The Full Measure of 'To Kill a Mockingbird': Teaching Beyond the Text
After sharing some thoughts around To Kill a Mockingbird last week, I got some really great feedback about whether or not the book was still worth teaching. Not for reasons I outright disagreed with—such as protecting the comfort of white readers—but for much more nuanced considerations. Should we not be teaching more books written by people of color (Yes!)? Shouldn't we be seeking texts that empower voices often oppressed and ignored in traditional literary canon (Yes!)?
These were all important things I myself had considered when I started teaching 8th grade this year. Why was I teaching this book? Should I fight harder to teach something else?
There are always difficult choices we have to make as educators. At the end of the day, no one knows their classroom and context like the teacher actually in the room, and millions of factors come into play: what the school or department wants, what will allow the teacher to feel most successful, and the most important factor—what is best for our students.
When I considered all these things the best decision I could come to was to teach To Kill a Mockingbird this year. I understood, however, that in making the choice to teach this book, I was accepting the responsibility to give the text its full measure and teach beyond the words. That meant pointing out the book's problems and using it as a tool to give my students a better understanding of the historical power hierarchy that has garnered the book praise and controversy.
So, that meant creating assignments that ask my students to consider the book's white savior tropes or internalized racism. It means allowing them to climb into the skin of underrepresented characters so they can have in-depth discussions that push their perceptions of these characters.
There are times where, unfortunately, it feels like what we teach is out of our control. That may be true, and we may end up having to teach texts that are far from perfect. When that happens, though, we must do our best to provide students with an education that allows them to see the humanity of others, and grow to fight injustice and oppression within our communities. We can use an imperfect text to teach students about an imperfect society in hopes that they can make change.
Ultimately, I want my students to understand that, while gripping, none of the characters in nor the author of To Kill a Mockingbird are perfect. In teaching through the imperfection, I hope they gain an irreversible habit to take whatever anyone hands them—even their teachers—and question how it affects the world around them or could, someday, be made better.
Image from Flickr