Young African American woman holding a baby
Lesson

Exploring the Relationship between Scout/Jean Louise and Calpurnia

Students broaden their understanding of the relationship between Scout and Calpurnia by pairing scenes from Harper Lee’s two novels with a historical account from a Southern domestic worker.

Published:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

9–10
  • Racism

Overview

About This Lesson

As Go Set a Watchman opens, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch travels from New York City to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her aging, ailing father, Atticus. It is the mid-1950s, and many in Maycomb are resisting the advances of the civil rights movement—including, to Jean Louise’s shock, her own father. As she struggles with these revelations, she reaches out to Calpurnia, who has retired from the Finch household but remains an important figure in Jean Louise’s life.

In this lesson, we pair Chapter 12 of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout and Jem attend church with Calpurnia, with an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Go Set a Watchman, in which Jean Louise goes to Calpurnia’s home after Cal’s grandson Frank has been charged with manslaughter. We then provide a historical source, “You Worked Long Hours,” which features domestic worker Essie Favrot’s recollections of the white families she worked for, and Maya Angelou’s poem The Mask, which raises questions about how African Americans concealed their true identities and emotions to survive in a segregated world.

The accompanying discussion questions and activities can be used to guide writing and conversation about these readings in your classroom. (In these activities, we use “Jean Louise” to indicate the character in Go Set a Watchman and “Scout” to refer to To Kill a Mockingbird.)

This lesson can be used to augment Section 3 or Section 4 of Teaching Mockingbird.

This lesson can be used to augment Section 3 or Section 4 of Teaching Mockingbird and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 2 readings

In the periods when Mockingbird and Watchman are set, the social world of the South was governed by rigid rules of racial segregation, and the lives of blacks and whites were shaped by racial power dynamics. Blacks were often only able to find employment serving white families as domestic workers and nannies. Both jobs involved long hours of labor, encompassed much of the household and parenting work, and were often characterized by real affection, leading some to even describe black maids as surrogate mothers to the white children they cared for.

In Mockingbird, Calpurnia is a “tyrannical presence” in the Finch house and a respected partner to Atticus in raising the children, yet she sleeps on a cot in the kitchen when she stays overnight and respectfully calls Jem “Mister Jem” when he reaches adolescence. In Watchman, the elderly Calpurnia has retired from the Finch household, but she’s still regarded with respect and affection by Jean Louise, who seeks out Calpurnia during her fraught visit to Maycomb.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

We recommend that teachers using Mockingbird and Watchman in the classroom acknowledge and set guidelines for how to approach the racial epithets that appear in both novels. The section Discussing Sensitive Topics in the Classroom from Teaching Mockingbird provides useful guidance, including links to additional readings and resources. We also recommend reviewing Fostering a Reflective Classroom from Teaching Mockingbird for suggestions for creating classroom contracts that include guidelines for respectful, reflective classroom discussions.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

The following questions can guide classroom reflection and discussion in a variety of ways.

One approach is to have students spend time independently with the much longer excerpt from Mockingbird. For example, ask students to read Chapter 12 of Mockingbird and respond to question 1 in their journals, supporting their answers with evidence from the text. Review Journals in a Facing History Classroom for suggestions for using journaling as a teaching strategy. Then read the Watchman excerpt aloud and use the next two questions to compare the excerpts. Questions 4 and 5 can serve as effective writing prompts, or you might use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to provide opportunities for students to both thoughtfully respond in writing and engage in meaningful dialogue with a peer and ultimately with the whole class.

  1. After going to Calpurnia’s church, Scout says, “That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me.” In what sense does Calpurnia lead a double life? What does Scout learn when she accompanies Calpurnia to church? What does she learn about Calpurnia? About Maycomb? About herself?
  2. What details in the scene from Go Set a Watchman reveal the nature of Jean Louise’s childhood relationship with Calpurnia? What clues suggest that there is now distance between the two women?
  3. How is Scout’s visit to Calpurnia’s church similar to Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia in Go Set a Watchman? How are the two visits different?
  4. What does Calpurnia mean when she asks Jean Louise, “What are you all doing to us?” What factors might account for Calpurnia’s treatment of Jean Louise in this scene? How does Jean Louise respond to Calpurnia?
  5. In what sense might the visit to Calpurnia’s church be a pivotal moment for Scout? How do you think the visit to Calpurnia’s home is a pivotal moment for Jean Louise? What new perspectives does Scout/Jean Louise gain from these experiences?

Broaden students’ context for the relationship between Scout/Jean Louise and Calpurnia by following up your comparison of the two novel excerpts with southern domestic worker Essie Favrot’s recollections in “You Worked Long Hours.”

  1. How does Harper Lee’s portrayal of Calpurnia in the two novels connect to Essie Favrot’s account of working for white families? What are the similarities and differences? How does Favrot’s story extend your thinking about Calpurnia?

Another way to deepen students’ understanding of Calpurnia is by reading and discussing Maya Angelou’s poem The Mask.

  1. Who is the speaker in “The Mask”? What kind of “mask” does the speaker wear and why? In what context might you or someone you know wear a “mask”?

Does Calpurnia wear a “mask” in Mockingbird or Watchman? Cite evidence from the text. What does the poem add to your thinking about the character and behavior of Calpurnia in each of these novels?

In addition to digging into the relationship between Calpurnia and Scout/Jean Louise, students can focus on the larger impact these scenes have on Scout/Jean Louise and look for parallels in their own lives. Students can respond to the following question in discussion or in their journals, or, if you have done the “Memory Maps” activity included on page 5 of Teaching Mockingbird, they may want to add this reflection to their maps.

  1. In the scenes from both books, Scout/Jean Louise enters an unfamiliar social world. How does that experience affect her in each scene? What experiences have you had in unfamiliar environments? What can we learn from such experiences?

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