Character Education

National Conversations Are Classroom Conversations

Amid a national controversy, a teacher leans on literature to help students make sense of events.

October 11, 2018
National Conversations in the Classroom
© Ikon Images/Malin Rosenqvist

I’m a teacher, and last week when I was thinking about the Supreme Court nomination controversy, I was thinking about Curley’s wife.

Curley’s wife is a tragic character in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the book I’m reading with my ninth graders. Before she even shows up, she’s labeled a destroyer of men, a sex-starved “tart.” Nameless, lonely, her hopes of cinematic stardom dashed, she’s the only woman on the ranch and she belongs to Curley, an entitled ex-boxer and bully who exposes intimate—and possibly fabricated—details of their sex life for the amusement of his underlings. Their sexual experiences limited to brothel visits after payday, the ranch workers can’t have her themselves, so they spread salacious gossip, their desire blackening into contempt.

Of Mice and Men is one of mainstream canonized literature’s most glaring and economical portraits of misogyny. When I’m teaching a book like that, like most teachers, I consider relevant current events to bring to classroom discussion and let the grind of chapters wheeze to a momentary halt. But last week, it wasn’t necessary.

At lunch, a colleague mentioned that she was teaching 1984 and seeing the opportunity to discuss disinformation campaigns and the notion that official proceedings dedicated to truth may not rely on evidence. The week also suited Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby or Stradlater in The Catcher in the Rye. Even a book like Beloved, which explores how people recall and process trauma, felt of the moment.

This moment reminds teachers that commonly taught high school literature welcomes conversations about misogyny, privilege, sexual violence, justice, and recovery from trauma. These themes occupy young readers, and the curriculum can anticipate this.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

The Final Exam of a Lifetime

They have never bucked barley, but students understand Curley’s wife before they meet her. They’re exposed to aggressive sexual behaviors and lurid displays of misogyny at school and their part-time jobs, while walking home, on social media, and at parties. One year, at a school where I taught, a photo-sharing scandal involved male athletes trafficking nude pictures of freshmen girls. At another school, a Facebook page briefly surfaced with grainy videos threatening to “expose hos.” A recent alum attending a military academy notified former teachers, but even days after the page disappeared, one female student shook and slumped against my classroom door, fearing humiliation.

What Curley does is familiar. The ranch workers are classmates, even friends.

In such conversations with students, a teacher doesn’t have to even mention the names of people involved in the national controversy or debate the veracity of accusations. There’s no absolute need to proclaim whether a particular man deserves promotion to the land’s highest court. But a teacher can have students examine, for instance, the extent to which American society accommodates the mistreatment of women in any place or era.

In the often invisible experiences brought by students, the real world is already in the classroom.

National conversations need to be classroom conversations. In the often invisible experiences brought by students, the real world is already in the classroom. In acknowledging this, a teacher tries to model educated adulthood. Critical thinking, discussions about literature, and communication skills prepare a member of society for these moments. The national conversation is not an accessory to the lesson: It’s why we learn, the final exam of a lifetime.

And so, teaching young men how to respect young women (and other men) is almost as important as empowering survivors of mistreatment and abuse and potential victims. Having them see the ugliness and insecurity of both Curley and his high school equivalents is a start.

Last week and the week before, storytelling and language felt especially important too. An accuser and an accused, both intelligent and savvy, captured characters and settings in vivid detail and, with careful attention to tone, underscored relevant themes from their teenage years to the peak of their adult lives.

Proxies for Personal Experiences

Every week, I am reminded that literature teaches empathy, providing proxies for personal experiences that may be too uncomfortable or private for students to unearth. A class dialogue can be freeing and safe. Students can see Curley’s wife’s plight and recognize it as a horror story not too far from home. They may see themselves in her detractors too. Hopefully they can envision being antibodies for the infection, contributors to a culture of respect and compassion.

I teach literature and writing, and so that’s how I do this—through what I teach. But there are times, like the last few weeks, when I’m unsure that I’m doing enough, and am afraid of letting my students down. So, this time, I asked them to help. I went to my journalism class, where fittingly several seniors are writing editorials about misogyny in school and American society.

“How should teachers talk to you about this?” I asked. “Teachers aren’t always sure how, and you’re experts in being talked to about things, so help.”

After negotiating for a doughnut breakfast, they helped.

“Talking about it is important,” said one student. “And ignoring it doesn’t make sense.”

No one disagreed. In economics, their teacher had asked them to consider the extent to which bad decisions people made as teenagers should affect their adult lives. Their history teacher had brought it up too. Maybe every teacher had done so in one way or another.

“It was good to have space for it,” said another student.

A third student recalled how, instead of focusing on a specific element of the controversy, the history teacher had simply given them time to say what they wanted—giving them the chance to be in charge.

“A teacher doesn’t have to lead the conversation,” she said. “A teacher just needs to authorize it.”