Saturday, February 14, 2015

Literature and Society: Creating Thinkers

There is this belief out there that teachers are only teach the students all of the content in their area and get them ready for tests. With the crazy emphasis on exams, it is starting to look more and more like a reality, but I still know the one of most important parts of my job.

I just finished teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my grade 9 students and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my grade 10 students. I consider these two books to be the most important things my students will read. Not just in high school, but probably college. These books are not just important because of the satire Twain uses or the symbolism Lee shows through the eyes of Scout. These books are an important reminder of where I society has come from and how far we still have to go. Here are just a few things that my students pointed out and connected to the world today. 

In Huck Finn, there is a chapter where a Boggs, the down drunk, is confronted by Colonel Sherburn. Boggs puts up his arms and says, "O, Lord, don't shoot!" and Colonel Sherburn decides to shoot him anyway. While Boggs was white in the story, many of my students made a connection to the Michael Brown case. It was an interesting discussion led by students. They saw something in the text that is over 100 years old and made a connection to the world around them. It was not the first time they would do this. 

As part of the final project for Huck Finn, my class puts on a mock trial. Mark Twain is charged with being racist for the language he used in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The prosecution needs to prove beyond a doubt that the book is racist and that Twain is racist for writing it. They select characters from the book and they offer their testimony based on their actions in the book. The prosecution and defense need to argue that those interpretations are racist or simply satire. Over the years, students have come back to my class and told me that this was the best thing they did all year and they always want to know how the current classes are handling the case. The students really go after this project and argue intensely. The jury has great discussions about Twain, satire, race, and other aspects of the novel that adults around the country should take note of when considering the banning of this great novel. 

When the project is over, the students discuss the frustration of being on the prosecution team. They do not believe that Twain is racist or that Huck Finn is racist. They get even more frustrated when they hear that the book is still banned in parts of the country. They always say that the book is tough to read, it can be hard to understand, but it is an important read because it shows a part of our history that should not be forgotten. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is the other important novel that my students will read and they can't get enough. It is sometimes easy to get wrapped up in the mystery of Boo Radley and his past. However, my students really dove into the life of Tom Robinson and Maycomb's "usual disease". I love seeing their confused faces when the obvious racism stands out in the story as just a way of life. They are confused as to how life could be that way. I tell them their confusion is a good thing because they find it hard to fathom that  people were treated this way. My students question the validity of trials and fairness in the world today. They talk about how far we have come and how far some people still need to go. Some students even compared the bigotry in Maycomb to to how LGBT people are treated and one student brought up same-sex marriage and discrimination. 

Having students take literature and connect it to the world around them is what reading is all about. Students want to read. They really do. They just want to know how it is relevant to them. Mark Twain once said, "Classic - a book people praise, but don't read." I fear we might be heading in this direction if some people get their way and continue to remove these great texts. I dread the thought that we might be getting closer and closer to Ray Bradbury's version of our future in Fahrenheit 451.  

As a teacher, my job is to keep my personal opinion to the side and encourage thoughtful discussion. I'm always very mindful of this. Even when students ask my opinion on social issues, I always redirect it to their thoughts. Watching students make these connections on their own is amazing. Watching students respectfully push back the norm opinion is powerful. 

My job is more than just teaching students literary terms. 

It is about creating thinkers. 

Those who think that is not my job are the ones that are most afraid of new thinkers being created. 

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