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Following The Flame

Following The Flame

We had just begun the second chapter of a book about a poor family and their beloved coon dog, and some of my 4th-grade students and I were seated around a table in a small corner of the classroom. The father had just been brutally arrested and chained to the back of a wagon by the sheriff:

The wagon started, and the sheriff rode behind it on his horse. Sounder made a great lunge forward, and the boy fell against the corner of the porch. Sounder raced after the wagon. No one yelled after him. The mother stood still in the doorway. The deputy who wasn't holding the reins turned on the seat, aimed his shotgun at the dog jumping at the side of the wagon, and fired. Sounder fell in the road, and the sheriff rode around him. Sounder's master was still on his back in the wagon, but he did not raise his head to look back.

At the end of this scene, all of my students looked up from the book in horror. This isn't supposed to happen, they said. You can't begin a book like this. They were actually angry at the book itself.

I learned an important lesson the year that I decided to read with one of the three literature groups in my class William Armstrong's Newbery Award-winning children's book, Sounder.  I was teaching at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass., where the majority of the students were from middle- to upper-middle-class families.

Although Sounder is considered to be a 5th- or 6th-grade level book, I had some strong readers and I felt that they were up to the challenge. Yet I had some doubts about the book, particularly about the fact that it was written in the late 1960s about the black sharecropping experience during the Depression. Although based loosely on a true story, Armstrong's portrayal seemed flawed; I didn't feel comfortable with the overall tone of the story and its simplistic portrayal of the family involved. This reminded me of a metaphor that Clem Marshall, an associate with Enidlee Consultants introduced me to. That organization, worked closely with the Cambridge Friends School on anti-bias teaching practices during my years as a teacher there. Marshall encourages teachers to "Follow the flame, not the ashes," meaning that educators need to help students learn about achievement and resistance and not just about suffering and victimization. Still, I thought that Sounder could be instructive in helping students to analyze a text critically. What I did not consider was the fact that my experience of the book as a white teacher might be vastly different from how some of my black students would experience it.

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