Sunday, October 14, 2012

Assume They Can and They Will

In one of my small group classes last week, I gave 9-year-old Daniel and his two classmates the following short passage from To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of how a writer can establish the setting, tone, and time period of a story: "They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.... There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.... But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself."

Now, I do know that Harper Lee’s book is not for elementary school students, due to the disturbing events in the plot; and I would never recommend the whole book to preteens, no matter how able they are as readers. But when I want to teach about specific, powerful writing techniques, I use age-appropriate passages that exemplify the best writing, not simply books marked with a specific grade level label. I would rather aim high with my curricula and see how much my students can retain, while introducing them to excellent authors whose works they will rediscover in later school years and delight in reading, as if reconnecting with old literary friends. High standards and hopes for my students always yield high achievements, I have found.

So…when I asked Daniel what the passage from TKAM shows about the setting, tone, and time period of the story, he blurted, "OH! I think it's during the Great Depression, because the last line uses an ALLUSION to what the President said during the Great Depression--I think it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt--so the people would have hope in that sad time. Yes, see here—” he pointed to the text—“in this line about 'vague optimism,’ that's what he was trying to give the people... And yes, yes, see here how it says they had ‘nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with’? Definitely it’s during The Great Depression!" And then Daniel practically pounded the table as if saying, "I rest my case, Your Honor," beaming proudly!

I popped my eyes back into my face, and forced my slack jaw to speak: "ALLUSION? Wait, how did you know--"

"YOU taught me that, Mrs. Lipson!"

"Only once--in passing! I didn’t expect you to remember the term, let alone apply it like that! And how do you already know about The Depression and FDR?"
 I was laughing at that point.

He laughed, too, then shrugged and grinned. "I just do. I don't know. I probably read it somewhere."

I hope that Daniel will quote Harper Lee when he gets to high school English, and when his teacher asks, “How do you already know about To Kill a Mockingbird?”, he will reply, “I probably read it with Mrs. Lipson.”