Mockingbird Graphic.
Collection

Teaching Mockingbird

Learn how to incorporate civic education, ethical reflection and historical context into a literary exploration of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Published:

At a Glance

Collection

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

9–10
  • Racism

Overview

About This Collection

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most commonly taught books in American schools. Beloved by many readers and educators as a story of moral courage, it has also been criticized for its limited portrayal of Black characters, dated treatment of racism, and promotion of a “white savior” narrative. This complex novel can be the entry point for meaningful learning, but it demands a careful and intentional approach in the classroom. 

At a time when many in the United States and around the world are reckoning with systemic racism, responsibly teaching Mockingbird involves setting Harper Lee’s fictional story in its historical context, centering Black voices that are missing from the text, and examining the story and its messages with a critical lens. 

For educators who choose to teach To Kill a Mockingbird—or whose districts mandate it—we offer this collection of classroom-ready activities, documentary-style videos, primary source readings, and more.

  • What factors influence our moral growth?
  • What kinds of experiences help us learn how to judge right from wrong?

Our Teaching Mockingbird study guide closely aligns with the instructional shifts encouraged by the Common Core State Standards and is informed by Facing History’s unique pedagogical approach, grounded in adolescent and moral development. The shifts include:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  3. Regular practice with complex text and academic language

For each section, there are suggestions for writing, reflection, and close reading activities that engage students in deep investigation of the text.

Teaching Mockingbird: Alignment with Common Core Standards

This resource is grounded in the three instructional shifts required by the Common Core State Standards for Literacy:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
    This resource combines a deep exploration of To Kill a Mockingbird with a variety of primary and secondary sources, memoir, and other informational text that can help enrich students’ understanding of the novel’s themes. Students build knowledge through their deep investigation of text and content through discussion, writing, and individual and group activities.
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
    Many of the Connection Questions, journal prompts, and other activities throughout this resource require that students explain and defend their responses and analysis using evidence from one or more texts, including both the novel and related informational texts. (One example of this is the culminating writing assignment based on the central question, mentioned above.) In addition, the resource provides a wide variety of opportunities for different forms of writing and discussion.
  3. Regular practice with complex text and academic language
    Many of the texts included in this resource are indeed complex and highly sophisticated. In order to support students’ engagement with these texts, each section highlights key academic vocabulary that students should understand and each section also includes specific close reading activities, both for passages from the novel and also comparing passages from the novel with related nonfiction.
    The close reading activities were created by Dr. David Pook, chair of the history department at The Derryfield School and an educational consultant. Pook was a contributing writer to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, and he consults with several organizations, districts and schools on work aligned with the CCSS.

This collection is designed to be flexible. You can use all of the resources or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 1 book
  • 5 lessons
  • 9 videos 
  • 8 images
  • 3 audio interviews
  • 17 readings

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

To Kill a Mockingbird is a complex text that demands careful teaching. Some read the novel as a compelling portrait of moral courage. Yet the novel’s limited perspective on race and racism, and its one-dimensional portrayal of Black characters within a larger story of a young white girl’s moral awakening, raise the concern that teaching the novel can do more harm than good. 

We offer these principles for educators who want to engage with the complexity of the novel and guide students through a sensitive and critical reading that encompasses the novel, the world of the novel, the world of Harper Lee, and our world today.

As readers and as educators, our own identities and experiences shape our understanding of this—or any—text. What is your own relationship to the novel? What perspectives and experiences shape your reading of the text and the goals you have for teaching it? What other, different perspectives might you want to consider?

Who is in your classroom? How might your students’ own identities and life experiences shape their encounter with this novel? How might you use journals, exit cards, or other tools to better understand how students are responding to the novel? How can you directly address the novel’s repeated use of racist epithets and ensure that the experience of reading and discussing the novel doesn’t further marginalize some students? (Facing History’s Teaching Mockingbird guide contains resources that can help.) Are students prepared and developmentally ready to critically engage with the novel? Given that Mockingbird is often taught in middle schools, might your school consider moving the text to a high school-level course?

Educators always need to consider the purpose behind our curriculum choices and articulate learning goals for our students. With a novel like Mockingbird, which has been a fixture of many curricula for decades, it’s especially important to intentionally develop learning goals. What do you want students to learn from their engagement with this novel? How might your students’ identities and experiences—and current events and contemporary issues—influence what they can gain from studying it?

Readers experience the story through the eyes of a young narrator who often doesn’t grasp what she is seeing. Use historical sources that more fully portray the world of the novel, including the brutal injustices of Jim Crow and white supremacy in 1930s Alabama. Also, consider the context of the 1950s, when Harper Lee was writing Mockingbird. How did Lee seek to shape her readers’ thinking about race and justice? Why was the novel so celebrated when it was first published? What new ideas, insights, and imperatives have emerged in the 60 years since?

Harper Lee’s Black characters—Calpurnia, Tom, Lula, and others— are less fully realized than Atticus, Scout, Miss Maudie, and other white characters. Incorporate supplementary sources that more fully voice Black experiences in the 1930s and prompt students to consider the events of the novel from those perspectives. A wide selection of such resources and related activities is included in Facing History’s Teaching Mockingbird guide.

Teaching Mockingbird responsibly today involves inviting students to critically engage with the text and its implications—not communicating an established set of moral lessons. Even as students follow Scout’s coming of age and awakening to the injustices of her world, they can also consider the novel’s limitations as a guide for racial justice—including how the story presents Atticus as a white savior (though he actually fails to save Tom from a violent death) and stops short of confronting white supremacy and systemic injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird should not be the only book in your syllabus that addresses issues of race and racism. If you teach Mockingbird, what other texts come before and after it? How might you thoughtfully select texts that complement Mockingbird by exploring other periods, voices and perspectives? Our friends at Learning for Justice produced some text selection tools that you may find helpful.

Fostering a Reflective Classroom

To Kill a Mockingbird, like many literary works, includes both language and topics that require careful consideration from teachers and students. We believe the best way to prepare to encounter these topics is to create a class contract outlining guidelines for a respectful, reflective classroom discussion.

One way to help classroom communities establish shared norms is by discussing them openly through a process called “contracting.” Some teachers already customarily create classroom contracts with their students at the start of each course. If you do not typically do so, we recommend that before beginning your class’s journey through this Facing History unit, you engage the students in the process of creating one. Contracts typically include several clearly defined rules or expectations for participation, and consequences for those who do not fulfill their obligations as members of the learning community. Any contract created collaboratively by students and the teacher together should be consistent with the classroom rules already established by the teacher. Many Facing History teachers differentiate their own classroom rules, which are non-negotiable, from the guidelines set forth in the classroom contract, which are negotiated by the students with the teacher’s guidance. Some sample guidelines that might be included in a class contract are provided below.

We have also found that the classroom environment is enhanced by emphasizing journal writing and employing multiple formats for facilitating large and small group discussions. Throughout this unit, we suggest specific teaching strategies designed to encourage students’ critical thinking and encourage each of them to share their ideas.

We encourage you to frequently remind your students that, regardless of the classroom strategy you are using or the topic you are addressing, it is essential that their participation honors the contract they helped create and follows your own classroom rules. In addition, we strongly recommend that you post the contract in a prominent location in your classroom and that when students stray from the guidelines set forth in the contract you refer to the specific language in the contract when you redirect to them. You might find that when one student strays from the guidelines of the contract, other students will respond by citing the specific expectations listed in the contract.

Consider the following list of guidelines for your classroom contract. As you work together to create your own, we encourage you to include (or modify) any or all of the items on this list:

  1. Listen with respect. Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgment.
  2. Make comments using “I” statements. (“I disagree with what you said. Here’s what I think . . .”)
  3. If you do not feel safe making a comment or asking a question, write the thought down. You can ask the teacher after class to help you find a safe way to share the idea.
  4. If someone says an idea or question that helps your own learning, say “thank you.”
  5. If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment—not the person—hurt your feeling and explain why.
  6. Put-downs are never okay.
  7. If you don’t understand something, ask a question.
  8. Think with your head and your heart.
  9. Share talking time—provide room for others to speak.
  10. Do not interrupt others while they are speaking.
  11. Write down thoughts, in a journal or notebook, if you don’t have time to say them during our time together.

Dehumanizing Language

Harper Lee includes the the "N" word deliberately to illustrate the society she writes about. Therefore, when quoting the text of To Kill a Mockingbird and in the historical documents included in this guide, we have chosen to let the word remain as it originally appeared, without any substitution. The dehumanizing power of this term and the ease with which some Americans have used it to describe their fellow human beings is central to understanding the themes of identity and human behavior at the heart of the book.

It is very difficult to use and discuss the "N" word in the classroom, but its presence in the novel makes it necessary to acknowledge it and set guidelines for students about whether or not to pronounce it when reading aloud or quoting from the text. Otherwise, this word’s presence might distract students from an open discussion about characters and themes. We recommend the following articles to help you determine how to approach the term in your classroom:

  1. “Exploring the Controversy: The ‘N’ Word” from Huck Finn in Context: A Teaching Guide (PBS)
  2. “Straight Talk about the N-Word” from Learning for Justice (Southern Poverty Law Center)
  3. “In Defense of a Loaded Word” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (New York Times)

You may also wish to point out the use of the word “negro” in the novel. In earlier times, this was an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “negro” is outdated and inappropriate unless one is reading aloud directly from a historical document or work of literature.

Accusations of Rape

Accusations of rape play a central role in both the story of To Kill a Mockingbird and the history of the Scottsboro Boys, which is included in this guide. While explicit depictions of rape do not appear, the accusations in these stories may simultaneously be difficult to understand for some students and all too real for others.

Discussions of rape are complicated in relation to To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys because both of these stories involve false accusations that play into racial fear and hatred. Experts tell us that most accusations of rape are not false. There is material provided later in this guide to help explore the beliefs and stereotypes that led to the false accusations students will learn about.

It is possible that some students will have additional questions or comments on the topic of rape outside of the context of the book. It is important to preview how you might respond to such questions and comments in case they arise. If they do, make sure to return to the class contract you have established with students to guide any discussion that follows. You might also consider alerting your building administrator to the fact that the topic of rape—critical in the analysis of the novel—might be brought up in your class in case any concerns about the discussion arise in the broader school community

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