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A teacher and her Sixth Year students debate To Kill A Mockingbird's place on the syllabus

We asked our anonymous teacher to share her views and those of some of her students on the recent controversy surrounding To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

A GOOD BOOK will spark a conversation and stay with us forever. So many of the books chosen for students in classrooms across Ireland generate discussions far beyond the pages of these stories.

When we close off the pages of Jane Mitchell’s novel Chalkline, students cannot help but wonder how Rafiq will settle back into life at home after being kidnapped by Kashmiri rebels at the age of nine and trained to fight in a war.

Students demand a neat and tidy ending but Mitchell denies them the satisfaction of it because life is rarely ordered, it’s difficult. After reading Donal Ryan’s book The Spinning Heart we wonder if love is enough to save Bobby Mahon from the mental paralysis he now finds himself in.

Similar questions arise from the closing scenes of Claire Keenan’s novel Foster as students wonder if the young protagonist will be spared from the hardship of her biological home and remain in Kinsella’s care.

The books read by students at both junior and senior cycle are never light or breezy, we save that sort of stuff for our holidays, we study things that we evoke debate.

But we deliver these lessons carefully, always remembering that perspectives and experiences will be different.

Books are rarely written to make us feel comfortable and they are chosen by teachers to make our students think. They sometimes force us to acknowledge our capacity for evil, they teach us lessons about the past and encourage us to learn from our mistakes.

The lessons offered by literature

The whole purpose of a book like To Kill A Mocking Bird is to encourage us to step into another person’s shoes (or ‘skin’ as Harper Lee’s main character Atticus Finch asserts) ‘and walk around in them/it, before we ever judge’.

It also reminds us what real courage is and champions tenacity. The recent conversations about whether this book by Lee and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men should be removed for the Junior Cycle syllabus has certainly sparked lots of debate.

When it comes to deciding whether these books should be removed, I know my privileged position doesn’t give me the right to choose. I am Irish, I am a teacher, I am white.

Like all teachers, I care about my students and deliver lessons with caution but I’ll never fully understand what it feels like to read harrowing incidents of racism in a world where the same issues are occurring in real life.

In 2008, when I started teaching novels like this and Mildred D Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, I felt that I could tell my students, with confidence, that inequality like this no longer exists.

A different time

At that time, Barack Obama had taken up his position in the White House and we all celebrated the mantra of ‘Yes, We Can’. But things are different now. Trump’s policies are the antithesis of the hope Obama championed.

These texts feel different now but I’m not sure if that means they are less important and I feel they are certainly not the problem.

Society needs to change. Racism must be challenged. The topic is uncomfortable but some good things have come out of this debate on censoring books. It has highlighted the fact that there is room from more black writers on the course. 

It has similarly sparked lots of conversations among the students I’m privileged to teach. Most of them champion the need for more variety but don’t agree with removing these books from the curriculum.

While some are ready to cast Of Mice and Men aside, their loyalty to Harper Lee’s text is much stronger. Experiencing the world of 1930′s Alabama through a child’s first encounter with racism and the lessons this provides has been an enlightening experience for so many of them.

The recent discussions in class have been refreshing, real conversations about literature and great writing have evolved. Ones that are lively and refreshing. This conversation involves them so it’s important that they’re included here. 

Below is a snippet of opinion from two of my students. They are in Sixth Year, returning to school after many months away. They’re following the Black Lives Matter movement and are appalled by scenes of police brutality demonstrated not in the past but in their world. 

I asked them to write their views as each comes at the subject from a different perspective. Here’s what students had to say:

Student’s perspective

“We can do better than these books” - Sarah 

We don’t need to devote our lives to the study of literature to know that words carry inconceivable weight. And it is because of this very fact that we deliberately pick texts for students that will convey great messages and teach valuable lessons.

While To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men both shed light on social injustices, they are inevitably outdated and the same can sometimes be said about the institutions in which they are taught. 

How in the 21st century can we justify teaching students about racism through the lens of a white author?

How do we expect any black student to feel comfortable in a classroom where non-black classmates or a teacher simply gloss over words and scenes of racism that evoke such pain?

In this century we should know better. Nowadays we understand enough to know that we must take into account how black students feel when their rights, their history, their identity and their trauma is offered up for public debate. In our classrooms today we should know better.

Instead of censoring books, I have a better suggestion. Rather than teaching oppression using novels written by those who will never experience its true nature we must, as allies, students, friends and educators raise the voices of black writers and prioritise their stories in education too.

The list of possible writers is endless: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Robin D’Angelo, Angie Thomas and Ibram X Kendi. 

It’s time for our empty promises to change and update a curriculum where the same books have appeared for far too long. It’s time for us to become the change we want to see and that change, as always, begins with our young people.

“Leave them on the curriculum” - Ava

Books like To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men have in the past, and always will be, controversial novels. They both shine a light on the racial injustices of the times in which they were set.

In the wake of a global Black Lives Matter Movement people in Ireland have called for these books to be removed from the Junior Cycle syllabus. Some may argue that these books offer realistic portrayals of life when the infamous Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation divided a nation and that therefore they do so much to educate students about racism.

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Many believe that the harrowing scenes of injustice realised through their pages make man’s capacity for evil much harder to forget. The disturbing scenes of brutality that each novel explores most certainly inspire conversations in the classrooms in which they are taught, where context is clearly defined and life lessons are shared.

There are others who feel that these books cause more harm than good and while it is important to listen to both sides, we cannot start ‘banning books’.

Society today is engrossed in a ‘cancel culture’ where people who are considered offensive are immediately dismissed. But this culture is potentially as dangerous as the toxic opinions that are shared because it doesn’t give people the chance to learn from their wrongdoings and apologise for their ignorance.

“Education,” as US writer Will Durant quite eloquently explains, “is the progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”

So instead of removing these books from our syllabus, we should continue to study them because they educate students on the dangerous attitudes of a particular time in history and they inform intelligent discussion on how this type of behaviour is and always will be totally unacceptable.  

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