By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout complains to Atticus about her first grade teacher, Miss Caroline, who “said you taught me all wrong.” Apparently, Miss Caroline had her own views on how to teach young children reading and didn’t want Atticus to teach Scout (“you tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage”). Atticus is amused at this comment and proceeds to teach Scout a valuable lesson. “First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Reading can help us climb into another’s point of view. For teenagers who are struggling with the transition to adulthood, reading can provide a means to understand how others have handled these transitions. The Common Core Reading Standards note that students “come to understand other perspectives and cultures” by reading widely. In fact, these standards promote reading in four domains: Literature, Informational Texts in English/Language Arts, History/Social Studies, and Science/Math/Technology. To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example of literature that helps us understand adult and child perspectives in the racially charged 1930s South. The other three domains can also provide insights.
Eric Liu is an ABC (American-born Chinese) who struggled to fit in between his white friends (who called him an “honorary white”) and his Chinese friends (who called him “banana”). His book, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker, chronicles his efforts to combine both worlds as he goes from high school to Yale and then to become a speechwriter for President Clinton. Liu writes of how America is changing: “What it means to be American—in spirit, in blood—is something far more borrowed and commingled than anything previous generations ever knew.”
“‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view’”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s father was a lawyer. As a teenager, Stanton liked to hang out at his office, listen to his cases, and read his law books. She discovered what she thought was a strange law. When a father died, all his money and land went to his eldest son. The mother usually got nothing. She told her father to go change these laws. He said it wasn’t that easy.
“When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech,” said he, “ you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators; tell them all you have seen in this office—the sufferings of these [women]. . .robbed of their inheritance and left dependent on their unworthy sons, and, if you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.” Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed and my duty plainly outlined.
This teenage event changed Stanton’s life. She and Susan B. Anthony would work their whole lives to help earn women the right to vote. Their history is described in Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ remarkable Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Albert Einstein dropped out of high school in Germany due to personal difficulties with teachers and his family’s financial problems. Moving to Switzerland, he applied to the Zurich Polytechnic. He passed the entrance exams in math and science but failed in other subjects. He studied for a year at a small school before passing the exams the second time around. After graduation, he worked as a patent clerk before he had his “miracle year” in 1905, developing theories on light quanta, Brownian motion, and the special theory of relativity. Walter Isaacson, in Einstein: His Life and Universe, charts Einstein’s struggles and scientific discoveries.
Reading can help teenagers understand how past and present personalities have dealt with choices and crises. The Common Core Standards emphasis on diversity should change how high school teachers and students approach the school day.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.