Friday, June 29, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird and Literacy

To Kill a Mockingbird has its problems.  An article last year about students who don't read the assigned texts was titled, "The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom".   It's too hard for many students, and many students don't read it.  I don't love the way it seems to solve the problem of racism by substituting classism, in which the elite White people of Maycomb are mainly good and enlightened, the country farmers are good at heart if not always fully enlightened, the obedient and/or crippled Black people are good, and the people who are bad include the powerful, uppity, separatist Black person (tall, strong Lula, who is a "troublemaker" with "fancy ideas and haughty ways") and the great villain of the novel, Bob Ewell, whose evilness is directly linked to his class status as poor white trash.  I also don't love the way the book glorifies the she-asked-for-it rape defense.

It's not my favorite book, and I wish I wasn't required to teach it, especially to my "Standard" level ninth grade classes.  Nevertheless, in the past couple of days I've found myself thinking a lot about what the book says about reading and school.  Like many of our culture's most beloved books, To Kill a Mockingbird gives a picture of reading and of school (and of explicit instruction in particular) that is as interesting as any broadside in the great education debates.

First, To Kill a Mockingbird shows us a group of young people with a deep culture of reading. When Dill first introduces himself to Jem and Scout, he states his identity in the following way: "I'm Charles Baker Harris.  I can read." Jem, Scout and Dill are left to their own devices most of the time, and many of their activities relate to the books they read.  They share adventure novels (Tarzan, Tom Swift and the like), they act out their plots, and when in the first chapter Dill wants to get Jem to run up and touch the spooky Radley house, he does it by offering to bet "The Gray Ghost against two Tom Swifts".

This culture of reading is independent of school.  As in a lot of other books (the autobiographies of Ben Franklin, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Henry James, etc., and novels like Tom Sawyer and Ramona and Beezus), we see children whose reading is deep and sustaining in the absence of explicit instruction.  What has happened is that these children have been inducted into the society of readers (what a wonderful passage in Crevecoeur calls an "extensive intellectual consanguinity"); once in that society, they have not needed much extra guidance.

How are they initiated?  Not through explicit instruction.  Mockingbird is bitterly satirical about school--mocking the idea that reading can be taught at all.  As Scout tells it, when on the first day of school her teacher, Miss Caroline, "discovered I was literate, she looked at me with more than faint distaste.  She told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore, it would interfere with my reading."

The joke here is many-layered.  First, Miss Caroline sees "reading" as something that should be entirely within the purview of school.  Second, she imagines that reading must be "taught."  Third, her notion, that teaching will interfere with reading, is true, but not in the way Miss Caroline imagines.  It isn't Atticus, but Miss Caroline herself whose teaching will interfere with Scout's reading.

For, as Scout sees it, Atticus has never "taught" her.  He is too tired in the evenings, she tells her teacher, to do anything but sit in the livingroom and read.  But Miss Caroline can't believe it.  "You tell your father not to teach you anymore.  It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind.  You tell him I'll take over from here and undo the damage."  When Scout tries to protest, Miss Caroline cuts her off: "Your father does not know how to teach.  You can have a seat now."

So, either Miss Caroline does not know how to teach, or else "teaching" itself is suspect.  The novel implies the latter, but it's not a simple picture.  For in fact Miss Caroline is not just an old-fashioned teacher with a ruler.  She is also a representative of a new way of teaching that Jem identifies as the "Dewey Decimal System."  This too is a multi-layered joke.  On the one hand, Jem is confusing John Dewey, the philosopher and education theorist, with Melvil Dewey, the inventor of a strict and systematic library classification system, and Miss Caroline's teaching seems somewhat strict and systematic.

On the other hand--and this is where the joke gets complicated, this is where the book raises a challenge to us as teachers--Miss Caroline is really, to some extent, a teacher in the progressive tradition of John Dewey, who believed that learning was largely social and that the teacher should be a member of the community rather than a purveyor of facts in the mold of Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind--and yet her  attempts to guide and model rather than command and instruct are always falling short.  Harper Lee has us laughing at Miss Caroline's reading of The Wind in The Willows, which no one in her class understands or cares about.   She is trying to lead the kids to reading, but she's failing.  Her failure is contrasted with Atticus's success: at the end of the section on school, Atticus reads to Jem and Scout about a flagpole sitter, the kids are rapt, and Jem heads out to the yard to try it himself.

Our challenge as teachers, like Miss Caroline's challenge, is to try to initiate our students into the culture of reading--to get them to join that extensive intellectual consanguinity. Why does Atticus succeed and Miss Caroline fail?  How can we do what Atticus does?  Can school even work that way?


  1. I think the contrast between Atticus and Miss Caroline sheds light on your earlier analysis of the teacher's role in promoting students' love for reading. Miss Caroline, as do many other educators as you pointed out in some of your earlier posts, wants to feel as if she is playing an active role in her students' reading. She wants to feel useful, so it's in some ways easier for her to read to the students because she can tell herself that she's killing two birds with one stone: she's player her part as teacher and modeling/encouraging literacy. But she fails. The best way, I think, to learn something is to internalize it on your own. A very wise person I know once told me that he has never once taught any of his students anything. He has only spoken and it is up to the student to decide whether he or she wants to listen. Thus, the student, if he chooses to listen, teaches himself. Miss Caroline perhaps does not account for this idea of learning. I agree that the things I know best are the things I have chosen to listen to and believe, not the facts that are dictated to me. Atticus, on the other hand, does not feel the pressure of a teacher to be active and useful, therefore he can promote literacy and learning through a self-directed environment. School as we know it, even in Leafstrewn, is not a self-directed environment. I think that makes it very difficult for students to learn to love things if it feels like they're being forced to.
    But that's the fallacy. How do we get students to join this society of readers without imposing it upon them? Independent reading could work, but as you said, a student must find the right book and enjoy the activity of reading. I fear that much of the love or hatred of reading comes from the home. Scout loves reading because Atticus loves it, but what if she lived in a household where books were inaccessible to her and her parents not as educated? That then depends on socioeconomic standing, which is also out of a teacher's control. For those non readers it almost seems as if remediation is needed, but I don't know how to break a the non reading pattern.

  2. Thanks for your comment, AP. The questions it raises are terribly important. Yes, socioeconomic status really matters. And remediation seems to be important--but remediation how? I think Mockingbird itself actually has more to say about these issues, especially about class. I need to think more about it...

  3. I loved this post on what Mockingbird says about reading. It got me thinking about the depiction of reading and various similar Mockingbird class and race issues in Alexie's True Diary (usually also reserved for Standard students as you know). I have to agree with the previous comment that a love of reading mostly comes from the home. It makes me wonder if part of my job is also to share and "force" my love of reading and the value of it on the parents/families of my students...Atticus Finch style? We know that we often achieve the most buy-in from students through parents. Of course that is complicated as well. I'm curious where your thinking is since AP's comment...thanks, EC!


  4. Thanks for the comment, JR! Yes, I agree that part of our job is to force our love of reading on students and parents--but I don't think of it as (in student lingo) "a force", since the vast majority of students find being forced to read less onerous than being forced to do other English work, like write analytical paragraphs or study grammar! I'm interested in what you say about the Alexie book. One of the reasons I like that book so much is that it shows a poor kid who loves reading and is deeply involved in it not only by himself but also with others--through his mother's great reading, through his sister's reading and writing, through reading comic books with Rowdy and through talking about libraries and books and so on with Gordy. So I don't feel bad at all about forcing reading on my students. It's not only good for them, it's fun! The goal is somehow to be encouraging but also to let your students' reading be self-directed, as AP points out Atticus does well and school, even in Leafstrewn, not so much.

  5. Hey, EC, this post made me think of how much reading is a part of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn as well. Of course, in a Cervantean way, Twain pokes fun at the ludicrous plot machinations that Tom constructs with his "club" of boys as they "act out" particular favorite stories.

    And there is one truism here--we must DO and Correct and DO some more in order to expand our abilities. Reading is a particularly difficult task and I know from the many misinterpretations that are brought down on poems and novels and my own writing that language must be continually WORKED AT. (And I should say that in my writing I often misinterpret myself in the act of trying to convey meaning!)

    1. That's interesting--I don't think the Quixotic Tom Sawyer stuff even occurred to me when I was thinking about the culture of reading in our classic literature. Twain is poking fun at reading and readers--as in the Sollermun episode with Huck and Jim--making it clear that,as you say, reading by itself, uncritically, is not enough. You need to Correct, as you say. But my sense is that for most American kids, and certainly for the most oppressed and wounded, the main problem is that they are not reading enough and are not growing up in a culture of reading. To apply that idea to Tom Sawyer, it seems likely that one of the main reasons for Tom's comical misreadings is that he was the only reader in his gang. If there had been a culture of reading in the larger group, it's likely that Tom's readings would have been a little more intelligent, because informed by discussion with his friends.

  6. I found your post interesting and creative in its discussion of reading. I think everyone would agree that students read most effectively when they are engaged. Schools need to create a culture of reading and this is no easy task given the distractions provided by visual universe that our students live in. Daily silent reading and an excellent library have helped in my high school. I also agree with your questioning about TKAM. I like the book but feel it is too hard for the average junior student where it is usually taught. I have mixed feelings about it which I have chronicled in my blog

    1. Wow--if it's too hard for Juniors, then what does that say about my freshmen? I'm with you on the daily silent reading. If they're not getting it at home, they can get it at school. If they are getting it at home, it's still worth doing in school!

  7. A really interesting blog, and fascinating comments about TKAM. While I found it worked much better than other books I tried teaching over the years (Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, etc.) there were still lots of kids who disliked it and so, I'm sure, never really read it. One student walked into the English workroom asking if we had a spare copy of "How to Kill a Mockingbird." Think he was getting the book?

    Eventually I stopped using class-assigned books almost completely and my last fifteen years of teaching were wonderful, when my high school students were bringing in all kinds of books to our wide-ranging class discussions.

    Thanks so much for the comments on my blog, EC. And I am very happy to discover your blog. Good luck to you.