Thursday, August 13, 2015

Wrecking our Idols: Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, and Go Set a Watchman

On June 19th, I said goodbye to my Grandfather, a man whose peculiar quirks have more than a little to do with why I am the way I am. Had I not invested time in my relationship with him, I would have missed out on a number of invaluable lessons about living in the world. The same can be said of the old man Finch we meet in the pages of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set a Watchman. So, what can we teach from this sudden literary surprise? To explain, you need to know a bit more about my grandfather.

One of the things I learned the most from my grandfather was patience and gentleness. At 6' 6" and 250 pounds, I am not a small person. My parents and my grandfather both pushed the idea that if I got into fights, I would be more likely to hurt someone by virtue of being larger than that person. For the most part I followed that wisdom, getting to this point in my life with a completely countable number of real physical fights. My grandfather's gentleness, however, was born of something darker: as a child, he was severely abused by his mother. While we cannot know the ways our lives will work, my grandfather's life took the most extraordinary of turns. While at Clark Air Force Base in the 1970s, he was instrumental in the returning POWs from North Vietnamese prison camps to their loved ones, helped in the coordination of Operation Babylift, and the construction of the Clark Air Force Base Peace Garden dedicated to all of those lost in Vietnam or listed as missing-in-action. Later, in 1978, while serving as base chaplain at Dover Air Force Base, he consoled the families of the Jonestown massacre, men, women, and children duped into a mass suicide.

As he got older, his views seemed to become different, his earlier philosophies becoming something others in my family no longer recognized. This change caused tension and disappointment within the family, but the love and respect we all felt did not change. Despite all of this, he was still a man, and men have "a man's heart, and a man's failings" (Lee 265). My grandfather, despite the great love in his heart for all people, did not always know how to show that love to those closest to him. He was once-divorced, twice-married. He could become angry. He had high expectations for those around him and could be downright cruel without intending to be when those expectations were not met. In short, he was human.

The contemporary tone of youth culture would immediately have me shrug my grandfather off, to relegate him to the dusty bin of old memories and people who "don't get me." I could not be happier with the fact that I did not. Every summer, until I reached high school, I went to Camp Grandpa. He took me to the inner harbor in Baltimore and the Smithsonian museums of Washington, D.C. We went monument hunting, seeking out new and unusual monuments that we had not seen before.

So it is with great disappointment that I see another old man suddenly relegated to the bin of social outcasts that our tolerant and evolved society chooses not to tolerate. It never ceases to amaze me that the people who scream the loudest about tolerance have so little of it. In my current school, some students who hear others use racist or genderist language have only one form of reaction: violent and vile invective. The stream of curses and inappropriate language that comes spewing forth erases every impassioned speech for tolerance each of them has ever given. And so Atticus Finch is revealed as less than an ideal, as less than a perfect golden idol in the pantheon of Humanism, and the tolerance police lose their minds.

Take for example this story. In it, the parents of the poor child, "Lucas" nee "Atticus," claim that somehow the new novel undermines the values of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the father's Facebook page, the following can be found:
As many of you know, Harper Lee's second book was recently released, depicting Atticus Finch as a pro-segregationist. We chose this name for our son over a year ago because we felt then that it embodied a beautiful form of selfless integrity. In light of the new book and the fact that our son is so young, we no longer feel comfortable using this name.

The problem is one of knee-jerks and that same contemporary youth culture that rejects the older generation out-of-hand. It is my firm belief that we have more to learn from the Atticus of Watchman than the Atticus of Mockingbird and our overindulgence of tolerance is the reason why.

If we take the time to consider the word tolerance, we can see that it is a poor substitute for its intended sentiment. Tolerance means "the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with." Tolerate means "allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference" or "accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance" or be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction." None of these sound particularly pleasing. I mean, consider this: you run into a friend on the street and that person says "Hello. I just wanted you to know that I tolerate you." Not exactly the warm reception you were looking for. Perhaps it is time to change our cultural lexicon and substitute acceptance for tolerance.

Atticus Finch, as portrayed in the novel Go Set a Watchman, embodies tolerance. Jean Louise, as Scout is known as an adult, shows how the surface of tolerance and the real feelings embodied underneath has broken her faith in the one man she so deeply trusted in:
I'll never forgive you for what you did to me. You cheated me, you've driven me out of my home and now I'm in a no-man's-land but good--there's no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I'll never be entirely at home anywhere else. (Lee 248)

The dissonance of the tolerant man disrupts her word view so fully that even Atticus has to realize that he has "killed" her (252). The thing is, this death is one all of us must die in order to be reborn. As Jim Burke puts it in his ODONO Cycle (or the Cycle of Literature, Life, and Learning), Jean Louise (and by extension the rest of us) has experienced a sudden disorientation, a sudden break with all of the things we thought we knew and believed. As with anything, this suffering will bring about pain, fear, and a variety of other unpleasant emotions; however, like the cycle, the lesson does not end at disappointment.

What our students need most is a model for how their parents' beliefs and behaviors reproduce in them so that they can recognize the value of critically reviewing this received wisdom. As Frost puts it, he will tell the story of his journey "with a sigh," the sigh of the wise speaking to the young, that he took the road less traveled and it made all the difference. The trouble is, he takes great pains to identify earlier in the poem that the traffic along the two paths had "worn them really about the same." This revelation nullifies Frost's pronouncement at the end, causing the reader some pause when taking Frost at his word. This skepticism about received wisdom runs throughout his work, especially poems like "Mending Wall," and it is usually the type of thematic topic I encounter the most resistance in teaching.

In April 2014, the results from a joint MTV/David Binder Research study showed that while Millenials value diversity, there is a real difference in the ways that real world experience affects people who are white and those of color. Their overwhelming belief in the universality of equality, however, creates some "key differences in some core beliefs":

  • While 48% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "discrimination  against White people has become as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups," only 27% of Millenials of Color agreed.
  • While only 39% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "White people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups," 65% of Millenials of color agreed.
  • While 41% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "The government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups," only 21% of Millenials of Color agreed.
This data is troubling, but not as troubling as the fact that most of those surveyed concluded that "open conversation about bias will reduce prejudice, but they’re uncomfortable with the subject and don’t know how to start the discussion." What an opportunity for we, as teachers of English (particularly literature), to take the lead and model this conversation in the classroom. The trouble is that we have to look at works that may offend or discomfort us. If we are to address the staggering deficit of "just 20% who are comfortable having a conversation about bias," we have to show the 48% who "believe it is wrong to draw attention to someone’s race even if you are being positive...and... [the] (54%) [who] agree that it is hard to have a respectful conversation about bias in person or online," how those who have come before them have managed to transfer their understanding of race and human nature to a more accepting and open society.

That is the value at the core of Jean Louise's fight with Atticus. Jean Louise is confused; she knows what Atticus has raised her to believe, but is flabbergasted when she sees her father showing the less overt racial biases she never detected. Even Atticus, who understands the transformation Jean Louise is experiencing, recognizes the difference in his daughter; however, it is his reaction that allows us to show students how conversation can help bring understanding. Jean Louise is uncomfortable and reluctant to have this confrontation with a man she has respected her entire life. She even vomits forcefully in their former backyard (now converted to an ice cream shop by one of the Coninghams from Old Sarum). Despite all of the trepidation and violent invective (she calls Atticus a "ring-tailed son-of-a-bitch"), Atticus responds with "I love you" and "As you please." When she finally crosses the line from rational argument to fiery invective (see previous ring-tailed epithet), Atticus simply says "That'll do." He stops the conversation from becoming an irrational and angry fight, letting Jean Louise say her piece without judgment.

If we stop reading at this point, the novel remains a dark iconoclastic place where our childhood heroes devolve into mindless villains, but this is Harper Lee and we should know better. After a sudden and violent call to her senses delivered by the bizarrely Yoda-esque figure of Uncle Jack Finch, Jean Louise is asked to consider the conversation and the MAN with whom she spoke. She is brought to the understanding that she must have her own mind, explained in a clever birth metaphor by her wise uncle. Jean Louise has to learn to accept that part of her past that has made her who she is, but leave behind that which she can not believe. She sees the value in what Atticus has given her, but recognizes that he is a man with faults all his own. If she focuses only on the faults, if she denies her father, she must also deny the part of herself that walks in other people's shoes, that reasons with compassion and sees everyone, not just the white majority, as human beings.

The title really says it all. Go Set a Watchman comes from a bible verse stated once outright in the novel and then used as an allusion by Uncle Jack in their final conversation. Isaiah 6:21 says "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." The context of the novel is the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent forced integration that states like Alabama were undergoing "with all deliberate speed." The older generations, driven by years of socially reinforced racial segregation, are panicked by what this will mean for their communities. The younger generations have the burden, as they almost always do, of figuring out how they will live in this changing world without having much of a voice in how the changes will occur. So, Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise that "every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience," that she must do what she believes to be right by her own mind (Lee 264-5). In validating Jean Louise's conscience, Jack helps her drop the anger and maintain her relationships; after all, important conversations cannot occur without strong relationships forming the bonds that keep the two parties talking. Were Atticus to only see his daughter as an upstart youngin' full of anger and rebellion, he would not necessarily listen to her; if Jean Louise sees her father as nothing but an ignorant bigot, the same occurs.

With models like this one, we can show students that despite the discomfort, these conversations are meaningful and need to occur; moreover, we can show them how they convert tolerance to acceptance. Jean Louise becomes a model for their own confused uncertainty; Atticus becomes the model of an adult with whom students can converse, full of his own convictions but willing to listen to the differences opinion can create. In the end, Jean Louise appreciates her father's willingness to fall from the pedestal upon which she has placed him; the final scene of the novel shows her as the dutiful daughter, picking her father up from work, but also as the separate adult in her own right, recognizing her father as her "old enemy" (Lee 278). While Atticus's fall from grace also makes me "tremble a little" with disappointment, I also recognize that his humanness is what makes him a great role model. His willingness to step outside his personal beliefs not once but, as the novel explains, twice, reveals the old Atticus we receive through Scout's childish eyes, but his belief in the superiority of one race over another shows that all the idols of our childish days must be set aside in pursuit of our own ideals, our own conscience.

A lot of what I believe to be right--about human compassion, about the dangers of violent conflict, about the value of remembering our past to create a brighter future--came from my Grandfather. The pedestal upon which I placed him as a child helped me create the foundation for my conscience, a conscience that eventually came into conflict with some of what he said later in life. We did not always get along, but the love and respect that began in my childhood kept us at the table talking. The frankness of our conversations showed me the value in discussing the things that are most difficult.

In the classroom, this frankness has led to studies of novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, and Native Son, novels that speak directly to dangerous and difficult topics like race and power. For ideas on getting your discussion started, check out Project Implicit at Harvard or the Anti-Defamation League. The conversations you have in your classroom may be difficult, but can lead to a more accepting and open world.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflecting on the Path of a Journey: ENGAGE NOW! June 2015

While walking out of the movie theater recently, I had to pass by the emergency doors to one of the individual theaters within the multiplex. I could tell the people inside were watching the same film I just had, roars and screams heard clearly through the door giving the film away. Sometimes, I have this same experience at school. Wandering down hallways near the end of the year, I hear all sorts of films playing: educational, entertaining, and even childish. This end-of-the-year slump can be compounded when your summative assessment happens in the first two weeks of May.

AP English Literature and Composition is a course many students across the spectrum experience as both struggle and triumph. Janis Mottern-High's ENGAGE NOW! Lesson for June provides an artistic and poetic context for making the most post exam days. The best part about the project is that it focuses on what students have already done, pushing them to take their thinking higher by synthesizing new products based on their understanding and analysis of the works they read throughout the course.

There are two major benefits as an instructor: first, students get a chance for metacognition, setting the stage for more enduring and permanent learning; second, students showcase how well they have understood the universal themes that run through literature.

The lesson features in-class work time, providing meaningful opportunities for learning in the midst of the school-year blockbuster season. The products that students design are also presented to the class, giving an opportunity to practice oral communication skills and fill more post-AP exam time with learning-centered discussions about what the class has accomplished on its journey this year.

If you are looking for something new to energize your classroom after the AP exam, or you just want a project to help students reflect on their learning in a creative way, check out this ENGAGE NOW! lesson on the Connected Community.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meaning in the Message: Teaching Literacy to Build Community

Benedict Cumberbatch, saturnine star of Sherlock, is officially a "devastated" "idiot." If you are a fan of the actor's work, like me, then you are probably wondering why these words might be used in conjunction with the talented Brit. The reason Cumberbatch must take his turn on the hot coals of public opinion has to do with a recent interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley. In the interview, Cumberbatch said the following phrase:
I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK, and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the UK, and that's something that needs to change.
Americans recognize immediately the unfortunate use of the word "colored" in his statement. As a result of this gaff, the star has had to come out publicly and flagellate himself with his own words, hence the "devastated" way he feels about offending some people. If you click on the link above and read the article, you can see the stream of anti-Cumberbatchian sentiment streaming in from the Twitterverse and political activists. What you may miss is the reference to Tavis Smiley's defense of the actor, tweeting "Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in ." Now, why would Tavis Smiley say such a thing? Why not jump on the fever train to public disapproval?

Let's concede that the word "colored" carries with it connotations of segregation, summoning ghosts of white-hooded men and starkly-lettered signs. Let's concede that the word brings back the sentiments of the separate but equal world of the pre-Civil Rights United States. Let's concede that it could be an act on par with deification of the stars-and-bars. Let's also concede that the entirety of the sentence speaks counter to any sentiment allied with racism.

At this summer's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, Dr. Ayanna Thompson stopped in to talk with the group about race and the teaching of Shakespeare. We talked about casting, performance, and a variety of topics associated with race and the theater. Something that will always stick with me is the way she described the stakes of continuing to play Shakespeare in a racially one-dimensional way: she noted that the audiences are getting older and remaining generally the same complexion, so who will support these arts as the older white patrons die out and the subsequent generations become less and less homogeneously white? It is a fair question. I was always conscious of the complexion of audiences before, but I failed to consider what that might mean for the future of the art form.

The idea applies to more plays than those written by Shakespeare. I saw a production of Death of a Salesman featuring a black actor playing Willie's neighbor and friend, Charlie. The scene where Willie refuses to take Charlie's money or job offer takes on an entirely new dimension of meaning when Willie is white and Charlie is black. It becomes something much more than simple personal pride. Even Bernard, played by an actor of mixed racial background, becomes more than the successful son. In short, racial considerations are never invisible to American audiences despite our protestations of colorblindness.

So, outside of the wording, what is wrong with Cumberbatch's desire to bring to light the lack of opportunity faced by actors of color in the UK film industry? Instead, the substance of his utterance is lost in the maelstrom of public shaming. The Hollywood and UK Film communities could probably benefit from the discussion of under-representation of minorities in parts that do not fall under facile ethnic stereotypes (read this as person of color = villain/terrorist/or other marginalizing part). The Clark doll experiment taught us that separate but equal is inherently unequal, yet we still give the role of hero to far more white actors than actors of color.

That is where we come in as English teachers. First, I would like to abolish the cliche of our time: tolerance. Think about it. What does it mean to say to someone that you tolerate them? Say it to someone you care about and watch the reaction. Now try saying it with acceptance as the goal. Nowhere in the definition of acceptance does the dictionary declare that accept is equivalent to approval. I may disapprove of so-and-so's life choices, but that does not mean that I do not accept so-and-so for who he or she is. Sorry for the digression, it is just a pet peeve.

How do we frame out discussion of teaching acceptance? We don't have to. There are plenty of examples in the world around us. Take Benedict Cumberbatch. Teach this article and ask students to read for contradiction and complexity as a start. There is something befuddling in organizations that vilify and praise an individual in the same reductive sentence or sound bite.

Another option: take a look at the school's arts programs enrollments. I am married to a choir director who also teaches on the high school level. I am always mystified at the relatively homogeneous make-up of the choir. What's shocking is the number of students of color I see daily who love music, but are enrolled in no musical arts classes at school. Have this discussion, perhaps grounding it in a larger work about race (i.e. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Invisible Man).

For the advanced educators: tackle discussions of covert vs. overt racism. The Implicit Attitude Test through Harvard University's Project Implicit allows teachers and students to measure their unconscious biases, including racial bias. I've posted about this tool before and you can find it by clicking on the link here.

If we create an intellectual discourse of acceptance around difference, we can create a community willing to listen to the content of our utterances rather than cherry-picking phrases from the discourse. This responsibility lies heavily upon us as ELA teachers because we are the last stop before students head out into the world to live on their own, a place where these sentiments can have immediate, concrete consequences. Believe it or not, the millennial generation is perhaps the least educated generation on racism. If you look at the article, you will notice that they are also a generation that wants to learn. If we build upon this enthusiasm now, encourage acceptance and real listening, the content of our students' utterances may be allowed to carry the conviction of their open hearts.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Which Line to Tow?

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I hope this post offends no one, but, given the subject matter, that is highly unlikely. I have been troubled lately about the unrest that seems to be rippling across the country and wondering what role we, English/Language Arts Teachers, have to play in it. There are a number of rich themes that any one of us could spend an entire year teaching: Freedom of Speech, Race, Violence as a Way of Life, Public Service, Corruption, the Power of Fear, etc. As Secondary Level educators, I feel like we have an even more urgent responsibility than our cousins at various other points in the educational spectrum. Elementary schools are generally concerned with building foundational skills and teaching young children who really cannot think deeply on moral puzzles of this many jagged, disjointed pieces. Middle schools could begin to broach the topic in civics courses, but the students still may not be ready to full understand the topic or fully empathize with all of the individuals involved. By college, students generally have a very specific way of seeing the world that they developed in high school.

No, we are the stage at which the most higher-order moral development occurs. In the development of identity, students begin to decide for what they will stand and for what they will fight. They develop fully formed images of themselves as certain types of people. To paraphrase Kohlberg, high school students are postconventional moral thinkers. Mix in the hormones and physical changes of adolescence, and that postconventionality becomes highly significant. The way they see the world colliding with their own moral principles and how they react to these collisions are things we can teach through the medium of literature. But should we? If we should, which works should we choose?

Something there is that subverts the common order. Oftentimes, teachers are forced to mend the very social walls that hem in their practice, silence their hearts, and limit the ways they can serve the students with which they have been entrusted. But these walls are important, too. Not all teachers have the best interests of students at heart: some wear their students down until they mindlessly accept the teacher's view of the world; others are just not worthy of the responsibility of teaching young people. So where does that leave the rest of us?

The truth is that I don't know, and the fact that I don't know is the truth. This personal conflict is what we as teachers should model. I have friends and colleagues whose friends and family are police officers. To expect them to take a counter-cultural stance that excoriates their loved ones is myopic and naive; however, if they spoke about the way the current unrest affected their lives, we might be able to communicate something distinctly human to students in the midst of a social storm that has gone far beyond the control of its progenitors.

Isn't the human what we teach? Don't we ask our students to have literary experiences with us to try on the shoes of another, not find a comfortable pair and go for a walk in isolation? There has been tragedy and death, grief and anguish, shame and a loss of faith. What has shocked me is that there hasn't yet been a voice offering sincere condolence, a gesture of real human reconciliation, a brief moment of mutual understanding. Instead, death is answered with death. Reconciliation is met with silence. And our students must be sitting there wondering why the adults who taught them to play nicely together cannot seem to learn the same lessons.

So, as the media outlets publish stories about Macklemore's impending child and the ways in which Downton Abbey can teach fiscal responsibility (seriously, that is a real story on as I write this), I am renewing my commitment to showing my students the way to understanding other people's journeys, of living up to the promise a literary experience can deliver. But I have to be careful not to simply make intellectual clones of myself. In fact, I think Kahlil Gibran said it best:  "The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. / If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." I only hope that we can be examples in this tough time through our faith in what we teach and our love for our students.