I am often asked how I work with students when reading controversial texts. The controversy, for me, isn’t whether the book is on this year’s list of “most challenged books,” it’s how to create a personal connection between the events in the book and the students’ personal lives.
My biggest challenge is to teach the process of digesting information about a topic in a way that creates empathy, compassion, understanding, and validation for having the emotional experience that comes from reading a story that is viscerally upsetting.
I wander the halls during a few random prep periods each week (instead of grading…) so I can pop into a classroom, sit in the back and listen to master teachers at work. I try to listen as a student, not as a teacher, so I can walk a mile in their shoes and really ‘get’ what the teacher is striving for in their instruction. When I go through the thought exercise of making myself a student, I get new perspectives of the content being taught so I can model what it means to be a ‘lifelong learner’.
I met Mr. Y when I was a teacher’s aide in the school he worked in. Fast forward a few years and I became one of his colleagues. His classroom was one of the ones I gravitated to, partially because I was trying to steal good teaching skills from him, but also because of the way in which he creates experiences for his students. I will never forget the map he creates every year for the single purpose of establishing authenticity and a personal connection his students have when reading one of the most famous banned books of them all.
I’ve always been impressed, stunned, really, when I walked into Mr. Y’s classroom as he begins his To Kill a Mockingbird unit. He spends hours carefully drawing out the small fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, on his whiteboard. It’s a work of art that encapsulates the intimacy of small Southern town in the 1930s. A compass rose in the corner of the map to help students orient their perspective and each home, business, and building noted in the story is expertly labeled for students to see. Students will often comment on how far away it seemed on paper but when reading it with a map it became more real to them. I have the same experience when reading any book.
Mr. Y and I have chatted many times about his map. In his words, he wanted to give the students an anchor that would help get their heads around the action of the story. How far away from downtown was Scout’s house? Where was the courthouse? How long does it take for Scout to walk to the Radley house? These kinds of questions were the ones that always seemed to come up in his 8th grade ELA class. Students trying to build context in their imagination to deepen their understanding and visceral experience of the story. By having a map alongside their reading of this controversial book, students became aware of the smallness of their own world. Their own interconnected city. My favorite part of the discussion that Mr. Y. goes through is when he gets to comparing Maycomb to Monroeville.
As a geography teacher, anytime another discipline starts their unit with a perfect map of a location on their whiteboard, I’m smitten with envy for the students that would get to springboard into imagination with a fantastic map. When a map is present as a part of a story to be read it aides us in creating that magical bubble around ourselves where we are no longer reading the book but watching unfold in front of us.
Maps inspire imagination. Imagination creates visceral experiences. Through these visceral experiences we, as readers, get to walk a mile in another pair of shoes. We become empathetic because we laugh, cry, and live alongside the characters represented in the words at our fingertips and in turn relate those experiences to our own. We live, for a brief period of time, as the characters in the story, not just as outside observers.
Wouldn’t it be amazing for every book to have a map in it?