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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

I'm currently teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth-grade students in Baltimore City.

It has been a tough book not only to teach but for my students to get through. To be honest, it was never really one of my favorites to begin with—and the 250-plus pages that start out about a young white girl didn’t exactly grab their attention, either.

But as time went on and the plot began to reveal itself, slowly, interest picked up. Still, my students struggled with the overall theme—that it is a sin to kill a fragile mockingbird, an innocent animal that does no harm and as such, deserves to flourish in a world without conflict.

Most of my students come from lives filled with disappointment, whether from emotional or physical abuse, lack of parental support or lack of any parents at all.

Last week, I had to take yet another test in my credentialing process to become a certified teacher. I had a list of books from which to design a unit around. Sure enough, To Kill a Mockingbird ranked high on the list.

I figured that the test would be a breeze, with my good fortune of seeing a text that I was currently teaching.

While working, I came across a question that asked for one thing in the book that might cause students to struggle. I decided to tackle my students’ struggle with why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. As the clock ticked on, I spent valuable minutes trying to figure out what was blocking my students from grasping the concept. I became frustrated and ultimately switched to a simpler theme of racism in order to complete the test in time.

I really did not think much more about it until a few days later when I arrived to work. My school had been vandalized the night before, and it just was awful. Graffiti from a neighborhood gang had been sprayed in the hallways, and more than 20 laptops had been stolen, along with the entire inventory of my school’s LCD projectors.

The culprits had taken a hammer and destroyed the drywall, which connected offices to classrooms. They spray-painted over surveillance cameras to avoid being caught on film.

Police believe they spent more than four hours ravaging the insides of our school. It was not just the valuable equipment they took but also their demoralizing acts like covering the copy machine in soap and stealing the students’ prom and student government funds that made it feel like more than just a violation.

It was difficult as their teacher to stand before my group of kids and try and make sense of it.

As my students and I discussed what happened, most of them seemed relatively unfazed. I felt more hurt by the incident than they were. The students responded by saying that this was typical of their neighborhood and began telling stories of all the times that vandals had wreaked havoc on their lives.

After school, when I was driving home, I finally had a chance to reflect on the day’s events. It was then that I realized their misunderstanding in the book. All along, I thought my students struggled with why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Instead, they did not even know what a mockingbird was.

My students did not relate to Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, or Jem Finch as innocent and fragile people damaged by a cruel society. What happened to these characters was not perceived to be a tragedy to my students. It was simply the betrayal of everyday, normal life.

Harper Lee did not teach me why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

It was my students who did.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

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