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Filtering by Tag: To Kill a Mockingbird

Shrouded In Myth

Callie Feyen

golden-rain“Stick to the daily learning targets. Do not get off track.” This is one of my administrators, the one that meets with me once a week to go over my lesson plans. Daily Learning Targets are like Bible Memory Work: we are to write these words on our hearts and minds. Do not stray from these words. And it’s not that I stray, but if I were to claim a characteristic of my teaching it’s that when I begin to study and discuss a story, I tend to walk my students down a path that we didn’t know we were going to walk down. Mayella Ewell’s geraniums, for example. The grace in Mercutio. Voldemort’s broken heart. All of these are bulls’ eyes; I just didn’t know I was shooting in their direction at the time.

Today, my “DLT” is to get my sixth graders to cite evidence from the text we are reading when answering questions I give them. We are reading a short essay titled “Shrouded in Myth.” It’s a piece to introduce the students to mythology because we are going to read one of the Percy Jackson books. On their copy of the essay, I have my students write the definitions down for “cite,” “evidence,” and “shrouded.” Shrouded is my favorite: to be cloaked or covered in mystery. Shrouded is how I feel standing here in Detroit. Shrouded is how I feel walking around Ann Arbor. The cloak is heavy; the cover thick.

“Why was Zeus so drawn to Danae? How did Zeus get to her?” My students are supposed to find this answer in the essay. “All you have to do is highlight the words in the text that answer the question,” I tell them. They pop off their highlighter caps, happy to use something besides a pencil.

“She was stunning!” one exclaims brushing the text with her highlighter. “He turned himself into gold rain? What?” another one says.

“Yeah! And then she gets pregnant!”

“That’s stupid. Everybody knows you can’t get pregnant when it rains.”

“It was gold rain, though.”

I fight everything I have within me that wants to say, “So ladies, when it rains gold, stay inside.”

“So,” one student begins, leaning back in his chair, “Zeus gets Danae pregnant, and then what?”

“Don’t sit like that,” I say. Safety first. Then, “what do you mean?”

“I mean, where’s Zeus in the rest of this story?”

Sure enough, he isn’t mentioned in the rest of the six-paragraph essay we are annotating. He gets Danae pregnant and then the next thing we know Perseus is slaying Medusa.

“Ain’t that just like a baby daddy?” one student says, and the entire class hoots and mmmm hmmmms.

“Always leaving,” another one mumbles.

On page one of The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson book we will begin tomorrow, Percy gives a warning: “If you recognize yourself in these pages—if you feel something stirring inside—stop reading immediately.”

I wonder if this will become a Daily Learning Target: “I can recognize myself in a story.” “I feel something stirring inside when I read.” Probably not. You can’t measure this.  Keep the mystery veiled. Walk in the golden rain while your stomach stirs and churns with charades you’ll never understand.

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 3)

Callie Feyen

Ewell My girls’ school sits on a hill across the street from Little Seneca Lake, a reservoir that was created to provide an emergency water supply to the metro DC area. It started out as a creek but swelled and deepened so that now people can fish for channel catfish and tiger muskie in it. Today, Hadley, Harper, and I head to the water, and while the girls play, I sit on a hollowed out log and watch the water lap onto the shore.

Why concern myself with a fictional character like Bob Ewell, I think while Hadley peels bark off a stick and flicks the pieces into the water. Perhaps my time would’ve been better spent discussing theme or how the setting effects the plot. Hadley shows me her stick, completely bald, its wood smooth and bare.

“I’m going to take it home and paint it,” she tells me. “I’ll make it into something new.” She hands me the stick and I put it into my bag. I dig my heels into the damp dirt, twisting my feet and pressing my hands on my thighs so I delve deep into the ground. Fiction or not, I don’t know what to do with a guy like Bob Ewell. I’m not sure my students and I can unravel the mystery of a human being like him—both fearfully and wonderfully made. Maybe all I did this afternoon was tell them to look around in a darkness so deep their eyes will never adjust.

Hadley begins to toss rocks into the water and Harper lays down on the old tree trunk and hums. While we sit, I notice several bees streaming in and out of a nearby tree with a nook in it like the one Boo Radley puts gifts in for Jem and Scout. We are sitting a few feet from a hive, but I make no attempts to move. I will eventually, but when I do, I’ll have to be careful about how I do it because I don’t want Hadley and Harper to be afraid. If they learn about the bees, they won’t want to come back here. And I want them to come back here. I want them to believe they are safe to explore in this beauty.

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 2)

Callie Feyen

4629576140_71e934f808_z It seems though, that To Kill a Mockingbird is the sort of book that gives something to me every time I return to it. This year, it’s Bob Ewell I’m paying attention to, though I hadn’t planned on taking a closer look at him.

My drive to school these days isn’t terribly interesting. It’s mostly highway driving, and save for the leaves that bloom with color in the fall, there’s not much to look at. I feel more that I am driving away from something, then towards it. I am a mother now, to Hadley and Harper, and I haven’t gotten used to the fact that the three of us fumble through most of our days separately, when just a while ago we did it together. I know once I start teaching, once I see my students, I’ll step into a role I love. Teaching awakens a side of me that is vibrant and bold and I love that gal when she comes out. But every day I begin my commute, I ache a little.

So I think about Bob Ewell, and it occurs to me that he and Atticus Finch have something in common: both of these men have wives who died. We don’t know how they died, and we don’t know how Atticus and Bob mourned; perhaps they are still mourning when we meet them. I press my foot to the accelerator because I can’t wait to point this out to my students. What will they think about Bob now? What will they do with this information?

In the classroom, I write “Atticus Finch,” and “Bob Ewell” on the board in a Venn diagram, and ask my students to do the same on pieces of notebook paper. “lawyer,” “educated,” “takes care of his kids,” on one side and “drunk,” “illiterate,” and “beats his kids,” on the other. “White,” and “male,” are in the center.

“What else?” I ask, tapping the whiteboard.

“One’s good, one’s bad?” a student suggests.

“OK, but they have something else in common.”

The kids look at me in disgust at first, but I wait and one says, “They don’t have wives!”

“Yes!” I say.

“Because they’re both dead!” one exclaims.

“Atticus and Bob are dead?” another one, who is confused, asks.

“No! Their wives! They died!” three or four say in unison.

We are so excited about this realization, and I don’t believe it’s because we’re relieved that Bob had a bad thing happen to him. I think we’re pleased because we might’ve discovered another layer to him.

“Maybe he wasn’t always like this, you guys,” I say, pointing to the word, “drunk” on the board. The class is shiftless and silent—a sure sign they are captivated. I take this as a miracle I must not waste and dive in.

“What do you think Bob’s wife was like? Do you think they had a love story? Do you think he has any good memories?”

I ask everyone to get out another piece of paper. I tell them to write as though they are Bob Ewell. “What else can you say about him that goes beyond racist, ignorant, and negligent? What happens when you look at him as a human that was wonderfully and fearfully made?” And then I whisper because I’m afraid to say it: “Bob Ewell has been made in the image of God.” Their eyes dart up from their papers. Fifteen wide-eyed adolescents look at me and I wonder if I’ve gone too far.

A few years ago I pulled a similar stunt with 8th graders. I suggested to them that maybe Judas had been forgiven. Maybe God could do that. The next day an infuriated mother walked into my classroom and screamed, “Judas is in hell! He’s in hell!” I shutter at the memory but continue with my experiment. “Go ahead and write,” I tell my students. “Let’s see what you come up with.”

“I am thinkin’ ‘bout my wife again,” one student writes. “I wish she could make her famous cornbread pancakes. I wish I could stop drinkin’.”

Another writes to Bob’s dead wife. “I don’t know why I write you these letters and bury them by your grave, but it makes me feel better. Every time I look at our children, Mayella especially, I feel an anger. I don’t know where it comes from but it consumes me. Mayella grows beautiful and strong, and she reminds me of you every time I see her.”

Some students reflect on Atticus: “Me and Atticus lived in the same neighborhood. We weren’t friends, though. I was jealous of him because he went to school. I always wanted to learn new things but my parents didn’t have time to teach me. Plus, they would be fighting every day.”

One wrote about Bob fishing as a young boy when his father was off at the bar, drinking. “Those were the best days,” he writes, “Sam and I would always jump in the pond and swim around.”

The class is subdued when they finish writing. There’s a feeling of confusion while they pack up and get ready to head home. I think they’re in the thick of wonder—when wonder is dark and mysterious. I hope I’ve introduced them to the real work of writing.

But as I drive home, I begin to second-guess myself. Was I wrong to encourage my students to imagine there is more to Bob Ewell than what we read in To Kill a Mockingbird? Should I have waited for his final murderous intention in the woods before I had the kids evaluate him? Have I set them up?

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 1)

Callie Feyen

maxresdefault The first time I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a group of 8th graders, I was student teaching at Stephen K. Hayt School on the North Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Each morning, I drove down Lake Shore Drive towards my students, wondering if there would be a time when I’d tire of looking at the skyscrapers and the water.

My dad worked at Northwestern University’s city campus, and normally was at work hours before I left the house. But the days I took my first steps into my career, he stayed at home until I was off Lake Shore Drive and setting up my classroom. He blamed crazy drivers, but I think he was more concerned about my driving. I found any excuse I could to take that windy road, and I think he worried I’d get distracted with the views and my habit of blasting the car stereo. He knew telling me a better was pointless. Since I’d had my license I was on Lake Shore Drive—by myself or with friends—whether my parents told me it was OK or not. So my dad made a compromise: I could drive on Lake Shore Drive if I took the cell phone and called him when I got to Sheridan, where the road ended on the North Side. He’d wait to start his workday until then. It wasn’t exactly the compromise Atticus and Scout make when he promises to continue to read with her if she agrees to keep going to school, but still, it is an example of a father giving his girl a chance to explore the world the way she wants to explore it.

Those days, 8th graders with names like Gurendapal, Shacondalah, and Fatou howled at Dill, Scout, and Jem when they first met them. “Those are some weird names!” they all agreed.

“I suppose they are,” I said, deciding against telling them that if I were to ever have a baby, I’d like to name him or her Radley.

My students loved the scene where Scout gets in a tire and Jem rolls her down the street. They shrieked with haunted delight when she bumps into the Radley steps and is too dizzy to get up and run. They wanted to re-enact it. “I know the best house to ram into,” one said. “We just need a tire.”


A new set of 8th graders. A new neighborhood. This time, I was in South Bend, Indiana and my commute to school took me over the St. Joseph River where the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout swam upstream to lay their eggs before they died. I rounded a corner where Corby’s stood—a neighborhood bar my husband Jesse and I spent some evenings after football games or summer nights drinking Four Horsemen and watching fireflies. It took me past the University of Notre Dame, where Jesse was pursuing a doctorate in hurricane storm surge.

I could see the Golden Dome from just about anywhere, and it reminded me of being able to see the Sears Tower from anywhere in my neighborhood growing up, though the comparison stung. I have learned that I will forever be homesick for Chicago, but back then the ailment was so palpable it was hard for me to resist turning the car around and heading West towards the skyline, and not to school. A couple times, I did.

But I was there the day my students and I were struck by Mayella Ewell’s red geraniums that “popped in slop jars in her yard.” How did I miss that, I thought as I stood in front of a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds who were waiting for me to explain to them what we are to do with the sort of beauty that shouldn’t belong in the heap of the Ewell yard and the Ewell lives. I had no answer for them, but we all decided this scene needed to be illustrated so I passed out paper, they took out crayons, and we all tried to make Mayella’s flowers as beautiful as we imagined them to be. “I feel so sorry for her,” one student said as she colored. “I didn’t before; thought she was a jerk doing what she did to Tom Robinson.” She examined a red crayon before she looked at me, and said, “It’s more complicated than that, though.”