As Long As The Kids Are Reading, Right? (The ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Thing)

26/05/2014 at 4:05 pm (Education) (, , , , , , , , )


to-kill-a-mockingbird-first-editionOver the last 24 hours or more, there’s been a lot of coverage and contention over Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, and his decision to focus on more specifically British texts.

The headlines picked up on something that was sure to push the buttons of a section of the community. Primarily that this would exclude a great deal of American literature on the UK English Literature syllabus.

The question is, why should really matter what is chosen as books for core study? It’s all books, it’s all reading, so what’s the problem?

It’s important for children to read. Of course, that’s a given. However, the basic act of reading is just a tool. It’s a skill to understand, to think and to experience things outside of our everyday lives.

Keeping that in mind, why is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird one of the books off the preferred list? Another question for many is why it’s such an emotive point. It’s not as if Britain hasn’t produced some truly magnificent authors.

It’s emotive because of the content of such books. To Kill A Mockingbird in particular is a story written at a time when the idea of civil rights was little more than a nugget of a concept to the Western World. Through a child’s eyes, we watch a man do the right thing in a court of law, despite the pressures of his town pushing for an injustice.

Why does this resonate with me?

I was a very lazy child. I wasn’t particularly interested in picking up a book for pleasure outside of Asterix (which brought its own benefits to be honest), and certainly not outside of school. In English, I remember reading Of Mice And Men, which I don’t think I quite got at the time, although it was nice and short. We also covered Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was truly mind expanding and chilling. To Kill A Mockingbird was something else entirely.

My English teacher, Mrs Packwood, created a project around the book. We were all journalists, and we had to pick a bias. Which party from the book do we choose to praise, and who do we choose to damn? It taught me a lot about something very, very harsh.

The media controls our perspective. We don’t get the full story, which is ironic as I’m not sure we’re getting the full story in the Gove situation, and the popular opinion isn’t always the right one (again, very apt in today’s news).

Most importantly, it unfurled the poisoned realities of racism. I had always been aware that other races in school, of which there weren’t many at the time, who got called names based on their ethnicity. As this was school, it kind of blurred into all the other spite and name-calling that comes with that environment.

To Kill A Mockingbird explained why this kind of bullying and abuse was different. This was about destroying another human’s life through ignorance and fear. Ignorance in not understanding that a black man was more than stock or a commodity. Fear, not just because of that lack of understanding, but fear of what people would say about us if we didn’t comply.

I think I learned more about the world around me in those classes than in any other lessons.

This is why it stings when such books are removed from study. It’s not just about learning grammar and sentence structure, it’s about learning about others through the story. It just so happens that To Kill A Mockingbird is an exceptionally good book.

I’m not a teacher, nor am I parent. It’s not my place to say what you should do, but if your child doesn’t get the chance to read it in school, please try and find the time to encourage them to read it when they can. It’s not an easy ask, I know as I was that reticent, non-reader kid. However, they might get the same things from it that I did; a knowledge that our world is troubled, damaged and unbalanced, but there are good people and we can try to be one of them.

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1 Comment

  1. fairywishes said,

    The reason I got so annoyed by Gove possibly (who knows the truth) saying we need more British books is not only that it’s more British but apparently most pre 20th Century. Now I LOVE books all books and I read anything, but I see the GCSE as a syllabus that must engage the reader who is not a reader elsewhere. They need to engage and question and books need to be chosen that do this. I think To Kill A Mockingbird’ is important. To be honest Mice & Men seems to resound with many of the children (not sure why – think the swearing!). Modern books from around the world need to be chosen, as long as a book engages teachers can teach things from it. A well thoughtout picture book like the ones by Shaun Tan can force us to question. We have to not put off the reluctant reader to read a book and enjoy it. Yes some books can be more of a challenge but not all of them. Anyway I get annoyed as I think it’s narrow minded and we need good English teachers to choose the books they know resound, engage and make their children question the world. Sorry not sure that even makes sense, I am meant to be working :o) Trying to find some books for a kindle book group I’m doing for Parents and children to learn how to read/question and enjoy reading for both the parents and children – I’m struggling to find some good books!

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