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The English Educators' Network: Teaching the Social Issues in Literature

The following discussion occurred during a meeting of the English Educators’ Network at Michigan State University. The Network brought together university faculty and mentor teachers each month during the school year to read, think about and develop tools and resources for assisting novice English teachers, or interns.

In this excerpt, Network members discuss how they can prepare novice English teachers to engage students in thinking about the complex social issues that lie at the center of literary fiction. The group read the short story, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” by Flannery O’Connor. The story is about a White college graduate returning to live with his mother in a small southern town in the US. The son is embarrassed by his mother’s racism and lack of education.

The facilitator, Dorothea, opened the discussion by asking the group what strategies or approaches they would use to help novice English teachers prepare to teach this story as an example of literature that deals with difficult social issues, such as racism. During this excerpt, Jessica and Monica talk about how they prepare their students and interns to deal with works such as Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men. Donna then states that she would not teach the story because she thinks it’s too racially offensive. Trisha then enters the conversation to question the purpose of the group’s talk.

Over the course of the discussion, the teachers expressed several different opinions and perspectives and dealt with them in different ways. The discussion provides a portrait of how a teacher learning community works, and how it deals with conflict. All of the participants in the discussion on this date were White females.

We have provided questions for you and your colleagues to consider as you read over the discussion.

Jessica: As I began reading this and looking at the terminology, I thought that this would only have to be a centerpiece. You would need to do a lot of background work before you have the kids read this. The context, the time frame, the use of certain terms that we even have difficulty with when we teach Of Mice and Men.

Monica: Um hmm.

Jessica: Or when we teach Mark Twain.

Darla: Or Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

Jessica: Right, exactly.

Dorothea: So, What do you mean “difficulties”?

Jessica: Well, cause our students are in a culture and have been brought up so differently than even we have, that to use a term like “Negro” or “colored” or, we really have to spend a lot of time—

Monica: Explaining why—

Jessica: Explaining why, first of all. And sometimes if this were the central piece that we were looking at
and using other things around that, it would be worth the time to do that, because you really need a lot of background. We find that our kids get very, and I think it depends on the diversity within your school. In a school as diverse as our school, there really is a lot of sensitivity—

Dorothea: Um hmm.

Jessica: to the naming of people and terms. ‘Cause we have such a large African-American population and I have found that no matter what intellectual conversations I try to have with my students about the purpose of why Steinbeck calls Crook a nigger, why Twain, what Twain’s life was like during that time. We even voted at times

Trisha: Whether to say it or not.

Monica Yeah,..yeah.

Jessica: Whether, even the word even the word “Negro” is offensive to our kids, ‘cause they never grew up,

Dorothea: Umm.

Jessica: So there seems to, this really would take an enormous amount of pre-planning—….

Questions to Consider: What issues or concerns are the teachers grappling with here? What possible disagreements do you see emerging in this excerpt? Between whom? Over what? How are these disagreements being expressed?

Monica: We do a lot of pre-work before Huck Finn.

Jessica: Planning and talking about the time frame that the interns would really need to be sensitive to, especially as we talk about where the interns are from and their own background. (Most of the interns are White.)

Dorothea: Right, right.

Darla: You know, if it takes all of the time and effort it would take prior to using this piece, that kind of tends to tell me that there is something wrong with putting it in front of a kid,

Monica: Um hmm.

Darla: If it takes that much effort to couch it in some sort of acceptable thing, maybe it’s not acceptable. I think if we were taking a look at, if we wanted to get into the literary elements, the imagery, there’s all kinds of stuff we can find. And if we also wanted to take a look at society, class structure, cultural, there’s other stuff we can use that’s not prone to be as patently offensive as this is likely to be to our students.

In the excerpt above, Darla enters the conversation to state that she would not teach the story because its language would offend her students. Several teachers respond to Darla’s assertion, some supporting it and others questioning it. As you read on, pay attention to how the teachers voice both their agreements and disagreements. How well do you think the teachers are engaging with their disagreements? How do you see them learning from or not learning from these disagreements?

Trisha: But you might be teaching a unit

Monica: Well, the “Negro” word

Dorothea: What do you think is offensive about this?

Emily: How is this different than like, Huck Finn, The Bluest Eye, or—

Monica: Actually, it’s even milder than Huck Finn

Darla: I don’t think it is.

Monica: Because it says “Negro?”

Darla: I am not sure that I’d use Huck Finn.

Monica: One way to get into “Negro” is, practically every kid has heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Trisha: We don’t have a choice (to not read Huck Finn.)

Monica: and they’ve heard of MLK Jr.'s speech. You play a tape or a video, if they’re available, and because it was done in 1963, he calls himself and the others gathered there “Negroes.”

Trisha: We just watched that this week.

Monica: Yeah, I do that in my speech class usually. And um, you know, it shows them right there. It’s just an historical language change. And that word was perfectly proper. Now the ‘N’ word is a little different. You have to really, we do spend a day or two prepping for Huck Finn.

Darla: Oh, yeah, I would think.

Questions to consider: How well do you think the teachers have dealt with their disagreements in this excerpt? Do you think they addressed Darla’s central concerns? How do you think Darla is feeling at this moment? What makes you think this?

Dorothea: This is a good question, how do you figure out how to use these stories, because there’s a lot of this story that is about not being racist.

Jessica: Right.

Dorothea: But if you look at the representation of the African Americans in here, there’s a lot of animal imagery, and there’s a lot of weird imagery associated with African American characters in here.

Monica: I even look at the son as racist.

Dorothea: So, how do you talk to your interns about that?

Trisha: It also goes back to their purpose. What is their purpose? So I don’t think that we can really have a conversation about this if we don’t know what the purpose is, what the kids have read before hand. I think that we are just talking about talking right now. I don’t think it has a purpose. We haven’t even started talking about discussion parts of it, how you have a discussion about this.

Here, Trisha states her frustration with the discussion. What is Trisha frustrated with? As you read on, pay attention to how the other teachers do or do not address her frustration?

Jessica: Or, why would you choose this piece. What is the purpose of this text?

Trisha: I just think that that’s a good question and it’s going to change for everybody, and let’s move on.

Jessica: I also think that this

Monica: I think [the son] was trying too hard not to be racist, which almost made him racist.

Jessica: I think that that’s a question that you should always ask about anything. Well, unfortunately, sometimes we don’t always have a choice as to what we choose to teach. We are supposed to teach Huckleberry Finn, and I’ve kind of railed against that for years, and one year we did it, and I don’t know that I’ll do it again. It sort of depends upon the text itself. ‘Cause I believe that humor is more important in the particular text. But I think the interns need to ask themselves, if they have the opportunity. I know one of the most difficult things for me when I started teaching at Taylor was, how do I know what is worthy to teach my students? It’s all on the test, I can’t teach it all. There wasn’t a curriculum guide, for good or bad. There wasn’t anything that said what I had to teach. So how do I determine as a new teacher what I should choose to use with my students?

Monica: So, it goes back to your purpose or your goal. That’s the all important question.

Jessica: That’s an important question for us to discuss with the interns. How do you make that decision?

Jessica: A lot of times I ask Todd to look at the end. What do you want to accomplish at the end?

Trisha: Right.

Jessica: What’s the end goal? And I think that’s important to talk to interns about. Sometimes they are not able to identify that. And that changes your whole teaching. Is the literature important because what it is or what it can teach? Do I care that my students can answer different questions, contextual questions—

Trisha: Or did they change their ideas about something?

Dorothea: Right, right.

Darla: Ask them to think about, consider. Even with a curriculum guide, I think we need to ask the “What’s the purpose question” because thinking of the first quarter of language arts in 7th grade, there were 2 or 3 selections from a huge literature anthology that were specified. Well, why those two?

Monica: And so you want the intern to respond to that

Questions to consider:

  • What kinds of disagreements arose over the course of this discussion?
  • How well do you think the teachers engaged with these disagreements? What makes you think that?
  • How well do you think the teachers balanced their disagreements with their shared goals and purposes? What makes you think that?
  • What kind of learning do you think took place through this discussion? What makes you think that?