Daily Objective: Students will be able to describe and analyze characteristics of 1930s southern culture and make connections to the present day justice system.
I lied to my kids again. It’s only Day Three, what am I turning into?
I got my voice back a little bit. It’s still mighty scratchy, but I tried all of the home recipes gifted to me by more experienced teachers (from a lemon-peppermint brew to bourbon) and have something to work with. I told my sophomores that since I don’t have to pantomime I could start being mean.
You see, it’s very hard to look mean when you have to point at someone, then draw a sad face on the board with “SHH” written next to it. I didn’t convince them of my meanness. Their loss. Fourth period didn’t really need their text break anyway. Or their text break privileges for the rest of the week. That’ll teach ’em to talk during silent read time.
Anyway, the lie. Next class we start reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I told them all about my history with this book, how it’s been one of my favorites, how it opened my world and changed my thinking, how they’re going to love it just as much as I did and all my classmates when we read it in high school…I strove to convince them of my passion to get their buy-in.
The truth is I just bought it last week and finished it Sunday. I did think it is a fabulous story and incredible vocabulary, and had I read it at 15 I’m sure I would’ve agreed with everything I said today.
But just like I don’t admit to 134 fifteen-year-olds that it’s my first year teaching and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not going to tell them I didn’t know Harper Lee was female until Monday, or that I didn’t know Maycomb County wasn’t a real place in Alabama until I pinned my AAA map to the wall this morning. I didn’t want to lose credibility. So I made it up.
Obviously TKAM deals with slightly more serious issues than say, Twilight, and before we started we needed to have a mature discussion about some of the themes in the book.
We began by reading an essay written by an 18-year-old black high school senior about his view of the “N-word.” In it he talks about originally using the term in an attempt to emulate his cool older brother, then watching a civil rights documentary in school and learning the negative connotations, and finally accidentally using it to talk to his hip-hop-loving white friend.
It’s a neat piece – short, on their reading level, and relateable. After reading, they wrote one reaction or thought anonymously on an index card, which I collected and then used to launch a discussion. I had their desks in a U and dimmed the lights.
What followed was six periods of absolutely fascinating debate on if the word had any power, who can use it, with whom can it be used, the negative connotations, the unfairness in reactions (“Why can a black kid call me cracker but if I call him nigger I end up in the principal’s office?”), and whether or not the author of the essay was correct.
Over half the kids actively participated, and the major consensus was unexpected to this middle class white teacher: spelling seriously mattered (“nigga” is socially acceptable and equivalent to “bro” or “homie” while “nigger” is nearly always offensive), and the connotation of the word depending entirely on the tone. Not on the racial qualities of the speaker, but on whether or not the speaker sought to offend. If they didn’t mean to offend, what was the problem?
Obviously the word gets tossed around a lot in TKAM by 8-year-old Scout, the black women at Calpurnia’s church, and the women in Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle, with hugely different intentions. I look forward to reopening this discussion in a few weeks after we finish the book.
In other teaching firsts, I introduced popcorn reading to them, which was awesome. One person begins reading as much as they want, then they call on another student to continue. This method has a myriad of benefits:
- I don’t wear out my voice
- They can read as little or as much as they feel comfortable with; slower readers can do a line and still participate without feeling pressure
- Everyone must follow along in case they get called on
- I get to learn names since they know each other better than I do
- Everyone gets to participate
I slipped in some additional vocabulary instruction to the powerpoint. For example, we discovered how the root word of supremacist helps us understand what a white supremacist wants, as well as how the -cist (also found in racist) denotes a person with views related to the root word.
We learned the technical difference between “hanged” and “hung,” and had a unrelated discussion about capital punishment methods when differentiating “lynching” from “hanging.”
Also, we discovered what an “octoroon” was and the kids were outraged that Homer Plessy (V. Ferguson 1896) looked so white but still was decided black by the courts.
The sociologist in me had a blast today. I think the kids did too. On every desk I put a small piece of pretty scrapbook paper covered with a clear piece of contact paper for the kids to place their phones. Contact paper is easily removable, so I expected six periods of pick-happy sophomores to destroy them in a week. Three days into class, all my contact paper is intact. This means they are too engaged to pick. It’s small, but I’ll take my victories where I can get them.