I belong to a book club of women who are all moms like me. Once a year we pick a classic to read (or reread). This year’s pick was To Kill a Mockingbird, for which Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and on Monday received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I had read Harper Lee’s classic in high school and I remembered the plot, but what I did not remember was how magical Lee’s prose was, how connected I felt to Scout Finch, the narrator, and the rhythms of her life in that small Southern town. I wonder now if I forgot all of this or if I never got the chance to feel this connection when I read Mockingbird in English class.
I was an avid reader even back then, but I often felt disconnected from the books that we read in school. I was reading James Michener’s historical tomes and Robert Heinlein’s fantasy by the time I was in high school (OK, not classic literature, but so fun to read!). The books we were assigned were so boring! It took forever to read one, stopping after every chapter to “do something” with the book: memorize vocabulary lists, hunt for examples of figurative language, and write lengthy essays from teacher prompts. These assignments killed any momentum that might have pulled me through a book, and killed my appreciation for the book, too.
Many colleagues have insisted to me that students cannot read books that are complex and rich with literary detail without a teacher’s guidance because students are not sophisticated readers. The irony of these opinions is apparent when To Kill a Mockingbird is trotted out as an example of a book that students cannot read without a teacher. As a teacher and a reader, Scout’s views towards school and reading haunt me long after I finished the book. On the first day of school, Scout is chastised by her new teacher because she learned to read before she received formal training in school. The teacher tells Scout, “Now you tell your father not to teach you anymore. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him that I will take over from here and try to undo the damage.” Scout is crushed because she is told that she cannot read at home and tells us, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
As Mockingbird continues, Scout’s views show that she has become increasingly disconnected from the learning she must do at school. She says, “…as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what, I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.” To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960 (set in the ‘30s), I was in high school in 1984, and as teachers and parents, we are still bemoaning the lack of engagement that students seem to have in school and with reading. Much research into reading has taken place since 1960, so what has not changed for students?
I think the mistrust is still there. Teachers do not trust students to take control of their own literacy development or their own learning. We still teach books instead of teaching readers. Students are given very little control of what they read, when they read, and how they are allowed to respond. School reading still seems to be about what teachers think students should be getting out of a book. The opportunity to fall in love with a story is denied to students who have come to view school reading as an obstacle course of comprehension assignments. Teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge instead of the guides. Should knowledge have a gatekeeper? Until we release some of this control back to our students, they will never become independent thinkers or readers. As for students like Scout and me, who walk into classrooms already readers, we will continue to wonder why our love of reading has no place in school.