In anticipation of reading the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, I have been re-reading her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
If you are an educator, I highly recommend picking up To Kill a Mockingbird to read Chapter 2. Lee provides a phenomenal satire of the disconnection between school practices and students’ real lives. The events in the chapter clearly illustrates the importance of learning about students’ home lives and incorporating their background knowledge into the classroom.
The chapter describes the experiences of the main character, Scout, on her first day of the first grade.
The scene opens with Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, reading a long fictional story about cats to the disengaged children of predominately working class parents. She seems oblivious or uncaring about their lack of engagement. Here is an excerpt.
“By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh,¯ my, wasn’t that nice?”
Now, of course, this is the first day of school, so maybe Miss Caroline doesn’t know enough about her students yet to choose engaging reading. However, it seems that she is not assessing their interests to choose better materials in the future.
Later in the chapter, Miss Caroline chastises Scout when she realizes that Scout can already read. Miss Caroline tells Scout to tell her father to no longer teach Scout reading and that she will try to undo the damage he has caused. Scout later becomes bored with Miss Caroline’s flashcard lecture, so she writes a letter to her friend Dill. Miss Caroline becomes enraged that Scout can write in cursive and tells her that she is only allowed to write in print until she “learns” cursive in third grade.
Miss Caroline’s disapproval of Atticus teaching Scout how to read is rooted in a desire to maintain power. She could have reacted in a number or ways. She could have validated Scout’s status as a reader and writer. She could have enlisted Scout as helper to other students. She could have allowed Scout to self-select reading materials. She could have found more rigorous tasks for Scout. What she did though was resort to the “one-size-fits-all” instruction she believed was best.
Finally, Scout gets in trouble when Miss Caroline becomes upset with a very poor student named Walter Cunningham. Walter has not brought his lunch, and Miss Caroline tries to force him to take money to buy a lunch, asking that he pay her back the next day. Walter refuses to take the money. Scout speaks up that Walter cannot pay her back because of his poverty, a fact that all the other students in the class already know. Miss Caroline believes that Scout is being disrespectful to her and whips Scout’s hands with a ruler.
I don’t mean to be so hard on Miss Caroline. She is a young teacher, and we know much more about effective instruction today than we did then.
But are we doing it?
Are we still asking all students to do the same exact assignments the same exact way?
Are we unknowingly punishing or embarrassing students living in poverty?
Are we valuing students’ background knowledge and home experiences to make connections to learning?
Are we planning for engagement?
These are uncomfortable questions.
Are our classrooms all that different from Miss Caroline’s?