The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird

by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle (originally posted on our blog, Using Informational Text to Teach Literature)

Periodically, on NCTE’s Connected Community, in our hallways, at conferences, and sometimes in our classrooms, we have one persistent and difficult conversation. How do we balance teaching canonical literature on the one hand and offering our students, on the other hand, what Latrise Johnson describes as “texts that include diverse characters but also . . . are reflective of students’ rich and complex histories”? This debate seems to surface, in particular, around To Kill a Mockingbird. Most recently, Will Menarndt argues in “Forget Atticus” that we should stop teaching TKAM.

Mockingbird has a long history of being lauded; Oprah has called it “our national book” and recent research suggests that many (white) teachers use TKAM to address multicultural issues, particularly race and racism (Macaluso 280). Depending on how that work is done with TKAM, particularly if we are spending the majority of our time highlighting the “obvious and overt racism” (Macaluso 282) in Harper Lee’s novel, we may be in danger of telling what Chimamanda Adichie warns against: the single story. Obvious and overt racism have been and remain only part of the complex story of racism. Students need to deepen their understanding of the institutional and structural racism that pervades Maycomb – in its housing, schools, and employment opportunities. The issues that Tom Robinson encounters with Maycomb’s justice system, like the lynch mob, are just the tip of the iceberg.

TKAM can be taught fruitfully in relation to that broader story of racism, and many teachers, before and after the publication of Go Set a Watchman, were doing that important work: complicating and troubling the dominant narrative of Atticus as the white savior and Tom as the voiceless, crippled, black victim. Michael Macaluso offers a thoughtful example of that work in his discussion of the lynch mob scene at the jailhouse. Reading against TKAM, for Macaluso, offers students the opportunity to see Atticus’s racism, even in this moment of defense of Tom Robinson, as “evidence of how racism works through privilege . . . and how it is laced into institutional and cultural practices and behaviors” (285).

This practice of reading against the text, particularly when the text is a canonical staple and as such has been central to reifying our dominant ideologies, is what Carlin Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Robert Petrone call critical literacy pedagogy (CLP): an approach that “teaches students to read and write against texts and understand that language and texts are not neutral and always ideological” (123).

Using CLP to read TKAM, in other words, reveals a text that on the one hand offers an anti-racist message but on the other hand is bound up with and in concert with a fundamentally racist ideology. This may be what Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Petrone call a dissonant realization for students, but it’s an important pedagogical opportunity.

We need to continue to do the important work of welcoming different voices into our classroom and to be sure that our literary curricula change to reflect our current student body. And surely it’s time for us to leave behind the idea that TKAM is an ideal vehicle for a complete and comprehensive discussion of the vast and complex issues of multiculturalism, race, and racism today.

Still, we need to recognize the cultural capital of Harper Lee’s novel: it continues to be idolized and adored (Macaluso 286) in our broader culture. Teaching TKAM, using the CLP model to read both with and against this text, allows students to discover for themselves the ideological complexity of this American novel.

We offer our model of text clusters and companion texts (our series with Rowman and Littlefield) as a productive component of CLP. Reading excerpts from Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad, two of the Scottsboro boys, about their experience with a lynch mob, students can see for themselves what’s left out of the near-lynching scene in TKAMLoving v. Virginia makes visible the legal and institutional racism that forces Dolphus Raymond’s to feign drunkenness in order to protect his mixed-race family. An interview with white women who grew up with black domestics in the 30s, particularly when paired with excerpts from an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American woman who worked as a domestic in the 1930s South and founded the National Domestic Workers Union, can unpack and unsettle the representation of Calpurnia.

After all, what really matters is not whether our students can read TKAM as racist or anti-racist but whether we are preparing our students to be powerful and resistant readers of the many texts of our world, including those canonical texts that occupy positions of outsized ideological power.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedGlobal. July 2009, Lecture,
Borsheim-Black, Carlin, Macaluso, Michael, and Robert Petrone. “Critical Literature Pedagogy: Teaching Canonical Literature for Critical Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58.2, Oct. 2014, pp. 123-133.
Johnson, Latrise. “Students Don’t Need Diverse Literature Just Because It’s Diverse.” NCTE, 12 April 2016,
Macaluso, Michael. “Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird Today: Coming to Terms With Race, Racism, and America’s Novel.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61.3, Nov./Dec. 2017, pp. 279-287.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird

Introducing: Office Hours, hosted by Dr. Patricia L. Schall

NJCTE is launching a new regular feature on our blog, Office Hours. We invite you to digitally “drop in” to seek advice and chat about professional concerns.

I will host this new feature on our blog and respond to all questions and comments I receive. NJCTE established this dedicated email address for privacy purposes: I will anonymously post questions and responses in the style of an advice column, using “Dear Doc” as a salutation and “Inquiring Educator” for the advice seeker.

Let me introduce myself for those of you who don’t know me. It is important to know something about a person dishing out advice! I hold the position of Professor Emeritus at the College of Saint Elizabeth, where I directed and taught in graduate and undergraduate programs in education. I hold a BA in English from Montclair State University and an MA in Communications in Education and a Ph.D. in English Education from New York University. I taught high school English for 13 years, primarily at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, NJ, before moving into higher education as the Director of the Educational Media Center at Seton Hall University. I served two terms on the North Plainfield Board of Education. Teachers College Press published a book I co-wrote and edited on teachers and academic freedom. I have written journal articles, presented at conferences, and currently am co-researching and writing a non-fiction book on a notorious 19th century murder that happened in my town. I remain active as a retired educator in the National and New Jersey Councils of Teachers of English, the Morris County Retired Educators Association, the NJ Education Association, and the National Education Association. NCTE recently appointed me to a two-year term as a policy analyst for higher education in New Jersey. I am spending significant time in retirement working with organizations focused on social justice and political change. I am committed to continue advocating for quality teaching and learning.

While I’ll serve as the host of this new feature, I hope our readers will respond in the comments section and provide a lively and supportive forum, enriched by the knowledge and experience of the many educators who read this blog. There is strength in many voices. Of course in responding we will expect respectful on-line discourse—no flaming or trolling. NJCTE reserves the right to delete comments that are hostile or disrespectful. Please respect people’s privacy. Use pseudonyms to protect others if you describe people, incidents, or situations. Do not mention the names of communities, schools, or districts.

As a teacher educator, teacher, and educational leader, I have sought and offered advice on many issues. Here are some questions based on 40 plus years of conversations with students and colleagues. I pose them to “prime the pump” and launch this advice column. I am sure you can think of many more, and I invite you to submit them in the comments section. Here’s a start:

  • How can I find a real mentor I can trust?
  • How do I handle a new teacher who is my mentee and is not performing well?
  • How do I handle professional jealousy, either as a new, untenured teacher or a seasoned educator?
  • How do I challenge an evaluation I think is inaccurate or unfair?
  • Is it possible to work for a supervisor who is not a people person and doesn’t understand my teaching?
  • How do I handle the paper load so typical of English teaching?
  • How do I resist the pressure to pass non-achieving students to maintain the graduation rate?
  • How do I maintain my enthusiasm for teaching in a school with a toxic culture?
  • How to I handle challenges to books, materials, or pedagogy?
  • What do I do with angry parents?
  • How do I handle a colleague or supervisor who is making biased remarks about kids? About others?
  • How do I balance my private and professional lives and find time for myself?
  • How do I cope with negative people at school?
  • Can you recommend any strategies for doing advanced graduate work while teaching?
  • How do I keep up with the rapidly changing demands of technology?
  • How do I avoid burnout?
  • What do I do if a colleague or supervisor is engaging in sexually aggressive behavior or language?
  • How do I handle “needy” students who demand a lot of attention when I have 130 other kids?
  • How do I cope with the exhaustion typical of workers in the caring professions?

I hope some of these prompts get you thinking about your work. Feel free to post more questions in the comments section below.

Remember, the office is always open here! Reach out to us at Let’s talk!

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Introducing: Office Hours, hosted by Dr. Patricia L. Schall

Congratulations to M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winner: Nimisha Patel

Please join all of us at NJCTE in congratulating Nimisha Patel, one of the 2018 M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winners.

Nimisha Patel has taken a non-traditional route to teaching English Language and Literature. She graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and English, and then again with a Masters in Literature. She started her teaching career in the greater Princeton Area–teaching high school English at every single grade level. She then moved to the North Brunswick High School English department and has served as an adjunct professor at Middlesex County College, Kean University, and Rutgers University. Her interests lie primarily in literary theory and post-colonial literature and is currently studying Hindi. She enjoys mentoring young students and serving her community.

We look forward to Nimisha’s contributions to NJCTE and to her continued success in English education.

If you have a teacher whom you would like to nominate for this or another NJCTE award, please check out the criteria and nomination process on our website.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Congratulations to M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winner: Nimisha Patel

Teachers: “You Gotta Believe”

True Story:
September 28, 2008. Last Game at Shea Stadium: Mets v. Marlins. Somehow, we secured boxed seats, which were behind the Marlins’ dugout. Thrilling day – we were celebrating my birthday. I’m not a big baseball gal, but I love watching any game live – and it was Shea’s finale.  mets

I sat next to this guy, whose name I don’t even remember, but I’ll call Carl. I mentioned it was my birthday.

“No kiddin’?” Carl says, and then calls out to the Marlins’ ball boy: “Hey, it’s this lady’s birthday. Can we have a ball?”

The kid grabs a ball and tosses it to us. Carl– a guy I did not know – proceeds to get several celebrities to sign the ball for me, telling them it’s my birthday. (I’m talking Jerry Seinfeld, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close and some baseball players who I don’t know).

But that’s not the best thing.

What really got me was Carl himself. The Mets were struggling most of the game. Carl had several signs that he would hold up periodically. My favorite: “You Gotta Believe!” Whenever the Mets messed up, Carl would hold up the sign and sing a little ditty: “You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe!”

I LOVED IT.  Mets sign-guy-300x205

I had never before connected to the Met’s famous saying (from pitcher Tug McGraw in 1973). But it was the highlight of that awesome day in 2008. Better than the signed baseball, better than the iconic experience. I loved Carl’s reaction to setback.

The Mets lost. (Marlins 4 – Mets 2).

I still have that signed baseball, but I really treasure meeting Carl and hearing the Met’s chant.

This is what we teachers need in our lives: Carl’s faith, even when our team is down. It is a tough time now for teachers. The testing culture seems to be like the Dementors from Harry Potter – sucking our souls with each contact. It can feel debilitating and deflating.

We have to remember Carl. Even if we don’t have his sign, we “Gotta Believe,” we need to keep the faith. The students need us.

Mets YouGottaBelieve1

Written by Liz deBeer, NJCTE Board Member and editor of New Jersey English Journal    

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
Teachers: “You Gotta Believe”