Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson makes To Kill a Mockingbird Relevant Again

One of the charges of the high school English teacher is to help teenagers see the relevancy of literature to their lives. I’m always on the lookout on how to win over the students to read, in their minds, very old books from long, long ago.

For example, with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that focuses on racism against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, it can be a challenging task to involve Glendale adolescents who reside in a community with only 1.3% black citizens as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.   How do you get them to understand that there are people living today who dealt with segregation, blacks and whites with separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, and schools?

That’s why in a strange way, the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, with a 67.4% African American population, can have a salutary effect on making the issue of racism relevant today in the here and now, not just vague stories from a history book.

When I was in grade school, World War Two ended only 20 years earlier, yet it might as well have taken place in the 1920’s for all I fathomed.   Only until I grew older did I realize how close my lifespan was to that major event.

So when I’m teaching Mockingbird and providing the background to the 1960 novel, namely the Civil Rights movement, I’m aware that for the average 15-year-old I might as well be talking about the Civil War.

In the past I’ve exposed students to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who while visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi was killed in the middle of the night for reportedly whistling at a white woman, thinking that at least the fact that they have already outlived Till would raise an eyebrow.  

We make connections from real life to the novel.   It took less than an hour for the all-white jury to declare the defendants accused of Till’s murder not guilty, similar to Mockingbird’s all-white jury who took a few hours to reach the guilty verdict of rape against innocent Tom Robinson. In both cases, justice was not served.

We’ve listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” inspired by the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo who was shot 19 times by NYPD officers for reaching for his wallet (the police shot 41 bullets but over 20 missed). Likewise in Mockingbird, Robinson is shot 17 times when he tries to escape from jail.

The 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida made the book relevant again.   Even though the vast majority of my students are not African-American, here was a kid about their age with a bag of Skittles.

When I asked students to research what was happening in Ferguson, suggesting various newspaper and television websites, several came back excitedly reporting eyewitness videos they viewed on YouTube. One, in particular, showed a protester being carted off like a pig on a spit eerily reminiscent of black and white footage from the 1960s, another connection.

As we study Mockingbird this year, it may not be possible to know for sure how many students will connect with the 54-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner as a result of Ms. Lee’s brilliant prose or Michael Brown’s tragic death.  

All that is known is that what happened in Ferguson should never have happened in 2014, and hope that it leaves a lasting impression on today’s young people who will inherit this society from us very soon.


What’s Better for Students: Dynamic Teachers or Diagnostic Testing?

This summer has not been kind to California educators with increased deductions from their paychecks to pay for the pension fund, and tenure and job protection ruled illegal by a Superior Court judge.

So it was refreshing to hear good things said about teachers at last week’s district kickoff meeting from keynote speaker Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year who still teaches 7th grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School.

Ms. Mieliwocki spoke about her experiences traveling around the world as the U.S. teacher ambassador. Since so much attention in recent years has centered on how students from other nations score higher on tests than American children, she wanted to find what magic was being performed in other countries’ classrooms.

Ironically, Ms. Mieliwocki discovered that it was the American teachers who “were the envy of every teacher I met.”   The foreign instructors queried her about the methods of her homeland colleagues.

She went on to tell stories about the importance of teachers accepting students for who they are.  

One young girl in her class always wore the same cowboy boots with flowers on them every day to school.   Some students wondered why she didn’t have another pair of shoes to wear.   It turned out that her father had passed away and the boots were the last item they had bought together. When she wore the boots, she felt close to her dad.

Once her powerful message had been delivered, and teachers were inspired, on came the next speaker, a representative from a testing company called i-Ready.   Too bad the district didn’t seem ready to properly unroll this new program of testing all K-12 students three times a year beginning in a couple of weeks.

When Rebecca spoke, she had the full attention of the teacher throng. When the spokesperson for the new i-Ready testing program presented, a sea of LED lanterns erupted as teachers got out their phones, quickly feeling disconnected including one male teacher sitting in front of me shopping for a thong.

I had to go to i-Ready’s website to get basic information of what was behind the new diagnostic testing: “i-Ready provides data-driven insights and support for successful implementation of the new standards.”  

On top of new Common Core standards that teachers are still adjusting to, now we have this intrusive testing schedule that will devour at least 2 hours for each test.

It’s sad, really, that the district folks don’t get it.   Teachers don’t need more information on kids because we are not provided the necessary time to analyze the data we already have. Students march in and out of classrooms day after day.   Except for an hour long meeting here and there, teachers have no regularly scheduled full work days to examine data with their colleagues.

The kickoff meeting was a clash of two conflicting approaches to education: the inspiration of a dynamic teacher versus the top-down implementation of mandatory testing. The latter presentation quashed the excitement of the one that preceded it.

If only the district brass had the foresight to end the all-staff meeting immediately following Ms. Mieliwocki’s speech, releasing them to use the rest of the day to set up their classrooms for the students.

It reminds one of Charles Dickens’ powerful opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

As Ms. Mieliwocki said, people “have to be brave to take on the work of an educator.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is not THAT good

When a movie earns a 92% from Rotten Tomatoes, it gets your attention.

So I cheerfully took my wife and 10-year-old son to see “Guardians of the Galaxy.”   Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times gave positive reviews. 

Sometimes when you see a movie trailer that does not impress you, yet see the film anyway, it is surprising better than the coming attractions.   This is not the case with this film.

The trailer looked bad and the move, while not b-a-d, is just another run-of-the-mill, Marvel Comic Empire franchise product, with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo in the first 10 minutes.

We have another two-hour commercial for the advanced special effects $170 million can buy you these days. As the few negative reviews point out, there is no real suspense in the hard to follow narrative.

My wife and I both end up nodding off during parts of films like these because the action sequences are so derivative of one another—apocalyptic battles depicting utter destruction of cityscapes and outer space explosions—that the monotony of it all produces a somnambulant effect. I challenge anybody to watch a one-minute scene taken from any of these summer blockbusters and correctly figure out which film it is.

What also bothers me about a lot of the PG and PG-13 films these days is that the word “shit” and “bitch” have become quite common.   Despite a talking raccoon and tree, characters one would assume pander to children, the film blurs the line of entertainment that is supposed to serve both adults and kids.   It’s like a Mexican restaurant that has hamburgers on the menu in order to appease families with children who need their burger fix.

Hey producers:   Either make a film for kids or for adults—don’t be so greedy.