The Power of Teaching the Bluest Eye
By Marni Spitz, Guest blogger
There are many things one can call a teacher, but selfish usually doesn’t make the list. However, I have to admit-I have done something with my reading labbers for my own personal happiness and the best/worst part is, I feel really good about it. Allow me to explain:
The time had arrived for me to choose a book that my Reading Lab would read together as a class. By my own admission, I tend to make a big deal out of things that are so not a big deal (like choosing what to eat for breakfast or which episode of Friends I’d like to rewatch). Anyways, choosing a book to read for my Reading Lab readers seemed like the biggest deal ever. I found myself hyper-analyzing every book to make sure that this would be a positive experience for them. After all, the whole point of the class was to bring joy into reading, and so the last thing I wanted to do was bring another book into their lives that felt boring, or hard, or painful. But when it came down to it, I really, really, really wanted us to read that which would make them feel empowered and proud of themselves and special. Finding a book that would be both joyful and empowering seemed really hard. (Like when I have to choose between Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios).
After months (seriously, months) of thinking about this selection, I finally opted for a book that I wasn’t confident would bring joy to the kiddos, but one that I knew for sure would bring joy to me. I chose The Bluest Eye because I love it so much; I think it such an important story and piece, and to be honest, I wanted to read it again. I felt good about my decision, but I was really, really, really nervous about it. The book is banned in many states, (most recently, Ohio -- the very state where the book takes place), it talks about issues that are extremely painful and intense, and on top of this, it’s a really hard book to read. It takes a special kind of reader to read Toni Morrison (the best kind if you ask me). I am admittedly OBSESSED with her, but the woman is anything but “easy” in her writing. Would my kids get it? Would they like it? Or would this be just another book that went into the “I hate when I read books at school” box? And if they didn’t like it, I anticipated that I would take it far more personally than I should have. I needed to be careful of that. Clearly, I had gone with only half of the criteria, leaving the first part (the one about bringing joy) all to myself.
So there we were, day one of reading Toni Morrion’s first book (and one of my favorite pieces of literature, ever, ever, ever) with a group of 9th grade struggling readers. What was I thinking?
Before even reading the book, I made sure to capitalize on the timeless teenage propensity to love things that aren’t allowed. So of course, we launched our experience by first reading about the fact that The Bluest Eye was banned in several school districts around the country. This got them intrigued. Did you say, BANNED, Ms Spitz? Does this mean we are breaking the rules?!?!! I explained that while it wasn’t banned at our school, I was still pretty cool for letting them read it. ;) I also decided to be up-front about its difficulty, knowing this could potentially backfire. This made them feel proud. Did you say this book is on an 11th grade reading list, Ms. Spitz? But we’re only in 9th grade! I figured “intrigued” and “proud” were two feelings I could run with. So after talking a bit about the history, a bit about Toni (and how much I idolized her), in we went.
As we dived into the Prologue, I was surprised at how not nervous I was. Guided by my own selfishness, gosh dang it I loved reading the lyrical genius of Toni Morrison with my kids.
If you haven’t read The Bluest Eye, and haven’t listened to Toni read her own book, I recommend that you do so immediately. Preferably, do this with a classroom of adorably earnest 9th graders in a classroom. Seriously, stop reading this blog and go do that now. :)
The whole process felt so natural that I almost forgot to worry whether or not my kids were liking the book or not. I was too wrapped up in my own cocoon of joy to even think about that. And then….somewhere between page 87 and 89, I realized I wasn’t worrying about their joy because it was kind of just, happening.
We were reading The Bluest Eye together and having the best time. Everyone seemed on board. We stop every now and then, summarize what happens, share some of our favorite quotes, talk about our opinions of the characters, and whoever I called on (even with no hand raised) seemed to be right with me. What was going on?
And then… we watched this clip with Toni on the Colbert Show.
Sure, 14-year-olds and Colbert might not be BFF’s just yet, but seeing Toni in her element, talking about race and specifically about the very book we we reading made my students feel important, empowered and…full of joy. Ms Spitz look! Our book! We’re like...famous!
Once again hoping to feed my own selfishness, I held individual conferences about our reading, and here’s what they had to say: (I have intentionally excluded my reactions to these comments for fear that there are not enough exclamation marks to express my boundless joy).
Elizabeth: I love Pecola because I feel I have a human connection to her and this book makes me want to read more Toni Morrison Books.
Jimmy: I really like this book because it’s not like other books I’ve read because it’s not a fairy tale, it’s real life.
Maribel: The writing is confusing, but when you think about it you get to understand it better and then it makes me feel I can read more books that might seem confusing. There's something about the author I like. It’s hard to put into words. (I totally get it, Maribel).
Justin: The fact that it’s banned makes it interesting. At first, I didn’t think I was going to like it, but then it starts to tell you more about the characters and their pasts. I really like Claudia’s innocence.
Sergio: It has really descriptive writing, powerful wording, and lots of explanation of why things are happening. It’s cool -- I’m really getting this. The author’s cool because I like how she explains stuff and how she likes her own books. I really like her confidence.
Rayanie: She (Toni) makes you think a lot and I like that.
Aryanna: I think it’s important for us to read because as a teenager your life gets more into racial issues and self-image and what others think about you. \So it feels like issues in the book are happening today and I can relate to it. Pecola makes me feel like I just want to care for her.
Khyree: I think it's a good book because it talks about how people were treated for their color of their skin and not their hearts. it just shows how being in poverty and skin color can really affect you, and it can hurt you.
There is so much that we could further dive into with these responses, but to hear my Reading Labbers, my 9th graders, my “struggling” readers speak like this, about THE BLUEST EYE, about Toni Morrison and about a book that I love, I mean -- how beautiful is that!?!? Does it get any better?!?!
Had my selfishness created a magical reading experience? Note to self: why yes, it most certainly did.