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Education Essays Teaching

Should I Teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

As I write this, I am struggling with the notion that next year I have to teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time. Therefore, I am using my blog to create a question paper, to write to learn about why I feel so hesitant.

Why am I struggling to accept that I must teach To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) this upcoming school year? Is it the fact that the N-word is present in the text and I have many problems with that word? Is it that a white woman wrote it and the story includes the arrest and trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman? Is it that I am not sure how 15-year-old students are supposed to grasp the nuances in the novel, just as I did not when I first read it?

Or is it that I fear students might be suffering from racism-fatigue? I don’t even know if that is a word, but it sounds reasonable, and are my students suffering from it? What do I do about students who are tired of talking about race, especially in our current cultural climate? How do I make this relevant to them? And what about the African American and Latin-x students I have in the room? How are they going to feel about this story? How are they going to feel about a white teacher presenting this story and trying to have honest conversations about it when she truly doesn’t understand? Haven’t they been through enough trauma?

Isn’t there a text by an African American or Latin-x writer that I could use instead? Or would that be like avoiding an honest-to-goodness discussion of race, white privilege, bias, perspective, and our nation’s history? Would it make more sense to let an alternative text lead the discussion, or would it be wiser to confront this one head on? What about the students’ families? How are they going to react to this text? Apparently, it’s been in the curriculum for years, but how will they react to it this year, a year in which yet another black man was killed for nothing? And why hasn’t it been challenged before now, and why should I challenge it now?

I think I know why I am so hesitant. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I am going to blow an opportunity to have an impact. I don’t teach merely to teach. I teach literature to help all of us understand the human condition and how to choose our place, our role, within the human community.

Thanks for reading.

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Education Essays Learning Life Teaching

This Is Why I Teach Literature

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Image Credit: Posted by Michelle Argo Parker, an AP® Literature teacher from Minneapolis

One of Mrs. Parker’s students created this peaceful protest message using apropos quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is why I, and thousands of my colleagues, teach literature. As Mrs. Parker noted in her post: “He gets it.” We study literature to understand the human condition. It’s not all about the key concepts we are supposed to teach so that students understand literature better; it’s about the understanding. For more information on the six facets of understanding, as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, check out this article.

Words Matter.

If you want to know how one lunatic managed to take over an entire country with his words, which were eventually backed up with military might, in the 1930s, take a look at tweets and hours upon hours of video showing history repeating itself. In recent months, Mr. Trump has been tweeting things like “Liberate Minnesota!” He’s also called for liberating other states which just happen to have Democratic governors. He held rallies where he riled up his followers, calling the press the “enemy of the people” and “human scum.” He called the protestors “thugs.” He hasn’t denounced the police officers who murdered George Floyd. He hasn’t called for their arrest either. Top law-enforcement officer? I think not.

Yesterday, he topped all this off by sending in a huge law enforcement presence, complete with tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse peaceful protesters from a park, so he could walk through it to do a photo-op at a church while holding a Bible. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say. Here’s one that I think tells the tale well. Granted, it’s the words in the picture that also matter, but it’s still a picture.

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Image Credit: Heather M. Edick

Here’s another one of a very unfortunate headline from The New York Times. Do better, NYT; you totally missed the point.

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From CNN’s Reliable Sources Newsletter

Image Credit: CNN Reliable Sources Newsletter

Then, this morning, I read that Representative Matt Gaetz posted a tweet that Twitter found to be glorifying violence.

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Image Credit: New York Times

On the same day, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he said:

I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.

From rev.com; emphasis is mine.

Coincidence? Hunt down people with our second-amendment-guaranteed weapons? Again, I think not. That, dear reader, was a ‘dog whistle’ if ever I heard one. Someone is going to get killed and it will all be traced back to these messages coming from these people. Hopefully, that will be today and not twenty years from now.

Words Matter.

During World War II, John Steinbeck wrote a propaganda piece called The Moon Is Down at the behest of the U.S. Government. It was meant to support those under Nazi occupation. It was so important to people that it was copied and distributed in Norway to bolster the morale of the Norwegian people in World War II. Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon IV Freedom Cross for his work. The book was also distributed in numerous other territories occupied by the Nazis. Churchill was quite enthusiastic about the book as well. I highly recommend it. It isn’t the greatest piece of literature, but one of the more important.

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.

From https://Steinbeck.org/his-work/the-moon-is-down

Take that and choke on it, those who think that we should just take their word for it.

Words Matter.

We literature teachers look for the messages writers send in their works. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes we are imposing our own reality on theirs, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong. When Charlotte Bronte wrote about many of the students in Jane Eyre’s school dying of typhus, was she not recalling her childhood and making a comment about the poor treatment of indigent children? When Toni Morrison wrote about Pilate’s complete capitulation to the police while in the station trying to retrieve her property, what message was she sending about the lengths that African Americans have to go to get any cooperation at all? What about Charles Dickens? Surely he was sending many messages about social disparity. And what was Alice Walker trying to say when Celie let loose on Mr. ___ and his son? That was a classic scene of a woman standing up for herself. My final example refers you to the first picture I posted. It will be the first novel we read in AP® Lit this year. Those are a few examples that come to my mind as I write this.

Somewhere, there is a writer crafting the first COVID-19 novel that touches poignantly on all the problems we have today: systemic racism, high unemployment, cuts to essential services to bolster “industry,” class disparity – and the list that goes on and on while one’s heart breaks. I can’t wait to read it.

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Education Learning Teaching

Big Ideas in My Classroom

When we are able to return to school, this poster is going on my wall.

I created this poster to remind myself of the true value of education, of what it’s all about. As my first group goes into AP® exams this week, it seems important to remember that we don’t go to school to prepare for exams. We go to school to understand ourselves and our world.

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Education Learning Life Teaching

3 Ways Crisis Teaching Is Different and Just as (More?) Difficult as “Regular” Teaching (Whatever That Is)

This post could have been entitled “5 ways…” or “10 ways…” or maybe even “100 ways,” but the power of three is strong. It craves concision. It requires streamlined thought. It also makes it more difficult to write, but that’s a different post. Before diving into the big three, I have a message for anyone who reads this blog.

If you think teachers aren’t working, boy are you wrong.

There have been reports in the teaching community that parents and community members have questioned why teachers were getting paid during the shut down period, and they are even questioning why teachers are getting paid now that most of us have returned to the classroom, albeit the virtual one. It’s not just my community questioning it; communities nationwide have heard these questions and school boards nationwide have had to respond to them. It stymies the imagination, really, especially if you have any experience with working from home (more on that in a minute).

The facts are simple: Teachers who found themselves at home and not actively working with students did not take a vacation. Well, perhaps for a day so they could figure out how life was going to work with a full house every day. Shortly after that, however, teachers did what teachers do. They picked up their curriculum and started building an online classroom as they hoped that school would reopen. They called each other to discuss strategies and tools they could use to work with students in an entirely new way. They attended professional development webinars hastily created to help teachers transition. They joined Facebook groups of fellow teachers to share ideas, post “I miss my kids” posts, and get and give encouragement to each other. Personally, my AP Lit syllabus (a 40-plus page bear) is 90% complete now, and my summer reading materials (a 60-plus page bear) is complete. I created enrichment activities and a calendar that I shared with my students. I sent out ideas for keeping their skills sharp. I also wrote one of the most candid letters I have ever written to non-family members and sent that to my students. I would say that I was still working 50-hours a week while schools were shuttered, a *few* hours less than what I was working before. I wasn’t doing the stand-up aspect of teaching and I missed it, but I was still working as a teacher.

On top of that, of course, teachers needed to deal with family logistics, just like everyone else. In our house, we had to figure out which floor everyone was going to be on and we stressed about our Internet connection supporting a programmer, a teacher, and a college student at the same time. My friends have even more troubles, since they have more children to worry about, or they are suffering from job losses — or both. We are blessed, really, and I am thankful and grateful each day, as well as mindful of those who need help from our governments and each other.

So, how is crisis teaching different? Read on.

(1) Working from home is an acquired skill, and many of us have had to acquire it quickly.

After six years of working from home while my son was young, I have mixed emotions about finding myself working from home again. There was freedom one cannot enjoy while working in an office, to be sure, but working from home is also desperately, terribly lonely. By the time I went back to commuting to work (actually, it was to start student teaching), I was craving human-to-human contact beyond my own family. I wanted face-to-face colleagues again. I wanted face-to-face friends again. I was tired of being on video conference and dealing with Internet connectivity issues. Well, here I am again. And yes, I am desperately, terribly lonely. As much as I love technology and love to hate technology, I would go back to my classroom and remove all the tech there if only I could be with my kids and colleagues again.

(2) Crisis teaching is NOT Online Teaching, nor is it Brick-and-Mortar “put” online

Teaching online is COMPLETELY different from brick-and-mortar teaching. To my colleagues who teach in cyber charters and online campuses, I salute you. My distance/online learning experiences started in 2006 and while getting those degrees I can honestly say I worked harder as a learner than ever. My instructors worked hard to master the skills of asynchronous instruction and the “live lecture” that could go FUBAR at any moment. Most of them came from brick-and-mortar campuses and had mixed emotions about the change. I can’t blame them. It’s difficult and paradigm-shifting.

Teaching during a crisis is even more different. My friends talk about time limits on assignments, the focus on social and emotional learning, and the equity issues. Their hearts are broken for their kids, for their families, and for themselves. They can only imagine what is happening in the lives of these young people who are so important to them. Yes, these issues abound in brick-and-mortar teaching too. Being trauma-informed and culturally-responsive are so very important, no matter how you function as a teacher. In my previous teaching experiences, those issues always trumped learning opportunities, so perhaps I am more prepared than others; it was like flipping a switch.

(3) Our “Spidey Senses” are useless when teaching this way.

Observational skills are critical skills for every teacher to hone and develop. In September, you may not know your kids and be able to read their expressions or body language. By October 1, you can predict how most of them will react to something. Take the visual away and it is like September all over again. In essence, we have to develop those “Spidey Senses” required to read the room when the room is in the ether.

To connect with point number two, then, all the extra stuff that goes into explaining a simple assignment without being able to read the room makes the limitations and SEL considerations feel like tourniquets. Everything takes longer. That probably sounds counter-intuitive for some reason. Let me put it this way. Today, I woke up at 7:00 AM and worked until 2:00 PM. It’s Saturday. However, I had to do that to generate the documents I think will help my students to navigate the virtual learning room before our next conference. My classes no longer meet every day, so the students have to have instructions that can help them get started or continue assignments. I had several emails to respond to about assignments coming in late, too (What do I care about due dates? What’s more important now: your health or my due date? Please, if you do not know the answer to that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.) . Then, of course, there are the emails about professional development opportunities, AP® Exam updates (don’t get me started), and the emails from the education associations.

Tomorrow, I will probably work more, but darn it, I’m going for a bike ride. I will go to sleep tonight wondering if I explained something correctly and will have to resist the urge to rush to my computer. Issues that could have been resolved in a 30-second conversation during class now require multiple emails or LMS messages. Every time I get something wrong, I want to kick myself for wasting their time.

So, yeah, it’s different. It’s way different.

I’m going to do something completely out of character now and publish this without too much proofreading. Why? I have run out of time. Thank you for reading and leave a comment if you like.

Be well. Be safe. Be good to you.

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Education Learning Life

Literature and the Human Condition

We study literature to study the human condition. We engage in conversation with a text, with its context, to understand where we were within our reality, or to understand where we may be going within our reality. Readers cannot escape their reality; indeed, they should not. Every time we open a text, we are engaging its now with our now.

We are engaging its now with our now. We are confronting its now with our now. We are embracing its now with our now. We are conjoining its now with our now. We are acknowledging its now with our now. We are debating with its characters. We are struggling with or connecting with its setting. We are processing its plot. We are appreciating its beauty with all its flaws. We are interrogating the narrator, even if the narrator is reliable. We are appreciating the figurative language through our personal “ah ha” moments.

Oh, those amazing “ah ha” moments. They don’t always come on immediately. For example, I had an “ah ha” moment a few years ago with a poem I read over 20 years before. We study literature to have those “ah ha” moments immediately, but also 20 years later. We study literature to pass on the lessons we have learned to others in whatever profession we pursue. I have a friend who teaches psychological wellness through movies and novels. When a client learns about Gaslight or Shirley Valentine, their lives are never the same. The more we read, the more we have to share, for we know more about…

…the human condition.

I really could not help myself there.