So a Black teacher walks into a new school…and they hand her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird.
That’s it. That’s the punchline.
I’ll admit I was shocked to hear I had to teach this book. I had kind of decided to avoid it all costs. I hadn’t read it in decades. I did not remember the characters, the plot, or anything about it. Also I was teaching 7th grade. Didn’t this book belong in high school? Could we at the very least avoid teaching it during Black History Month? So many questions. So much dread.
Books like To Kill A Mockingbird are no longer in vogue at urban, liberal, independent schools like mine. They are vestiges of traditional curricula we are supposed to have moved past through all of our professional development and DEI trainings. To Kill A Mockingbird itself just carries a lot of baggage. Some people love it and think it is a truly “good” book, but a lot of people don’t. There are dozens of critical articles examining the flaws from every angle. There are horror stories about educators who have killed their careers teaching this book, perhaps by having superficial conversations that danced around the hard history or perhaps by saying the n-word (which appears over 90 times) a little too casually. Parents might have complained. Students might have protested. Librarians might have spent a summer reading replacement recommendations. But there is usually someone hanging onto it, arguing for it from the corners. The scary thing is I might become one of those people.
In preparing for this unit, I have surprised myself. I am actually REALLY looking forward to teaching this book. I have included all sorts of books about racial identity and racial justice in my curriculum over the years, many written by Black authors. Earlier this year we taught a beautiful unit based on Brown Girl Dreaming that centered Black history, activism, and art. Including BIPOC voices is not the issue; that is done easily, regularly, and with great joy. Still there is something missing. Even using those texts, I have never been able to ask students to think about topics and questions like the ones that emerge so organically from this book. And we are about to dive in deep.
Earlier in the year, I thought I knew where I stood in this debate. Now I am not so sure. My co-teacher has done a helluva job coming up with a framework that strips away traditional presentations of this text. I am adding in my own important connections, which I will talk about in subsequent posts. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about To Kill A Mockingbird with other teachers. Beyond mandates, I am not satisfied with the arguments for keeping this book in the curriculum. Beyond the traumatic memories of bad teaching, I am equally unsatisfied with the arguments for throwing it out. I guess I still need to see this play out for myself.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore questions that don’t have easy answers right now, such as:
- Why would two Black educators bother teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps even choose to do it again?
- Have we sufficiently prepared ourselves to teach this book in an anti-racist, trauma informed way that accounts for our diverse students varying experiences and needs?
- Why might it be advantageous and appropriate to view racial violence, white supremacy, and systemic racism through a white lens and a white voice?
- What will this experience actually be like given we are doing this work in a hybrid learning environment during a pandemic?
What I know for sure is that teaching this unit will challenge me to do my very best work. And if I do it right, my students will walk away with an understanding of the world that better prepares them to make just choices and fight racial bias wherever they may find it, ESPECIALLY in the Pulitzer Prize winning darling of the American canon.