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Not Your Mommaā€™s Mockingbird

csp reflection resources Oct 01, 2016
I’ve taught 9th grade for many years and one thing I’ve learned is that they are young, ready, willing, and needing of a space to be themselves. Since I began working with a predominantly white student body, I have tweaked my approach to teaching from an anti-bias/anti-racist lens to meet the needs of the learners in front of me. So, because my curriculum included To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I kept it and made the decision to use it strategically. 
This first unit is an introduction to the course, my teaching style, our relationship, expectations, and intensity. It begins with the students reading (and in some cases re-reading) TKAM over the summer. For many of them, they’ve heard of this book before and parents are often excited that they are reading it due to their own positive memories about Scout and Atticus. The unit is filled with students teaching and leading discussions and while we reference the text, we use it as a springboard to think and analyze modern-day issues. Like Paolo Freire wants us to do, I use my teaching to help them understand the word, but also read the world.
Here are some elements of the unit:

Gender/Race/Identity day- Students get to decide which of those three topics they want to study for the day in relation to TKAM. In their small groups, they follow a document I’ve outlined with resources and step-by-step instructions. They work in their group independently of me. I do walk around, monitoring the groups, offering feedback, answering questions, but I do allow them the space to collaborate and teach themselves. While the learning process takes place together, in the end, they write/reflect/create independently. The prompts challenge them to do some personal self-reflections by thinking about the characters and what they see in the text. It’s also a day where we use non-fiction and extra-curricular resources to work on self. I incorporate resources from Facing History And Ourselves, as well as other articles and information that help them engage in critical dialogue. 

Context Days- In teacher-selected small groups, students are assigned topics they must research and then teach the class. There’s also so much information to be understood in order to fully grasp the gaps of this text and to maximize reading it in 2018. Part of their presentation includes making connections between their topic and TKAM. Here are the topics:

1. Lack of diversity in literature 

2. White gaze

3. Scottsboro Boys

4. Police brutality (Here we define what this term means and students teach us about recent cases in the news- i.e. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekkia Boyd…) 

5. Black Lives Matter movement

These presentations build necessary background knowledge in order for students to begin identifying elements of bias, racism, and other social problems. This unit begins to equip them for the journey we take for the rest of the year. 

The Hate U Give (THUG)– One of the problematic elements of TKAM is its white gaze. The story is told by a white character, from the point of view of her white family/father, nestled in her white town, and prioritizing the thoughts and feelings of the white people around her. For some of my students, this is also how they live life and so even understanding the white gaze is an issue. Many are blind to this. I use the text by Angie Thomas to highlight the differences in voice, style and demonstrate to them what the white gaze is. I see these two texts as the same story (essentially) told from two very different points of view distinguished by race. In TKAM we never really meet Tom, his family, or hear his side of the story. We don’t know his feelings. We don’t have any intimate moments with him. In THUG, we know Khalil. We are shocked when he is killed. We are pained to hear of his family, his upbringing, and we are privy to the pain that his death has caused those that knew him and loved him. He isn’t just a casualty that gets one line. He isn’t just a criminal that “should have obeyed.” The problem is not localized in his actions. We have two young girls narrating the death of a black man/young man at the hands of the police and the two stories couldn’t sound or feel any more different. We spend time unpacking that through excerpts of THUG and comparison and contrast conversations. 

TV Show- In teacher-selected small groups, students choose the character from the text they want to perform and analyze. The task includes preparing that character for a TV Show set in modern-day addressing current events. There are roles within these groups: actor, researcher, fashion designer. The actor’s job is to learn the lines and perform as the character the day of the show. The fashion designer uses close reading and details from the text to dress the character for the performance. The researcher collaborates with the actor to research the topics I assign in order to be prepared and know how to speak on those topics from the point of view of that character. The topics I assign include Black Lives Matter movement and other current events. In the past, I included Hillary Clinton running for president, the Gun debate, the Dakota Access Pipeline protesting. Additionally, students are expected to select one more current event that they believe their character would want to address. An example of all of this could be: A group of 3 students is preparing their project on Scout. On the day of the TV show, Scout will have to give her thoughts and opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Lebron’s new school, and a topic of her choice. She gets a moment to address a social issue of her interest. In addition to characterization, this task explores much, much more. It grants them the opportunity to empathize with someone different from them, understand others’ points of view, realize how some people’s journeys define their stance, and explore current events in a deeper way. In the end, students turn in a packet of their research and learning on these topics, a fashion designer’s planning along with quotes that support their choices, and any other relative information they think I should know about their process. 

We end the unit with a whole class discussion. This is a key part of the learning process because it lets me in and allows them some processing time. We cover so much. We go deep and we go wide. It’s a lot to take in, so I make space for synthesizing it all. Some of the questions I ask are:  

  • What did you learn in this unit and how has it impacted the way you read? 
  • What has been revealed to you about your own life that you had not considered? 
  • What had you heard about TKAM and how do you feel about the text now? 
  • What questions do you still have about the topics we’ve covered? What needs clarification? 
  • How do you plan on discussing these issues with family and friends? 

I’m really proud of this unit and the direction in which it sends us for the rest of the year. While this is only some of what we cover in that unit, it’s the core. We have fun in there and enjoy each other while challenging one another and taking steps to dismantle white supremacy. One unit at a time… 

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