Dr.Keisha Green is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at UMass, Amherst, whose scholarly work revolves around English Education, critical literacy, critical pedagogy, and youth literacies. In Dr.Green's class, African-American Literacies and Education, students are asked to write a "dialectical rewrite" of an issue that "keeps them up at night."
Emma Canales, one of Dr.Green's students, decided to write about To Kill a Mockingbird. She explained her rationale for writing about this book: "I teach 8th grade ELA in [a local city with schools that have a high population of African-American and Latino students]. My students are predominantly of color and I realized after taking Dr. Green's class that education is vastly out of touch with the lives of these students. I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and happened across the scene that I examined in my writing. It was really disheartening to hear my students agree that Calpurnia shouldn't be code switching and that if she "knows how to talk right then she needs to talk right" implying that Black English is "wrong." The rich and historical heritage of Black English is being ripped away from our students and I realized that the curriculum needs to be recentered around them."
Below, I share her dialectical rewrite with you. I'm interested to hear thoughts from people who also teach TKM, or have taught it in the past!
My urban English Language Arts class is currently delving into the high school classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is my third year teaching the novel and my first year realizing that, as a white teacher in a predominantly Latinx and Black classroom environment, I need to recenter the curriculum around my students and what is relevant to their lives and away from has always been a white supremacist agenda. Harper Lee was a white Southern woman, and although she certainly did encounter brutal racism and violence, she did so from the safety of her own whiteness, and was merely a spectator. To Kill a Mockingbird is often used as either a launching pad in the classroom to discuss race and equity, in most likely a watered down context so that it can be discussed “safely”, because many teachers and school administrators fear such heavily charged discourses.
Educators need to step away from their safety net, which may be their pre-designed curriculum or the curriculum that they’ve been following unwaveringly for years, and ask themselves: who are they centering? What books are they reading and discussing in the classroom? Who wrote the books and under what circumstances? Finally, if teachers cannot deviate away from what books they are being required to teach, they need to examine their practice to ensure that their methods are not only inclusive of Black and Brown students, but that these students are able to participate fully and in a way where their voice is valued.
Why is there such a reluctance to include literature written by authors that students can actually identify with which demonstrates topics and ideas that students can passionately discuss? H. Samy Alim and John Baugh (2007) phrase it perfectly when they state, in Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change, “...the American public education system [is out] of touch with both contemporary reality and the historical reality of Black Americans” (p. 19). The majority of teachers are white and it would make sense that the public education system is “out of touch” because white teachers are designing and creating curriculum centered around the white experience. This is their comfort zone and their default approach. There needs to be a push, and it may prove to be difficult and feel uncomfortable, for teachers to get in touch with what can be relevant in the lives of students that may not look like them.
For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Scout, a white child. It is easy to teach from this character’s perspective, but in doing that the teacher is once again furthering and valuing the white perspective. More attention and character examination must be paid to the Black characters in the novel, but this must be done carefully. A teacher may choose to focus on the character of Calpurnia, but if this focus is done around the fact that she has literally lived to serve the white Finch family, then once again this furthers the notion that the Black experience is only worth mentioning when it is tied to white lives. An educator should try recentering this character around key questions such as: even though Calpurnia is “employed” by the Finch family, given the historical context, did she have much of a choice? What were Calpurnia’s options in the 1930’s in Alabama? These questions could be discussed in a larger lesson around the political, cultural, and economic context of the South in the era of the Great Depression and what impact these factors would have had on Calpurnia.
There is a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird that shows the slow and insidious creep of oppression working its way into the curriculum and mind of the youth in urban schools in particular. In this scene, Calpurnia takes the Finch kids to her church which serves the African American population of their town. When they arrive, Scout and Jem observe Calpurnia speaking differently to “her people” (code switching) than how she speaks to the children at home. Near the end of this scene the following exchange takes place:
“Why yes sir, Mister Jem.” Calpurnia timidly put her fingers to her mouth. “They were the only books I had. Your grandaddy said Mr. Blackstone wrote fine English—”
“That’s why you don’t talk like the rest of ‘em,” said Jem.
“The rest of who?”
“Rest of the colored folks. Cal, but you talked like they did in church…”
That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.
“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n-talk to the—to your folks when you know it’s not right?”
“Well, in the first place I’m black—”
“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.
Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “It’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin‘ on airs to beat Moses.”
“But Cal, you know better,” I said.
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin‘ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin‘ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
This scene has so much to unpack for educators. It has the potential to be a great discussion topic and learning experience for all. It also has the potential to further the implications that speakers of Black Speech are unable to speak Standard English and instead have to speak in a way that, as Scout put it, is “not right.” Calpurnia doesn’t correct Scout, but instead perpetuates this oppressive narrative by agreeing that she has to speak their language despite its apparent incorrectness. Remember, Calpurnia is a Black character being written by a white woman. Of course she doesn’t correct Scout...the author is showing that Scout is correct in her thinking that the English Calpurnia speaks is incorrect.
While Harper Lee does use the word “language” multiple times to describe Calpurnia speaking Black English, she also includes the n-word to describe it, thus delegitimizing it. Harper Lee also has Calpurnia admiring the “fine English” of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which suggests that she appreciates Standard English more than she does her own English and that she only speaks Black English because nobody in her Black community wants to ‘learn” how to speak correctly...in other words, she chooses to only speak Black English to stoop to their assumed lower level of intelligence.
I can’t imagine how students reading this scene in an urban classroom feel. By the time my students arrive in my 8th grade classroom, I can guarantee they’ve already felt the unrelenting oppression of educators trying to force Standard English upon them because public education has deemed that Standard English is correct and what students of colors speak isn’t. To make things worse, we open up a book that has been a classroom staple for decades, only to have a white author try to speak as Calpurnia, a Black character, and read that Black English is the language spoken by those who don’t want to learn how to speak “right.”
While I was checking for understanding around this scene, an African-American student raised their hand and told me that Scout and Jem were surprised because they thought that Calpurnia was “smarter than that.” I asked what the student meant and they responded with something along the lines of, if Calpurnia were smarter she would speak “properly” all of the time and not just when she chooses, and that she is “fake” for switching how she talks depending on who she is talking to. My student’s response also shows that code switching or having, as Harper Lee put it, a “command of two languages” isn’t valued as an extremely useful ability, or even acknowledged as a necessity in the lives of many students. An educator that doesn’t have a goal of recentering curriculum around Black students may very easily accept the scene at face value and lead a discussion around the improperness of Calpurnia’s speech. This projects the message to the Black students in the room that the way they speak is wrong. The way their family speaks is wrong. When everything about you is made out to be wrong and harshly criticized, then what is the use of participating in class? In speaking up? Black students begin to internalize this racism, lose faith in the educational system, and eventually lose confidence in themselves (Baker-Bell, 2019).
It is our responsibility as educators to inform ourselves in ways that classroom cultures and curriculum continue to oppress Black students and their voices while furthering white supremacist agendas. It is then our responsibility to put the hard work in by taking a critical look at our curriculum and our methodologies and pushing through the discomfort of discovering our missteps. We need to correct these missteps. We need to sit with the discomfort and push back against the oppression that we are being asked to replicate. We need to reframe curriculum, reframe novels, and reframe discussions to make space for Black voices to be heard and valued, not squashed and dismissed for being “improper” and thus invalid.
April Baker-Bell (2019): Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English
language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy, Theory Into Practice,
Alim, H. S., & Baugh, J. (2007). Talkin black talk: Language, education, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Emma Canales has always called Massachusetts her home and obtained her Bachelor's of Arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is attending UMASS for her Master's of Education as well. She is an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts and loves hanging out with and listening to her lively middle school students' thoughts about the world.