I can’t say that I’ve had a whole bunch of surprises as a first-year teacher, at least not other than what might be expected in the first year on your own in the classroom. I’ve been fortunate in that I experienced some interesting dynamics during my student teaching that prepared me somewhat for what would come this year.
But I can say honestly that I was surprised to find that there is something vital – and clearly outside the curriculum – that I need to teach some of my students.
With my sophomore classes, I started teaching one of my favorite novels: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I re-read the novel over Christmas break (I had last read it when I was a sophomore – not an insignificant time ago) and was invigorated at the idea of teaching this classic novel. And there is certainly no shortage of good ideas on how to teach the novel out there, especially on the English Companion Ning.
I decided to take the approach of reading the novel as a class, in part because it allows me to keep a closer eye on students’ reading and in part because I know my students well enough to know that they would be very unlikely to read outside of class if the bulk of the reading was assigned. We started reading in class near the end of last week and are roughly through the first four chapters (with some interruptions).
As I have noticed (somewhat bemusedly) in the past, teaching the same material to multiple classes can be a strange experience, and different classes with their different dynamics can respond in completely different ways. This unit has proven to be no less applicable here.
One of my sophomore classes has responded very favorably to the novel, asking a lot of questions about the characters, the setting and background, and the action of the novel. I have had students leaving the class saying, “This is such a good book,” and that feels great to hear.
The other, on the other hand, has dug their feet in to provide maximal traction, questioning whether or not we should even read the book before we had even started it (although some claimed that they had tried to read it before) and suggesting in its place Harry Potter (presumably the first in the series). I ended up spending a substantial amount of time one class period explaining why we were reading Mockingbird (since I have become a believer in answering the question), touching on the fact that this unit will be followed by a nonfiction unit on freedom (with texts perfect for Black History Month in February), that we do not have class sets of Harry Potter (or really any other book that they would consider a trade up, in all likelihood) and cannot afford to buy any even for one class, and that it would be an undue burden on me to teach a different book than the other class. These reasonable arguments were not well received.
In fact, as we have gotten into the book, I have become acutely aware of a vital quality that most of the students in this class seems to lack.
The irony is not lost on me, either; it has been painful to watch my students show such a stunning lack of consideration for other people as…well, people. Manifestations of this have been widespread: a very callous attitude (not entirely uncommon among teenagers of this age) about language that denigrates groups of people, evident in the use of phrases like “getting Jewed out of something” and the ubiquitous use of retarded and gay to mean “stupid, absurd, ridiculous”; the inability to see a glaring obvious connection that I have explicitly stated between the first-year teacher in the novel, Miss Caroline, and myself, pointing out the mistakes that people make when they are still learning but don’t know better yet; and a general resistance to thinking especially about the fact that I am, well, a person as well.
This all despite the fact that I started out the unit with an activity meant to get them thinking about walking in other people’s shoes, which is one of the major themes of the book.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this struggle is the fact that I had such high expectations for what this novel could provide for my students. I like the literature I teach, and I try to make it relate to my students’ lives as much as possible, but Mockingbird brings such an important theme – making an effort to understand where people come from before you judge them – that is absolutely relevant to every single student I have. What hope do I have if, even after explaining the importance of this idea, my students still ask me, What’s the point of this book? What will make them get it?
Sigh. I have no answers to these questions, certainly not any easy ones. Frankly, I have a sneaking suspicion that some of my students won’t get it by the end of the unit or even the end of the year, and I can only hope that they will get it some day. As I told our principal, empathy is not in the state standards, and even if it were, it would be far less realistic than even the current standards that we have to meet (but that’s a different topic altogether).
In the meantime, I will continue to remind these students, if only for my sake, that their attitudes are not acceptable for our classroom, and if that’s the best I can do, then it will have to be good enough.