Secondary Education

Miss Maudie Tells it Like it Is!

As a public school teacher, I can’t teach atheism. I don’t think I would even if I could; part of my conviction that atheism is the most truthful option for me is because I spent so long studying atheism and trying other paths. I want my students to meander along that same line of thinking. If I fed them propaganda, they might listen to me, but they’d just be my little parrots, flying around the world and spreading The World Of ToriParker. I’m not denying that I wouldn’t love that – we all want our own devoted satellites, right? – but I’d rather the students learn on their own. That way, if I’m not there looking over their shoulders, they can still think through things and come up with a rational decision. One of my favorite themes, as a teacher in a public high school, is how to sneak critical thinking into my English curriculum. It’s not as easy as you’d think; after all, much of the study of literature is led by conjecture and personal bias. You give me a book and a random theme, and I could somehow make up an explanation about how the book proves the theme. Especially if the book is The Great Gatsby. No one REALLY knows who the hell T.J. Eckleberg is supposed to be. I could make him stand for anyone. Stalin? Bob Seger? Cleopatra? Whoever.

Anyway, I believe that I’ve digressed. So, as a high school English teacher, I think it would be really great if I could get my students to employ critical thinking in every aspect of their lives. Just recently, my little baby freshmen read To Kill a Mockingbird. After it was over, we had days and days of me babbling in an English-teacher-orgy of interpretation and connection. (I also discussed how I am in love with Atticus Finch; I would SO hit that). (I did not tell them that I would hit that.) On one of the days, we focused on Miss Maudie.

Miss Maudie, of course, is the sassy-yet-caring middle-aged widow across the street from the main characters. She teaches the narrator about life; specifically, she teaches the narrator that you can’t believe rumors about people. You can only believe what you see with your own eyes. She is portrayed as a kind character, and even though she’s a very religious lady, I still think she’s a better critical thinker than I am. Okay, maybe not BETTER, but certainly damn good.

In our class Miss Maudie discussion, I asked students what they thought about Miss Maudie’s way of thinking. I got great answers. They really liked the character because she was kind, because she accepted everyone, because she looked for reasons instead of just believing what she was told, because she thought about what she did before she did it. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that they were describing many atheists. To me, that’s what an atheist is – someone who doesn’t listen to the religious telling them what to believe and how to think. Instead, an atheist looks for reasons. Without knowing it, these 14-year old kids were singing atheism’s praises.

Now, I’m not stupid. I didn’t let them know what I was thinking. After all, these are freshmen in high school – if I tell them that something is cool, they’re going to eschew it on principle alone. But I feel like I’ve planted a seed. Someday soon, these students will read another book or focus on another character, and they’ll remember what was good about Miss Maudie. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give them more examples throughout the year. And slyly, carefully, I can open up a whole new world to them.

I honestly do think that the world of religion is hitting its downturn. More and more people each year are identifying with being non-religious, atheist or agnostic. And although I’m not allowed to lead my students towards this spiritual enlightenment (or lack thereof), I believe that I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t teach them how to think for themselves. People in our parents’ generations may have gone their whole lives without ever being allowed to take the mental lead on something. The younger generations will not have that setback. Wouldn’t it be nice if all teachers taught critical thinking in their classroom so that students had that particular tool to help them evaluate the world? I certainly think so.

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.


  1. March 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm —

    I think you might be shortchanging English as a venue for critical thinking. One of the most basic premises of literary analysis is that “authority” doesn’t necessarily mean anything: especially in a good discussion of literature, you can encourage your students to come to their own conclusions about the material, to challenge you when they disagree, and to give reasons and examples of why they came to the interpretation that they did. English is a great place to practice this, because people often feel more comfortable arguing for their own interpretation in a situation that is fictional than they do in the real world. And part of skepticism and atheism is the constant struggle to interpret the facts in the world. I think it’s great practice.

  2. March 13, 2013 at 11:12 pm —

    I agree! I started academic life as a biology major and switched to English later. You use the same critical thinking skills for literary analysis–especially once you really get into theory–and evidence works very much the same way as in science. You just have a different data set. My science majors tend to enjoy formalist literary approaches, for obvious reasons, and the artists like mimetic and intertextual ones. There’s something for everybody!

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