Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

8 thoughts on “Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

  1. Rachel Peters

    I, too, taught 7th and 8th grade English at one point in my long teaching career, and I too was expected to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, for it had always been taught by the English teacher who taught before me. Somehow, however, I had gotten quite far into my teaching career (15 years) without having read this book (14 years of elementary); furthermore, I vehemently disliked the book only because a colleague I could not stand talked about it all the time as being her favorite. But after forcing myself to read Mockingbird ( in preparation for teaching) I fell in love with its language, the plot, the characters, the allusions, and the symbolism; furthermore, each time I read it, I found something new: a reference to a previous chapter or character, a previously unidentified allusion, a quote-worthy statement by Atticus.

    To this day I believe it to be one of the (if not the) greatest American book ever written.

    Jessie Tobin’s point, however, is important and needs to be highlighted:

    Teachers need to be trusted to know their audience and teachers’ past experience and knowledge are not only worthy of consideration but should be paramount to classroom text choices.

    Having said that, I also believe that a master teacher has the ability to create intrigue, interest, and even love for just about any book if he or she sets her sights on doing so.

    Perhaps J. Tobin didn’t love or even like To Kill a Mockingbird; so what? I found no grace or beauty if Romeo and Juliet. I was so disgusted with Mercutio’s misogyny that I could not muster even an ounce of redemption or forgiveness, and I do not regret refusing to instill interest and or love of this story. This is my bias. Humans have biases. If bias-free teaching is expected, start programming your robots now.

    A prescribed curriculum might be able to be taught state-or country-wide by a highly programmed and advanced teacher-robot.

    Teacher robots, with programming that does not to this day, exist that includes highly selected and tuned language, comportment, and insight to promote a particular text might convey in their teaching what they were programmed to bring. In the future these programmed robots might just be advanced enough pedagogically and charismatically (don’t forget comportment and visible and audible enthusiasm) advanced enough to help students find the art in the narrative, help them identify and discuss the language’s innuendo and political statements that can be applied today, and the allusions that will help them understand the characters and the plots that set a particular text aside as a part of a canon of Western literature. Additionally, and hopefully, these robots can guide, inspire, and challenge their charges, regardless of social-economic, political, religious, and/or cultural group status, to not only understand and appreciate particular stories in such a way as to further their knowledge about themselves and those around them but to write about such online on a state-wide test.

    Jessie Tobin, I support your decision to find a text that better resonates with your audience and with you. Don’t excuse you or your students’ dislike/lack of interest in a book because of an accent failure.

    Reply
    1. Jessie Towbin

      Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel. For the record, I do love Mockingbird. No, I don’t think my “accent failure” was the cause of the mismatch. There were many reasons why it wasn’t the right book for this group at this time. Thanks for your support!
      –Jessie

      Reply
  2. Mark Gardner

    I’m with you on finding the right book. I also teach Mockingbird, but to high schoolers, and tend to get good engagement–in part because they are a little older maybe? There is quite a bit of lofty diction (and a few downright boring sections).

    What I struggle with is balancing high-interest texts with what I see as the importance of practicing perseverance (and learning the skills to persevere) through a challenging text. I always tell my students that we don’t read the books to figure out “what happens.” If I just wanted them to know the plot line and characters, I’d hand out a summary sheet. We read in school so (in part) so we can become stronger at the skill of reading, and at times this means engaging with texts that we might not know we appreciate until we’ve finished. Finding ZPD is hard, though, and you’re absolutely right…we need to pay close attention to our students in order to get in the right zone.

    Reply
    1. Jessie Towbin

      Mark,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experience with Mockingbird. To be perfectly honest, I think a large part of why it didn’t work for my current group is that I was trying to do it as a read aloud. Not every great book lends itself well to reading aloud to a whole class.

      I completely agree with your point about the importance of practicing perseverance through a challenging text. When I last taught ninth grade, I loved how The Odyssey gave all of my students a transformative reading experience. Animal Farm worked well in that way as a read aloud. I’m still working on finding more titles that can have that effect as read alouds. Fingers crossed about Of Mice and Men.
      –Jessie

      Reply
  3. Jeremy Voigt

    Jessie,
    I really appreciate this post. I’m going to teach Mockingbird for the first time in ten years (I’ve taught it once before and read it once as a kid). I liked it when I read it, and I taught it ten years ago because it is part of the tenth grade curriculum at my school. I’ve always thought the book is strong, but not the most amazing literature I’ve ever read. I read it again this summer in anticipation of teaching it and found more to like in it than my memory allowed. I feel it is a great book for younger readers and can scaffold them to more complicated literature. It deals with sophisticated social issues well and handles the child’s point of view masterfully. Overall, it’s messages are a little pat for my personal taste, though I appreciate the book.

    All of this to say that I agree with you about matching books to groups. I think it is essential, if possible. I also believe it is ok to require books. I’m nearly forty, have read tons of books, and, frankly know more than my students. Sometimes fighting past what seems uninteresting at first can lead to really great reading. If I gave up on Moby Dick when it lost my interest or Anna Karenina, then I would have missed out on two of the most influential literary experiences of my life (as Mark discusses above). But that might be beside the point you are making.

    I’m a moody reader too, and I am very pleased to know you are out there thoughtfully walking students into great books.

    Reply
    1. Jessie Towbin

      Jeremy,

      I’m glad that the post was meaningful to you, and I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts about Mockingbird and about required books. I agree that there are important experiences that people, especially young people, will never have if given the choice. At this point in my career I am comfortable leaving the policy of required books to grades somewhere above middle school, but there is certainly a trade off.

      I hope all goes well with your students and Mockingbird this year!
      –Jessie

      Reply
  4. Jan Kragen

    When I taught middle school (in a highly capable program), we all read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. I started by requiring all my students to go home and “watch your favorite superhero movie.” (I told them if their parents didn’t believe them, they could write the assignment in their planner and I would sign it.) Then the whole time we read Beowulf we compared him to their favorite superheroes. “When Beowulf first appears on the beach, the men recognize him instantly as larger than life, a demigod at least. How does that compare to Peter Parker?”

    We read Frankenstein. The unabridged version. But we stopped every few chapters to watch The Terror of Frankenstein (1977), the film version that was the most faithful to the book. Every time I stopped the movie the class erupted, “No! Keep going!” I would laugh. “First we have to read it.”

    We read The Comedy of Errors and Cyrano de Bergerac and Pygmalion, the students taking parts. (Oh my gosh, I had girls sobbing at the end of Cyrano. “Mrs. Kragen, it’t the saddest story EVER. It’s the BEST story ever, but it’s SO SAD.”)

    At the end of the year I asked which was the best story we read. The kids in the classes were evenly divided, but all the books had plenty of votes.

    None of those books were new. Most of them were really old. But the stories were still appealing.

    I did give up on Cry, the Beloved Country, though. I really loved that book. But I came to realize its point of view was entirely adult. And my kids couldn’t quite view the world through the grown-up lens. Not at age 11, anyway.

    Reply
  5. Jessie Towbin

    Jan,
    I think I would have loved to be in your class! It sounds like you gave those students a really rich and rewarding experience. Thank you for sharing.
    –Jessie

    Reply

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