Are eleven year olds capable of intelligently discussing race? Of course they are. They can also be immensely immature and are sometimes reluctant to take such classroom discussions seriously but this doesn't mean that they aren't capable or that teachers should shy away from it; that would be doing students an injustice. So when I realized that a 6th grade English teacher at a charter school in the South Bronx was reading To Kill a Mockingbird with her 6th grade class but discussing the role of race within the text was not a part of the curriculum I cringed. Skipping over Race while teaching a text like To Kill a Mockingbird is socially irresponsible and dangerous. And I can't help but wonder, if kids are capable of discussing such a prominent topic in this text, why skip it?
When I taught 5th grade Ancient History my classes engaged daily in mostly insightful conversations about race and gender roles; yes, a bunch of fifth graders wanted to talk about gender roles. At the beginning of the school year our discussions were mostly superficial and not every student had the epiphany I envisioned they would have but I did learn that ten year olds were more than capable of engaging in intellectual, high-level discussions about complex topics most adults tend to avoid. Children don't care about being politically correct so most feel free to speak genuinely on their personal experiences and observations about the world around them. This isn't the case with most adults. Our class discussions were refreshing and eventually they became more intense, explorative and insightful, and we even experienced one or two class-wide epiphanies. Although my students were mostly Black or Latino and had probably willingly or unwillingly discussed the concept of "race" before, many were still reluctant to speak on it in class. However given the platform and guidance most rose to the challenge. A 5th grader asked How did skin color play a role in slavery in Ancient Egypt and was skin color as important as it was in slavery in the United States? one day during discussion. I almost teared and his peers jumped at the opportunity to answer.
It's clear that young students are more than capable of having intelligent conversations about complex topics like race; they simply need the platform, the guidance, and the teacher needs the time to plan for all of that, of course. So why would a charter in the South Bronx require sixth grade teachers teaching Harper Lee's classic to follow a curriculum that purposely curbs conversations about race? How is it even possible to teach To Kill a Mockingbird without examining such a prominent theme like race? I wonder who benefits from intentionally depriving young New York City students in the South Bronx of the opportunity to discuss race in a safe, intellectual environment. Why deprive students of an opportunity to explore the extent of racism in America, the country they all live in? Giving an inner city eleven year old a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, require them to do most of the reading at home, and NEVER guide them through thinking about the representation of race within a text that takes place in the VERY racist South is socially irresponsible and dangerous.
To Kill a Mockingbird is about race. It is about a lot more, especially because the story is told through the perspective of a little girl, but it is still very much about race. It is also a "classic," a book most of us have read while in middle or high school, and a book most educators will read about 15 times throughout their career. I've read it twice, most recently while working one on one with a sixth grader, Ashley, one of the students I work with as a part-time literacy coach in her school. As a literacy coach I focus primarily on helping kids develop reading and writing skills, honing in on fundamental strategies every middle schooler should master. Doing "my job" doesn't typically require knowledge of what's being taught in my student's ELA classroom, although it can help, but I could not help myself when Ashley revealed she was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class. Ashley knew race played an important role in the novel but with the consistent use of the n-word and the African American Vernacular English used by the Black characters throughout the text who wouldn't? But Ashley's teacher never discussed race or racism with the class. The novel depicts a Black man on trial for the alleged rape of a White woman and the shock the town experiences when a White defense attorney takes on his case. But Ashley's class did not once discuss the racism dominating every aspect of that trial. Ashley's class did however discuss a coming of age tale about a nice White family who liked Black people while no one else did. THIS IS SO DANGEROUS. I didn't believe Ashley so I examined her class notes (Ashley was a great student and note taker) and not one class note on theme focused on race. WHAT?
Ashley's class, a bunch of eleven year olds more than capable of analyzing the role of racism within the text, was not given the opportunity to discuss the racist South for what it truly was as presented in the text. Why? Did it make the school uncomfortable? Did it make the teachers uncomfortable? These mostly Black and Latino students were fed the same stereotype insisting that the very racist South was actually not that bad for some Black people because some White people were "nice" to some Black people. In fact, some were even friends! Right?
The fact that a 6th grade student like Ashley who had limited knowledge on American History could walk away from a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird and not once question the portrayal of Black characters or how race played a role in the relationships between Black and White characters within the text is socially irresponsible. After discovering this injustice I dedicated my future sessions with Ashley to exploring important themes, like Race and Gender, as presented in the text. I offered her the platform to question what she read, to question character motives, to question how race played a role in supposed friendships within the text. Ashley was initially intimidated by these discussions often giving me quizzical looks as she was challenged but like my 5th graders in Ancient History, she rose to the challenge. I can not understand the value in schools adopting an English Language Arts curriculum that does not dare offer students the platform to question society. NO ONE benefits from this and ultimately it is irresponsible and dangerous to teach the youth to not question what they read. But it is even more dangerous to make them read To Kill a Mockingbird without discussing race.