When To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” the boundaries of that statement has since continued to extend inside the walls of the English classroom.
The process of choosing and developing books, units and lessons reveal the goals of the English class — to expose to students to a point of view they would not otherwise have understood or recognized.
As the lessons unfold a series of moralistic enigmas and interpretations spill before the impressionable students inside the classroom, one may ask —
What exactly is the goal to teach these students?
Within the three part story, explore the layout, goals, and long term implementations of the teaching inside the English classroom.
With film and literature posters hanging on all four walls and novels stacking the shelves, the environment of the American English class is a familiar space. Oftentimes a louder, more talkative class, discussions bounce off the walls of the English class, finding themselves landing snug between the lines of the small-printed texts. What is the purpose of the modern day English class?
While the answer may be obvious to some, “Learning English, obviously,” there’s many more layers in the purpose of the curriculum for us to strip back — from the legacy of the novels required to the lessons they hope to teach.
In regards to the novels chosen, there are a series of novels which oftentimes hold their place in the curriculums, as their legacies endow English classrooms across the country. This includes novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, The Scarlet Letter, Fahrenheit 451, The Crucible and many other American classics which have cemented their place on the shelves.
AP English teacher David Clarke recognizes the two circumstances for incorporating books into the curriculums.
“The books — there’s a lot of legacy, right? So it isn’t like we [teachers] sit down every year and we say, ‘Are we going to do these same books?’” Clarke said. “I mean, there’s a sort of like an implicit process — ‘Are we going to?’ But, there’s nothing explicit.”
What Clarke means by this implicit-explicit dynamic for book adaptation is that, in MVHS, those cemented books are usually transferred from one year to the other. However, it is usually an implicit process which allows alterations made to the curriculum, whether it be novels which are removed from the classroom or incorporated.
Honors American Literature teacher Mark Carpenter explains his journey to evolve his classes’ curriculum to incorporate more relevant, inclusive lessons. Carpenter, when he first began teaching American literature, realized the overwhelming amount of white male voices which dictated the unit; he worked to alter this norm.
“I wanted to get a major female voice into the class. So, I went to the book room and I found copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Carpenter said. “I said, ‘This is a piece of American literature by an important female voice in American history. I want to bring this book into the course.’”
After confirming the book was approved by the school board and no other courses had ‘owned’ it, Carpenter created a unit around the novel in his American Literature class. He later adapted and advanced it as he transitioned into teaching Honors American Literature.
The unit, created as a result, was named “Race in America,” and had contributions provided by fellow English teachers Hannah Gould and Vennessa Nava. A rendition of the unit is now taught by all American Literature classes.
Additions to the unit’s curriculum has been made since, including the recently added lyric, Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Suggested by a former student to Carpenter, the novel had structural and visual significance which appealed to Carpenter and his fellow American Literature teachers. Unlike Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, the 2014 lyric had not been pre-approved. After being approved by the board, the lyric was incorporated into the Honors American Literature classes.
The books have a history of complaints following their integration into school curriculums, primarily for their liberal use of the n-word. Lee and Twain did not hold back on incorporating the slang, as it encaptured the language spoken during the 1930s and 1830s, respectively.
In Duluth Public Schools, a Minnesota school district, the removal of the two novels from the curriculum was made official. Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction, spoke to the Duluth News Tribune regarding the removal of the novel and the steps that will be taken to teach similar lessons in the classroom.
“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary told the Duluth News Tribune.
Although criticized by several Free-speech organizations, claiming it damaging to ban novels which display and discuss uncomfortable topics, there are prevalent trends of removal of the books nationwide. Both novels are still taught in the FUHSD district today.
While discussions regarding ‘uncomfortable’ topics have stirred up the discussions nationwide, Clarke states what he, as a teacher, hopes the students extract from the books discussed in the classroom. He specifically referred to the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison.
“There’s levels [to discussing a book.] The first level is ‘Do they understand what’s going on in the book, do they understand the plot, do they understand the characters, do they understand the kind of things that Morrison is doing technically in the book?” Clarke said. “And then the next level really is taking the author read their word. ‘What is Morrison trying to tell us?’”
Regarding the students’ opinions on the novel, Clarke understands that in his literature classes, the focus is less directed towards their opinions, and more about evaluating what the author is conveying.
“I’m not really concerned as far as an evaluative process what [students] think of [a novel] so much as whether they understand what the author’s trying to get across. That’s what I’m trying to get because that becomes part of the conversation as something that they can have an opinion on,” Clarke said.
There is no way to discuss American literature without weaving in elements of social issues. After all, America is not exempt from a multitude of social unrest, and books like Their Eyes were Watching God and Citizen reveal this.
When students walk into their American Literature class everyday, the anticipating lesson is always tied to their unit objective — a guideline that is the driving force behind every activity or discussion.
During the “Race in America” unit, discussions were based on the books that students were reading. For American Literature, that was Their Eyes Were Watching God in addition to Citizen for Honors American Literature.
How the novels are chosen, to an extent, take students’ applications into account. While Clarke recognizes that students’ opinions aren’t the focus, but rather their understanding of the novel, instances in which students fail to grasp the applications of the novels has affected the novels chosen in the past. Carpenter has faced past experiences of students misunderstanding messages conveyed through a novel — specifically, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry which tackles American race relations in the 1960s.
“[The] book was published in 1960 and was a pretty decent picture of American race relations at that time,” Carpenter said. “And it led students to say things like, ‘Well, back in the sixties when racism was a big problem in America—’” And, I thought it was fostering ignorance to how immediate problems have problems of race.”
While Carpenter and many other English teachers ensure not to incorrectly convey ignorant ideas, they don’t exactly focus on teaching morals, either.
“My goal with anything I teach is to open up a conversation. I really do not have a moral agenda. If I have an agenda, it is to make students recognize this issue exists in society and ask them to examine how it exists in society, what the ramifications of that are, right?” Carpenter said. “I really do not come in with a strong moral agenda of ‘I want students to absorb this explicit message.’”
Attempting to convey morals or values, Clarke recognizes, is a thorny area, oftentimes ending up subjective and partisan. Clarke focuses on refraining from bringing in any partisan ideas into the classroom. For example, when teaching older literature, context regarding Christianity is oftentimes vital to the class’ understanding of a text; Clarke ensures not to seem like he is advocating or discrediting the religion.
The extent of values which are taught inside the English classrooms, Clarke notes, is usually simply ‘to do unto others as you would like them to do to you.’
A goal in most English classes is to expose students to the nuances of society, introducing different perspectives and situations and allowing the students to build opinions thereafter. Though, Clarke recognizes the restriction in which older American texts have to present diversity; the dominant voice 100 years back being predominantly white male, he said. However, incorporating more contemporary texts has allowed for a diverse platform of varying ethnicities and inclusivity regarding the LGBTQ+, for example.
“I think we’re representing what exists historically,” Clarke said. “As far as representing what exists in a contemporary setting — no, we’re not [representing them.] We’re not, and that’s a really tough one to get around, I think.”
Clarke understands that while there have been steps into a more inclusive direction, there is still a ways to go to provide an inclusive curriculum at MVHS; this includes employing a diverse amount of perspectives.
With MVHS’ population of over 80 percent Asian and less than 2 percent African American and Latino, racial diversity is limited amongst the student body. So, when the two major novels taught in American Literature focus in on black-white relations in America, both being minorities in the MVHS population, is the curriculum being successfully tailored to the classroom?
“In a school with so few Caucasian and African American students, I believe it’s because these conflicts are sort of — there’s a takeaway from them, even if these specific conflicts are not part of our daily life,” Carpenter said. “There’s a takeaway to learn a little bit about how to question right? How we treat other people. How other people treat us. What we’re doing in society. What life is going to be like when we get into the broader world of college.”
Carpenter, although it isn’t in his agenda to teach an explicit moral in the classroom, still hopes to draw discussion regarding immoral social issues and racial disparities in America, including those outside the MVHS community.
“You know, I think we don’t need to have a high number of African American students here for explicit, explicit, hateful rhetoric against them to be an issue worth discussing,” Carpenter said.
In October of 2016, El Estoque broke a story in its second issue of the year about the rampant racism and sexism that existed within an Instagram group chat. Banter, inexcusable threats, whatever people deemed it, at its basis was the mocking of killing black people and the repeated use of racial slurs.
In the aftermath of this event, then Principal April Scott and superintendent of FUHSD Polly Bove sent out the following statement:
The takeaways include “an incident involving serious racist and misogynistic speech on social media” and “we are a diverse community that embraces individuals of all races, religious, nationalities, gender identities and sexual orientations.”
Neither of these statements are false. The first is simply an informative statement, while the second generalizes the MVHS community in its diversity and ability to welcome every race, when simply, this hasn’t been the case. If it was, the group chat would have never been made.
The behavior of the boys in the chat were definitely self-conscious, but the situation would not have reached the magnitude it had if the environment around them had not been complacent in their racism.
More than a year later, the same individuals who took place in the chat had to take part in discussions about race in their American Literature class. Every American Literature class read Their Eyes Were Watching God, a black woman. (This is a gentle reminder that none of the juniors in American Literature this year were black or partially black). During discussions, most students were aware of the fact that the n-word was not their word to use, even if it is written in the book. Everytime the word came up during read-alouds, the discomfort in the room rose as everyone anticipated whether the person would actually repeat it.
Most of the time, people respected the wishes of the black community by skipping over it or saying “n-word” in place of the actual word, but in some classes, some students argued for their right to say it. However, a majority of the American Literature teachers choose not to use it themselves and simultaneously acknowledge their privilege.
“As you know, upper middle class white males; we can’t be standing there, you know, at the front of our student body trying to lead a conversation,” Clarke said. “We can facilitate a conversation about diversity, but we can’t [take] charge.”
However, despite the awareness that English teachers, administration, and newspapers have, it has not enough, Clarke recognized. The student body needs to take charge. Change has to start from the bottom up, not vice versa, he continues.
A potential reason for why change comes slowly is the lack of real diversity in Monta Vista. According to the MVHS profile for the school year of 2017-2018, 83 percent of Monta Vista is Asian, 13 percent is white, 4 percent is other including African American, Latino, etc.
“The race in America unit is basically black and white… So that’s probably not even, is probably even a kind of a misnomer. I mean, it’s not really about race in America. It’s about the African American experience in America,” Clarke said.
In the absence of black students in MVHS, it is hard to ask them about their opinions and first-hand experiences. Education is the first step to social change, and if students are not well-informed, where will the change come from?
There is a lot of good to be said about MVHS — its high academic record, its students who greet their friends and teachers everyday with a big smile — but the incidents of racial discrimination and harassment have remained in the chattering conversations of the students.
Students here already recognize the shortcomings of MVHS, with all the uncomfortable silences where everyone is thinking the same thing, but no one will talk.
“There is this sort of macro-aggression and then there’s the micro-aggression. There’s sort of just identity issues that go along and and all that sort of stuff,” Clarke said. “It’s a discussion that needs to happen, but I would not expect it to come from above right now just because of things that are going on. Is that disappointing?”