Reflection: Trust and Respect Narrowing a Thesis & Unpacking Steinbeck's Structure & Characters - Section 4: Application


My district's novel choices are already preset by our curriculum director, and I absolutely adore the novels that we teach during Junior year: Of Mice & Men and The Great Gatsby.  We also have the option of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but this year we decided to take the recommendation of the PARCC Model Content Framework for Grade 11 (attached in the resources section) and only pursue two pieces of extended-length literature in order to better cover informational texts that were not previously focused on as much.  Thankfully, my school is also very tied to the idea of teaching works of literature that are classics, despite them sometimes being controversial.  (During Banned Books week, I like to boast to students that all of the novels we read this year have been banned at one point or another, which makes them SO much more interested!)  These factors combine to allow me to teach stunning pieces of literature, some of my favorite in fact, in an environment that will allow me the autonomy to do so in the manner I see fit.

Because of my freedom to teach these novels how I want to teach them, I run into some difficult decisions as a professional.  Of Mice & Men uses the word "nigger," which I cannot stand on a personal level, and it provides a challenge of how to handle it from a professional level.  In all the years before this one, I crossed this bridge when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where we discussed at length Twain's purpose for using this word 213 times.  Talking about it in Twain's context first was almost easier for me as a teacher, because he so purposefully used it as satire.  I find that approaching this word in Of Mice & Men is somewhat harder, as it is said so much less often and is more there to characterize the times and highlight how ostracized Crooks is at the most basic level.  I appreciate that my school is not prescriptive, but it does mean that I am then required to figure out how to best approach this controversial literature.  I spend a massive amount of time online looking at resources from all kinds of places, NCTE, PBS, and the Teaching Channel, just to name a few.  

Before deciding on whether or not to allow this word to be used within the context of literature in my classroom, I considered the unique factors at my school, which I would recommend any teacher grappling with these issues to do.  My school is predominantly white, and there are no teachers in our building or in our district that are minorities of any race.  I actively encourage the appreciation of diversity in my classroom and in the school, and while "tolerance" is usually the message, I go further to push students to connect with one another and appreciate our similarities AND differences rather than to ignore our differences and push an agenda of "sameness."  We are all beautiful, unique people that have different perspectives on issues, shaped largely by our backgrounds.  One of my absolute favorite lessons that I started teaching at the beginning of last year focuses on Malcolm X's autobiography, which has a major impact on broadening horizons and understanding of other students.  It still gets referenced in class discussions as a connection to other texts, so I know it has impacted many. 

Because our population is so homogeneous, with only a few students of any race other than white, I decided that for my school and in my classroom, I do not want my students to use racial slurs, even in the context of literature.  I felt that the use of this word would create discomfort for my students of all races and for myself.  As I said in the main lesson, I have never been comfortable hearing "nigger," and I just couldn't see myself at a point where even just hearing it wouldn't make me actively flinch.  I do let my students weigh in on the matter, and if ever there were compelling ideas as to why this word should be read aloud, I would certainly dive into the matter full-on.  Until that happens, though, acknowledging why it's used here and what it means is a complete enough lesson for me.  

How I chose to handle this issue may be different from how you will chose to handle the issue.  There are many fantastic resources on the matter, including from Teaching Tolerance, which would be an excellent opportunity for community interaction and reflective thought about this issue.  I would just advise you to check into your school's policy on the matter (as they may be more prescriptive than my school!), gather feedback from your colleagues and students, and proceed with when you feel best meets the needs of your students. 

  Trust and Respect: Class Culture & Analyzing Impact of Word Choice on Meaning & Tone
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Narrowing a Thesis & Unpacking Steinbeck's Structure & Characters

Unit 6: Multitasking with Modernism & Research Skills
Lesson 3 of 9

Objective: SWBAT articulate a significant claim in an argumentative thesis statement, cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support character analysis and inferences, and evaluate author's choices of words and structure.

Big Idea: Submitting final thesis proposals & answering tough questions in Of Mice & Men: Is George a jerk? Is Lennie a bear? Is this a play or a novel?

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