Facing History and Ourselves, To Kill a Mockingbird, Stereotypes and Revelations

For our final novel of the year, my sophomores are reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I love this novel, and we don’t have a lot of time left in the school year to spend on it. I didn’t have the time or the energy to develop an in-depth PBL unit, and I’ve been on an “authentic learning experience” kick lately, so I decided we’d read the book, talk about it like normal people, and keep the literature activities to a minimum. While looking for new resources for teaching the book more simply, I came across wonderful materials from Facing History and Ourselves. So far we have had some great discussions about identity and stereotypes, and it is giving my students a good framework for understanding the novel. It also gives them a bridge to the work they are doing in American History as they learn about the Progressive Era and complete a project on modern progressive movements. They will be visiting The Root Cellar in Lewiston, an organization that serves a large immigrant population. It is my hope that they will be able to develop a stronger sense of their own identity and awareness of stereotypes.

Today in class I gave them 6 questions, taken from the Facing History curriculum, to answer about their reading of the first 7 chapters. I need to check their reading and comprehension. They paired up to discuss the questions with directions to record their discussion using the voice memo app on their iPhones/iPads, and then email me the audio file. The pairs went off to relatively quiet places to complete the activity. When they all came back together, one group told me that it wasn’t until they were working through the questions that they realized Calpurnia was black. They assumed because of the role she plays in the family and the amount of authority she has in the children’s lives, that she was white. The rest of the class replied, “Oh, I knew she was black.” So we talked about the things in the story that clued them in to that. It was a fabulous conversation about characterization, reading, and stereotypes.

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Listening In

Today’s Senior English class was pretty extraordinary for me. I need to figure out a way to translate the evidence of learning and understanding that I heard today as I listened to my seniors talk.

First came the book share. It was Alex’s turn, and even though I gave him the option of waiting until next week (it is after all the first class back after vacation), he was willing to jump in. He is reading a book that his classmates basically dared him to read. It’s a YA Hollywood romance. He’s reading the book, one that is completely opposite of the type he would normally choose. He gave a basic plot summary up to what he’s read so far, he talked about the writing, the story line, the believability of the characters and the situations. He spoke as some one who is reading critically. He did so many of the things that we try to orchestrate from students and often fail to get. It was really cool to listen to him.

Once the book share was over, we moved into a set up of the group project they are going to complete as part of our wrap up of Hamlet. We reoriented our selves to what work we had already completed with the play. I explained to them about the 30 Minute Shakespeare series and how abridgments work, gave them a few guidelines and resources, then set them to work.

I was in and out for a while, dealing with some administrative issues that had come up, but once I was able to sit down and listen to them work, it was wonderful! They reviewed the plot, then went to work discussing what characters they should cut and why, and what scenes they should cut or abbreviate and why. We had some good discussion about the actions and motives of some characters, and we talked about why Shakespeare included the Fortinbras storyline. But mostly I listened to them compare the script with the movie, analyze the characters and scenes, and evaluate and defend their decisions.

Valuable skills were being plied and demonstrated. Their discussion reveled their thinking in clear ways. As I listened to them, I felt so excited to hear evidence of their thinking skills, their understanding of the play, and of Shakespeare’s craft. I thought, “how do I translate that to a number in the online grade book? How do I help them to see the valuable learning and demonstration of learning they are doing right now?

I’m not sure how to answer my own questions. I know that I can do better at giving students more opportunities like this one for them to demonstrate their learning and skills. I know that I can do better at identifying desired outcomes ahead of time and backward plan to design my lessons. I know that I can do a better job of assessing physical work that students produce. But some how I feel as if what I heard today can’t really be assessed, at least not by a number in a spreadsheet column.