By Teacher Adam
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in 9th grade for English class. I liked it, but I know I didn’t really get it.
I also remember much of my class not getting it.
I have read TKAM probably nine times now, both in my role as a teacher and on my own. To Kill a Mockingbird has become one of my favorite novels of all time.
However, To Kill a Mockingbird is not the favorite of many students. This is especially true for the students I get to read this novel with; namely Taiwanese kids.
Invariably, every time I choose to read TKAM with a class, a few students complain — they’ve read it in their normal schools and it is boring.
Also invariably, those same students say it’s a whole different experience reading it at Englist vs. at their schools.
I am not some savant of a teacher. And while the purpose of this article is obviously to talk up my own program and our approach to complex works like To Kill a Mockingbird, my ulterior motive is to get teachers, parents, and students in Taiwan to re-evaluate how we approach books like this. Because the way it is done is not preparing kids for college or helping them all that much.
How Taiwanese kids learn about this book, and so many others, could be done so much better if we would move past the idea that for a curriculum to be “American” it needs to be copied and pasted wholesale from American high school lit classes.
More specifically, students at Englist enjoy and understand advanced books like TKAM because we approach them differently than anyone else in Taiwan does.
How they teach To Kill a Mockingbird at international schools
(and my own high school in America)
One helpful axiom of teaching I learned early on in my career is that whatever you are doing in class needs to be more beneficial than what students would get from just reading. If “just reading” is going to be more effective than a lesson, then you should dump the lesson (or, more realistically, plan better lessons).
Most schools and teachers think they are following this strategy by not reading books like TKAM during class time. In English or literature classes, there is a surprisingly small amount of reading that happens during class.
The way that it worked for me, and the way that it works for my students at schools like TAS, Kangchiao, and Wego, is they are assigned to read TKAM (or other novels) on their own time. Class time is then spent discussing or analyzing the reading.
See the problem yet?
When I was in 9th grade I was a pretty strong reader, but I was also 15 and a jackass. I wasn’t particularly diligent about my homework. Assigned reading didn’t always get done. I was lucky enough to have teachers for parents who also love To Kill a Mockingbird and who made sure I read it once it was assigned. This is why I got as much out of it as I did – my parents were making sure I was actually reading it. Many of my classmates did not have the same level of oversight at home.
The thing is, TKAM is a hard read, even for strong readers who happen to be American and the children of teachers.
The vocabulary is advanced and idiosyncratic to the Great Depression-era South.
The nuance of Harper Lee’s writing can be hard to catch.
And, TKAM is, in many places, hilarious. Unfortunately, many readers, even adults, never realize this because of the subtlety of Harper Lee’s prose and wit.
That’s just what makes it hard for American students. Add to that the difficulty of being Taiwanese, reading in your second language, and being 90 years removed from the events of the book; I’d be surprised Taiwanese students ever get it at all if it weren’t for their legendary capacity for patience and follow through.
Because, of course, many of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird are deeply American: civil rights, race relations, the “Lost Cause”, etc. To Taiwanese kids, the culture presented seems ancient and from a million miles away.
So you have a difficult book assigned in an alien context, but then you dictate that you teach it in the same ineffective way that I first encountered it? Simply because “it’s how it’s taught in America?”
This is the crux of the problem with much of “international” education and overseas university prep in Taiwan – the strategy is to treat all students the same as you would in North America or Europe or wherever else. But that’s a bad strategy. Context matters.
So, how should we fix it? How do you teach To Kill a Mockingbird – or other novels from the western literary canon for that matter?
Simple. Read it in class. Together.
Discuss as you go along. Do what we call “guided reading”.
Guided reading is so much more effective than tasking students with reading novels like TKAM at home. This is because:
- We can recap what we read in the prior class.
- I can paraphrase when a passage is particularly arcane.
- If there is a difficult word or an idiosyncratic term, we can stop and talk about it and put it into context.
- If students have questions, they can just ask right then and there.
- If there is an event or a reference or a cultural artifact that they don’t understand, we can detour and explore it.
- I can see if students are paying attention, and because we are all reading together at the same time, everyone is beholden to the story and much more likely to give it the focus and attention required to actually know what is going on.
Furthermore, not using class time to read is also a bad strategy. The irony of the axiom of just reading instead of doing a lesson is how infrequently teachers bear it in mind and misjudge the quality of their lesson plans. A lot of lessons aren’t that great, even in AP, IB, and honors level programs.
This is especially true when you consider factors like cultural familiarity, idiosyncrasy of language, and relative student maturity. The “discussions” I had about TKAM weren’t particularly stimulating, in part because the text was an abstraction, in part because I didn’t remember what exactly happened because I read it four days prior, and in part because I was a 15 year-old boy in a room full of other kids where discussing a novel wasn’t particularly cool.
But when a class reads the novel together, it is harder for students to ignore what is happening, and it is harder to pretend to not be invested, especially when the teacher is actively working in the moment to contextualize the narrative and frame it in a way you can understand.
What students get from reading in class
And the students like it better. I had a student who had read TKAM at her “international” school bring up in class how much better the book was in my class relative to her school. The other students agreed.
TKAM is a deeply powerful book with deeply human themes, and you know you are getting through to a class when you can see it on their faces that they, even Taiwanese teenagers almost a century later and on the other side of the world, understand what Scout and Jem learn about race and courage and doing the right thing no matter what.
I know this because that’s what happens at Englist when we read it together in class.
Again, it’s not because I’m a much stronger teacher than anyone else. On the contrary, the English lit teachers in Taiwan’s international programs are fantastic educators who work really hard and care about their students. They just happen to be caught up in an underthought education paradigm and are powerless to make many decisions about how they approach their classes.
Why Englist’s way works
The benefit to students at Englist is we do what works, not what an administrator has dictated, or some curriculum writer who had a much different set of students in mind when they developed the system.
Other schools and programs would be wise to follow suit. Because we are not beholden to someone else’s system, because our classes are smaller and more interactive, and because we contextualize books like TKAM not only as part of the curriculum but as something worth deeply considering – and writing about – students come away more tangibly prepared for college than by just coasting along the assembly line of curriculum at an international school.
So, if you want to understand To Kill a Mockingbird (and you should because it rules), and if you want to learn why it’s important and why it’s taught so widely across the U.S., the place to do that is at Englist.