the gospel. That is usually reserved for William Shakespeare. But, you have clearly missed the point. The work teaches us about love, compassion, courage, and a sense of morality. Atticus was a lawyer teaching folks in the deep South how to be and act human. He put his life on the line for honor, knowing that most people in Alabama would want him lynched. He represented the fact that there were good white people in Alabama. Most suspect that he represented Harper Lee’s father, a man she looked to for moral guidance in a world missing it.

    It is a work about competition between white men and black men. Seeing that white male heterosexuals hold power, white men felt threatened by black men. Especially sexually. Thus, they created the idea that black men were animals looking to rape white women. The white race cannot survive if such predators are allowed to compete for this resource…a white female.

    Cal, you really missed the boat here.

  7. No, Cal, I’m so NOT kidding.

    I think it is absolutely reasonable to think that my students’ being mostly white, mostly affluent, and mostly Northern DOES have an effect on their ability to really appreciate the concepts that TKaM is asking us to consider. When one is not presented with a thing, one doesn’t have to really think about it. I am not ever in a situation where I have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, for example, so I never have to think about being hungry in any meaningful sense. When we’re healthy, we do not consider the workings of our bodies; when our cars are working properly, we never think about all the things that have to happen to get us from one place to another. It’s only when something is amiss that we start to think about how – and whether – things are working. That my students don’t have a baseline for experience with issues of race and race relations IS significant – if one has no experience with something, one cannot be expected to understand it without guidance and education.

    I disagree with your claim that the novel was written to make white Northerners “feel better.” On what, exactly, are you basing that assertion? My own experience with this novel would tell me that it was likely more intended for the white Southern reader, actually; it seems pretty clear to me that the novel’s purpose is to inspire some self-critical thinking on the part of people who might share some beliefs and assumptions with the people of Macomb – that’s certainly the effect it had on ME, and it’s that thinking that I try to inspire in my students.

    Carson said everything I could have about Black History Month. I don’t think you’re correct in thinking that the students have been indoctrinated or preached to; in fact, I invited Carson into my classroom specifically BECAUSE my students didn’t know what Jim Crow laws were. It’s a mistake to assume that people know things they may not know.

    Finally, I’m offended by your implication that I ‘worship’ this novel – or any novel, for that matter. I see these texts as touchstones – guides by which I can lead myself and my students through a more rich, diverse, and complex way of thinking. Everything is up for discussion; nothing is sacred, and I resent your implication that I – or anyone else – hold any of these books above scrutiny. To do that is antithetical to everything that every good teacher does.

    Cal, you really DID miss the boat.

  8. Pingback: Thoughts for Thursday « The Blue Door

  9. s parker

    i so have professional crushes on you and edward :-)

  10. Wow, I’m just waiting for a defense of the racists who started the War of Southern Treason and their heirs who still fly the traitor’s “Confederate” flag to top off the “poor white men, let’s all cry for them” nonsense.

  11. Wow, Cal. I’m really stumped as to why someone who grew up in the rural deep south would feel the need to write a novel designed to make white suburban northerners feel good about themselves. What evidence do you use to justify a statement like that?

    I read the novel for the first time in the 8th grade, and even though I grew up in Mississippi not long from the time frame this novel was written, I still could not wrap my head around it and really understand. It wasn’t until I re-read it much later as an adult that I could appreciate it. It is an incredible novel that is distinctly American.

    • saintseester — Great point. I think it is all about one’s agenda in terms of what they are seeking. Your motives are clearly pure. I still need to hear from cal. A defense is needed.

  12. Allison

    My youngest daughter read To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer between Grade 6 and Grade 7. She is not always a diligent reader and I thought the book was probably too mature for her but gifts you grow up to are what aunties are for. My daughter devoured this book! This was in a summer filled with campfires, swimming, and outdoor fun. There she was every spare moment reading, reading, reading. I am pretty sure that the reason it caught so much of her attention was stated by Mr Carson above. “The work teaches us about love, compassion, courage, and a sense of morality.” It is simply a beautifully written book about what it is like to be human, good and bad. Not many of us are comfortable with having our less admirable qualities pointed out and teenagers have a lot invested in being “perfect” to the outside eye. Although your class may not love this book in this moment I am betting that it will stay with most of them long into their adulthood.

  13. I agree witgh you Allison. At some point in time, we all have that moment when an important lesson hits us. Regardless, it is alaways best to be mature…that being students, and use the now to address some of the dark elements that define us when it comes to topics such as race.

    Your daughter is a rock star; I want her in my classes.

  14. In my district, TKAM is taught in the tenth grade, with the idea being that they’ll read it in English class at about the same time that they learn about Jim Crow laws and related issues in their history classes. Nonetheless, I’ve found that I have to heavily frontload it with video, photographs, etc. in order to create any sort of context for my students.

    Our community is heavily white (probably 70%) with the remainder consisting of Hispanic students, mostly Mexican-American. When I went to high school nearby, we had (to my knowledge) one black student in the entire school. Most of the black people that my students will encounter are first-generation immigrants, as our community is refugee resettlement area. My kids literally have zero context for racial tension or racism, at least as it relates to black/white issues.

    I’ve found that one of the most valuable tools I have is Harper Lee’s biography, particularly the parts AFTER her book became famous. Something about the fact that she felt so demonized that she completely withdrew from society hits my kids – it helps them understand that even if they don’t completely GET it, they understand that it was a big deal, a big sore spot in society. And that opens the door for learning.

    “Social studies” and literature are irrevocably intertwined. Every great English teacher is also a history/civics teacher, and vice versa.

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