Like any teacher, I can sometimes feel very conflicted when I try to define for myself my central purpose in any lesson or unit. I entered the teaching profession due to a deep-seeded desire to foster equality in educational opportunity for students of any background. I hold tight to that purpose as the central focus of my professional life and the ultimate reason behind anything that I do in the classroom. For this unit, that means providing opportunities for all my students both to learn the content of our shared text and to develop higher-order-thinking skills necessary to approach written and visual texts analytically.
At the same time, there is a definite and undeniable pressure to prepare students for the standardized testing that at times seems to so dominate our teaching and learning lives. Regardless of my personal opinion of this testing, it is the primary marker by which both today's students' academic capability and our skills as teachers are assessed. It would be foolhardy for any teacher to ignore this reality and destructive to both students' and teachers' reputations and chances for promotion. For that reason, any approach to instruction will have to imbed the skills necessary for success on the Connecticut State Mastery test.
In my few years of experience, I have found it to be more successful to make this skill work implicit rather than explicit. Students quickly lose interest when I start to explicitly state the academic lingo they have heard for so many years (visualizing, inferring, summarizing, synthesizing, etc.). However, there are many opportunities to
include these skills within our unit of study. In fact, I think this text is the ideal place to foster many of those skills. For example, we can infer societal attitudes based on the actions and reactions of citizens of Money, Mississippi following Emmett's death. We can summarize Jim Crow laws or write a timeline of events to create a visual map of events leading to Emmett's death. We can examine Chris Crowe's purpose in writing the book by reading some supplementary writing of his and talk about his message to us as readers. All of this skill work can be done through formal or informal class discussion, journal writing, and mini-lessons. These assignments can be flexible from year to year depending on assessed student need, and for the most part, will not be the focus on my work here in this unit. In fact, this unit is not largely concerned with the day-to-day reading of the text, but the skills, context, writing and opportunities for enrichment and analysis around the text.
A final purpose for anyone to teach is the opportunity to enrich students' inner lives and help shape their view of the world. Perhaps a better way to phrase that would be to give students the information and tools needed to shape their own worldview. Understanding the role of justice, oppression, individual agency, and the construction of history is the foundation needed to take a critical view of any society. It would be truly ambitious to hope that students might glean all of these complex ideas from a few weeks' study, but when this unit is combined with similarly themed units throughout a year, I hope that together we might plant the seeds needed for deep critical analysis as my students grow and learn throughout high school, college, and beyond.