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- Let’s Talk About Race: Jodi Picoult’s ‘Small Great Things’ - January 27, 2017
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Racism is different. It’s fraught, and it’s hard to discuss, and so as a result we often don’t – Jodi Picoult.
Every year that I have taught, To Kill a Mockingbird has been in the curriculum. As a lover of literature, I am excited to share this masterpiece with my students. And every year, most students fail to grasp the significance of this beautiful story. My team teachers and I have changed our plans every year in order to better reach our students. Despite our efforts, at least one student in every class says, “Mrs. Porter, this would never happen today.” The students recognize the injustice, but they believe it is a “thing of the past.” Even with Ferguson a mere thirty miles away, they failed to see the relevance. “This would never happen today.”
The exact events of TKAM are unlikely to be seen in the American court system today, but every day acts of racism are prevalent in our society. Some of us choose to ignore these acts; some of us are oblivious to these acts; some of us are regular victims of these acts. By not discussing the realities of our culture, we are encouraging the oppression. During a parent-teacher conference, a parent argued that TKAM shouldn’t be a part of the curriculum because children shouldn’t be exposed to “such ugliness.” However, this parent didn’t complain when we read Romeo and Juliet– isn’t suicide an “ugly” topic? High school students are exposed to all kinds of “ugliness” through their online interactions: murder, violence, rape, suicide, vandalism, and yes, racism. If a literature standard is to connect text to self, why are we ignoring prevalent cultural issues?“This would never happen today.” Click To Tweet
Some will argue that it is not the teacher’s role to discuss controversial topics. And yet, those same people complain that the education system isn’t preparing students for the real world. My job isn’t to tell students what to think and feel. My goal is not ignite a debate. My objective it for my students to reflect on how the book connects to them and how to articulate their findings. It starts by selecting a novel that students can connect with, and for my students, they prefer contemporary novels.
Jodi Picoult’s newest novel is so much more than a story about race. Picoult’s Small Great Things intertwines three characters’ narratives: Ruth, an African American labor and delivery nurse accused of a heinous crime; Turk, the skinhead accusing Ruth of wrongdoing; and Kennedy, a “color blind” public defender. Not only does this novel invite the reader to explore writer’s craft, but this novel encourages the reader to reflect on his society: What do I witness every day? Throughout the novel, Picoult depicts a life of familiar stories. As I read Ruth’s narrative, I wrote in the margins, “I’ve seen that happen” or “I heard a similar story on the news” or “I am guilty of this.” Prejudice is ingrained in our culture.
This novel opens the door for discussions about other every day prejudice regarding age, gender, and socioeconomics. Turk’s chapters are particularly difficult to read, but they provide an opportunity for readers to step into someone else’s shoes. During persuasive essays, my students struggled to address the opposition, because they never attempted to understand the other side’s argument. Students can analyze and evaluate Turk’s arguments for his beliefs. It is possible to find value in someone’s argument without agreeing with it. In TKAM, Atticus explains to Scout that she is privileged because of her skin. I have never discussed this moment with my students, even though that truth still holds true today. Our focus has always been on the government’s and society’s acts of racism. Picoult writes, “Those of us who were lucky enough to be born white are oblivious to that good fortune.” Kennedy’s narrative is eye opening. Initially, she doesn’t want to say the word “race” in the courtroom, but eventually, she sees the truth: it has always been about race.
This point may be difficult to discuss, but once again, it is prevalent in society, and therefore, it is a connection for our students. Acts of prejudice benefit someone, even if that person is oblivious. In the author’s note, Picoult encourages the reader to “recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen.” The goal of this discussion is not instill guilt; the goal is to encourage students to find their voices and to teach them how to effectively use their voices.Acts of prejudice benefit someone, even if that person is oblivious Click To Tweet
Our nation is changing, for better or for worse is yet to be determined. Empowering our students to effectively articulate their opinions is vital. Teaching them how to respectfully analyze someone else’s opinion is crucial. Ignoring controversial topics ultimately helps no one. Reading stories of the past sometimes devalues themes. Let’s use literature to start the discussion.
For more about the novel, check out Jodi Picoult’s interview on CBS.