Teaching problems and the problems of teaching them – lesson #1


   ‘Do you think they’re true, all those things they say about B – Mr Arthur?’

  ‘What things?’

  I told her.

  ‘That is three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,’ said Miss Maudie grimly.

                                                                                                            To Kill A Mockingbird

This extract comes from a conversation between Miss Maudie and Scout Finch in chapter five of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The widowed Miss Maudie is helping the younger Scout to understand something of the way of the world, namely who is ultimately responsible for spreading the town’s gossip about their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley. There is nothing particularly interesting or noteworthy about this exchange, and I doubt very much it would even warrant a mention in an examination response. Yet, from a teaching perspective, I learnt something valuable from dwelling upon this passage in a recent lesson, particularly about my class’s understanding of how fiction works and the way in which they approach reading a novel.

Before I look at this example in more detail, it might be useful to set a bit of context. This year I have inherited a lovely, bright and hardworking year 11 top set. We have just started reading Lee’s novel and I am very much enjoying teaching the class. I usually teach a set 3 or 4, which is always incredibly rewarding, though perhaps in a different way. For me, one of the benefits of teaching a top set – aside from how they generally humour my pitiful attempts at comedy – is the way they are sympathetic to my neurotic determination to reach a better understanding of the impact of my teaching. Over the last few years I have fallen into (what I hope is a useful) habit of asking students directly about the effectiveness of my methods, usually at the end of the lesson but sometimes during it in a kind of postmodern meta-commentary of teacher effectiveness at the precise moment that that effectiveness is unfolding.

After reading the passage out loud I put the book down and conducted a quick straw poll of who understood the meaning of Miss Maudie’s reply. To my surprise, or perhaps intuition, most of the class put their hands up. Admittedly, this is not the most robust means of gathering evidence – perhaps the worst kind of AFL imaginable – but I nevertheless found their collective response instructive. It revealed to me a problem with how they understood the concept of ellipsis: the way in which writers communicate meaning in the gaps and silences of their texts, and not always handily signposting such moments with an introductory dot, dot, dot.

It had seemed pretty obvious to me that between Scout’s ‘I told her’ and Miss Maudie’s cool response there was a passing of time, a passing of time in which the much older, wizened figure of Miss Maudie chewed over Scout’s naïve assumptions about Boo Radley and spat it back out at her as a truism of the spiteful nature of the Maycomb rumour mill. This interpretation had only seemed ‘pretty obvious’ to me because I am an adult reader with two degrees and 11 years of teaching experience behind me. It had only seemed pretty obvious because I have read hundreds and hundreds of novels and learnt a great deal about the way that meaning often resides in the metaphorical margins of texts – in the unsaid, or, more precisely, the unwritten.

Look again at the passage:

  ‘What things?’

  I told her.

  ‘That is three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,’ said Miss Maudie grimly.

That passing of time I was referring to earlier – the one that exists between the question and the answer and filled in with the narrator’s report ‘I told her’ – is so easily missed. I think most students would not be attuned to such levels of careful, slow reading. Why would they be? I know that I, largely in response to the demands of exams, tend to go for the passages in texts that stick out a mile: you know, the ones that scream ‘here is a metaphor that can be pulled apart’, ‘look, over there are some short sentences which I’m sure you can make some comment about the build up of tension.’ This is the kind of literary diet I think a lot of students are fed, an approach to the art of analysis which tends to focus on surface and neglects the delight and ambiguity of hidden depth.

What is so great about To Kill a Mockingbird is it there are lots of these little narrative subtleties – things that are said or felt, without ever being rendered explicit – if you know where to look. Perhaps a better example of the elliptical at work in the novel is Atticus’s repeated recourse to exam the wisteria vine at such moments where his capacious intellect and wisdom has been challenged by the perverse logic of his children’s perception. See this instance below, where following Scout’s misplaced, but understandable, chain of reasoning to explain her desire to quit school, Atticus buys himself some thinking time by studying the nearby plant:

Bit by bit, I told him the day’s misfortunes. “-and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back, please sir.”

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”

The brief narrative diversion enables Atticus to respond to his daughter in such a way as to advise her of the correct course of action in tackling her school troubles, whilst remaining sympathetic to her sense of righteousness.

Over the past few years I have found that I am having these kinds of insights on an increasingly regular basis. Whilst I am not always sure what to do with the knowledge I glean from these teaching epiphanies, or indeed the time to react to them fully for the benefit of my students, I feel like I am building up a valuable store of knowledge about the craft of teaching English. In the weeks to come, I intend to write up some of the teaching insights I have picked up of late, largely with my top set, since that is really when I started to make a note of the details. My intention is largely personal, a means for me to try and make sense of observations I have made of my own classroom practice. My hope is that others may find my reflections useful, and perhaps share some thoughts in the comments below.

Maybe I am making far too much out of one tiny example. Maybe. What I do believe is that in gaining tiny, microscopic insights like these I am continuing to improve my practice. I never want to lose sight of the fact that learning is a complex act, and that at the heart of that complexity is the teacher, to all intents and purposes alone in their classroom with a myriad of possibilities, desperately trying to figure out how to make it all seem as simple as possible.


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