I am a high school English teacher. I work with students from points at both extremes of the ethnic, cultural, spiritual, and economic spectrums. I teach students who live in half-million dollar homes, and I teach students who are homeless. Most of my kids value the opportunity they have at a top-notch education, but unfortunately, many of those who need it most don’t appreciate how this precious education could lift them up, could break the vicious cycle of low expectations and failure. I believe that the literature we read can reach every student in my class on a personal level and can enrich, maybe even change, their lives.
When faced with beginning To Kill a Mockingbird with yet another class of freshmen this fall, I relish the challenge and the opportunity. How can this book be relevant to Twenty-first Century youth? In 2008, with talk of businesses failing and unemployment on the rise, more students can understand the effects of the Great Depression on the townsfolk of Maycomb. This year, as our country has elected an African-American man to its presidency, the discussions of prejudice, of racism and oppression are particularly poignant. Atticus Finch’s wisdom, his commitment to peace and to teaching his children by living his principles is as relevant today as the day Harper Lee wrote it.
The bellyaching begins as I hand out books. “Two hundred eighty-one pages?”
“I can’t read this much!”
“Is there a movie?”
“This looks borrrr-ing!” This leads to a discussion about the folly of judging a book by its cover. In an English class one is afforded the opportunity to address this adage in a literal sense. I then goad the conversation in the direction of prejudice, and the insight some of these students have is truly enlightening. Sometimes I will witness the beginnings of a faint twinkle of self-discovery over a student’s head as he realizes that there’s more truth in life than the comfortable givens he’s always taken for granted. As Scout and Jem Finch try to make sense of their world, so do the kids in my class as they “climb into [a character’s] skin and walk around in it.” I hope that by the time we finish the book my students have true empathy for Tom Robinson and for Boo Radley. I hope that every student, regardless of privilege, religion, or race, will show kindness to the mockingbirds they will invariably encounter in their own lives.
After fourteen years of teaching I see new purpose in what I do. No one would argue the necessity of high school students being guided and challenged to develop their fluency with both written and spoken language. That is a very important part of my job. But I believe in the power of literature. All art holds up a mirror—whether favorably or unfavorably—to its audience, and defies them to question aspects of their own lives. Literature offers a chance to explore the connections that bind all people.
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