Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird overview

How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird

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Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird can be a rewarding experience, a Sisyphean slog to “get through,” or a disaster that leaves students confused or even upset.   To have a successful unit, your instruction must be thoughtful, sensitive, organized, goal-driven, and engaging.  This post on how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird has some ideas to help you.

A Raisin in the Sun winnable reading quizzes
Photo by US Department of Education

While the predisposition of the students toward the novel is a factor, how you teach To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater factor.  This post on how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird will help you make your unit a success.

“How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird” summary:

  • Should you teach To Kill a Mockingbird?
  • Face sensitive issues in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Do not put the novel on a pedestal
  • Teach To Kill a Mockingbird at an appropriate level
  • Pre-read for success
  • Structure a practical reading schedule
  • Engage with key elements and standards
  • Assess mastery
  • Extend learning

Should you teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

Why teach To Kill a Mockingbird

Before addressing how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, consider whether or not the novel should be included at all. If your are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird voluntarily, make sure that you can thoughtfully express your rationale for doing so. If To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading, make sure that you can justify your approach.

There are many objections to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, as evidenced by the school districts that are dropping the novel from the curriculum.

Objections to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird:

  • The presence of the N-word and and the racist views of the townspeople unnecessarily harms students.
  • The fact that a woman makes false accusations of sexual assault may unwittingly give students the impression that such accusations are typically false.
  • The point of view of African Americans is minimal (only Tom’s testimony gives the students a clue about what it feels like to be African American in Maycomb).

Point of view criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird

  • Atticus and selected white people are the agents of change rather than the African Americans themselves.
  • Atticus is dismissive of the very real threats posed by hate groups.
  • The theme is overly simple and developed heavy-handedly.
  • Some plot events (like Ewell’s attempted murder of the children) seem contrived.
  • The point of view is not realistic.

These objections are not baseless.  The teacher must weigh To Kill a Mockingbird‘s merits against these objections to reach a thoughtful conclusion.

Related post: Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

Facing sensitive issues in To Kill a Mockingbird

Face the sensitive issues head-on. Immediately discuss that the book portrays upsetting real-life issues.  The topics of racism, sexism, sexual assault, and violence require maturity and sensitivity.  Encourage all students to come forward publicly or privately if anything is making them uncomfortable or emotionally stressed. 

The symbolism of the courthouse in To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by JR P

Tell students how you want them to handle the presence of the n-word. I tell students that I prefer that we read the word and not hear it. When I read aloud, I say “n-word,” and I ask students to do the same. They may feel like I am being too sensitive, but I tell them that I am sensitive, and I appreciate their understanding.

Related link: Huckleberry Finn and the N-word” video from CBS news

Point out that some find racist overtones in the supposedly anti-racist writing. Encourage students think about this as they read. What objections might a critical reader have regarding the work?  Is this book really the model of tolerance that it intends to be?

Explain that the book contains a character making accusations of rape against an innocent man, but that this is in no way meant to support a dismissive attitude toward accusations of sexual assault or harassment. The fact that character makes false accusations in this novel is no reason to assume doubt in real-life cases. 

Dealing with the n-word in teaching To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Faith Coates

Do not put the novel on a pedestal.

As a teacher it is my job to teach students how, not what, to think.  Remain objective by saying that this has been an important book that has had a lasting impact.  Explain that many people consider it a masterpiece with a positive social impact, but others have serious concerns about To Kill a Mockingbird‘s value.

Do not say, “This is a fantastic book, it is one of the best books ever written, it is socially positive in every way, Harper Lee is beyond reproach.”  You might say, “I agree that this is an amazing novel, but you must decide for yourself.”  However, I like to say, “This book has sparked a great deal of controversy and you will have to decide its value and legacy for yourself.”

Teach To Kill a Mockingbird at an appropriate level.

The literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird

In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is most appropriate for grades 8-10, but you must decide what is best for your students.

  • Accelerated Reader level: Upper grades, 5.6
  • Lexile rating: 870

Although the language of To Kill a Mockingbird is not difficult, the complexity of the overlapping elements is sophisticated. The historical context, dialect, and references will confuse and frustrate some readers. Furthermore, the events, themes, and language of the book require maturity.

The point of view of novel (young Scout) may mislead some to think that the book is appropriate for younger grades, but Harper Lee intended the novel for young adults.  I object to the trend of having students take on texts intended for older readers.  Younger students may be able to decode, comprehend, and even enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird but may not be able to explore the novel’s issues and elements fully.

Pre-read for success

Pre-reading practices are key in how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird effectively.

guides for literature teachers teacher at the board

Introduce your reasons and goals. Make sure that students understand that you are not just reading To Kill a Mockingbird because it was in the book closet.  Identify the topics and literary elements that will be explored.

Discuss the sensitive content and your expectations for discourse.

Plan for supporting readers. Hopefully you have reliable data on the reading levels and special needs of your students. Identify in advance what support students may need: chapter summaries, support services, video, audio books, reading study groups, modified assessments, etc.  I give chapter summaries to several of the students in advance.  As long as they still read the assigned reading, using the summaries as an aid is not dishonest.

Warn students that the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird is disorienting. The narrator starts talking about family injuries, ancestral immigration, antiquated occupations, the plantation system, obscure Civil War references, and the Great Depression. Make students aware that this confusing barrage is temporary so that they will not shut down. Read some of it together and explain that some allusions and details are not worth exploring fully.

Explore the historical context of To Kill a Mockingbird:

  • Access prior knowledge by asking the students to brainstorm what they know about segregation and the Jim Crow era.  Ask them what questions they have about this period in American history.
  • Explain that the book was written in the during the Civil Rights Movement but takes place decades earlier.
  • Learn more about the context using videos, photos, newspaper headlines or even show the first few minutes of the 1961 film.

Learning about the Jim Crow era and To Kill a Mockingbird.jpg

Preview the culminating task. Explain to students how they will demonstrate mastery upon completing study. Are there any ongoing tasks that you want students to perform in preparation?  For example, if students will be writing an essay on symbolism, encourage them to “cheat” by taking notes on one or more of the following as they read:

  • Birds/animals
  • The Radley house
  • The Radley tree
  • Flowers
  • The town jail
  • Seasons

Related post: To Kill a Mockingbird Pre-reading Activities

Sample pre-reading lesson:

Into: After discussing the purpose, schedule, reading support, and sensitive content of the unit,  ask students what they know about the segregation era. Chart their responses. Explain that the book takes place in the 1930’s but was written during the 1950’s, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.

Through: Explore information about the Jim Crow / segregation era. This may include videos, photos, articles, and/or maps. Ask the students to take notes on information to add to the class chart.  You may choose to give different groups different materials.

Key source:

“The New Jim Crow Museum” video from the Jim Crow Museum (23 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf7jAF2Tk40 

Advisory: some vulgar artifacts and upsetting images of violence (7:25 – 8:55).

If you only use one resource, this could be it.  Dr. Pilgrim uses artifacts to explore the origins, laws, and social norms of the Jim Crow era.

Additional sources:

Return to the class chart and have students add new information.

Writing: Use your imagination to guess what To Kill a Mockingbird might be about. Think about the setting that we have identified.  Story starter: Everything really goes out of control when…

or

Summarize Dr. Pilgrim’s analysis on the use of stereotypes.  How were they used to propagate and perpetuate racism and segregation?  Why were people so enamored with these hateful representations?

To Kill a Mockingbird unit banner

Structure a practical reading schedule.

Think carefully about a reading schedule that makes the best use of class time and enables all students to succeed. Should students be expected to read large portions of a text every night? Does this allow for students to digest and consider complex material? Does this accommodate the needs of the students? If you are reading every word in class, is this an appropriate use of instructional time, and will the students ever learn to approach challenging texts independently (Common Core Reading Standard 10)?

I break To Kill a Mockingbird into six weekly readings.  Students have a week to access support and follow a schedule that works for them. The students know that on the assigned day they should bring their copy of the book and be prepared for the quiz and lesson. I don’t spend the whole week of lessons on To Kill a Mockingbird (1-3 lessons typically). The rest of the week is for writing workshops, the assigned textbook, and the rest.

Suggested reading schedule for To Kill a Mockingbird:

Chapters 1-5: “Building Character” (citing textual evidence)

Chapters 6-9: “The True Boo” (structure and theme development)

Chapters 10-14 “Atticus v. Maycomb” (point of view)

Chapters 15-18 “Lee’s Style” (word choice)

Chapters 19-23 “Trial on Trial” (character motivations and writing argument)

Chapters 24-31 “Lee’s themes” (symbolism and theme development)

Reading quizzes for To Kill a Mockingbird

I have found that the best way to hold students accountable for the assigned reading is through reading quizzes (counted as a homework grade).

To Kill a Mockingbird reading quizzes
Photo by U.S. Department of Education

In the past, many of my students have tried to fake their way through literature circle role sheets, online responses, reading packets, focus questions, and the like. When this is the case, it is not surprising that engagement is low and a well-planned lesson becomes a shattered dream.

A simple, 10-question quiz gets better results and means that I don’t have to wade through piles of packets that the students have copied from each other anyway. Give yourself (and the copying machine) a break. When the vast majority of the students read with fidelity, engagement follows.

To Kill a Mockingbird quiz

Use the quizzes to communicate with parents / guardians. Having reliable data on the student’s reading levels is critical to this conversation. If a student has a high reading level but cannot pass the quizzes, what is going on? If a student has a lower reading level and cannot pass, what can we do to support them?

Engage with key elements and standards

Some literary elements and Common Core standards deserve special attention in considering how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reading Lit. 2: theme development

Students present on theme development in To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by theunquietlibrarian

Lee develops her themes surrounding racism, growing up, courage, and tolerance / understanding recursively and in concert.  Students trace the connections between the themes and the related elements (especially symbols).

Related post: Teaching Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Sample assignment:

Theme presentations

Create a presentation in order to explain how one theme is developed in To Kill a Mockingbird. Think about how Lee uses symbols, characters, point of view, the setting, and plot events. Select a variety of evidence from the text to support your conclusion (the theme sentence).  

  • Racism
  • Growing up
  • Gender
  • Perceptions
  • Schooling
  • Innocence
  • Lineage and family
  • Courage
  • Religion / morality
  • Family
  • Tolerance and understanding

You will also be assessed on the Speaking and Listening standards for presentation (organization and transitions, formality, voice, etc.)

Reading Lit. 3: interacting elements

Scout tries to comprehend the behaviors and hypocrisies she sees in Maycomb. Readers follow her point of view as she gains understanding of the internal conflicts and motivations of other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reading Lit. 4: word choice

Harper Lee's word choice in To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee’s word choices transition the novel’s tone from nostalgic and good-humored to tense and tragic.  Students analyze her craft based on dialogue, sense of time and place, figures of speech, connotations, and imagery.

Sample lesson:

The Mood of Maycomb

Into: Review how authors use style to create mood.  What are the different elements of an author’s word choice?

Word choice terms:

  • Figurative meanings (metaphors, similes, understatement, etc…)
  • Connotative meanings (feelings and associations)
  • Multiple meanings
  • Tone
  • Sensory language (our five senses)
  • Sense of time and place (including dialect)
  • Allusions
  • Sound devices (alliteration, parallel construction, repetition, etc…)

Through: Ask students to identify three key excerpts that help to establish the mood of the early chapters.  They must create a three-column chart and include analysis.

Cite textual evidence Word Choice Analysis of Mood

Writing: What is the overall mood of the novel so far?  How does Harper Lee create this mood? Refer to the text and the word choice terms in your answer.

Students could return to thinking about word choice in the second part of the book in order to compare the respective tones.

Reading Lit. 5: structure

Students analyze To Kill a Mockingbird‘s structure. Lee structures her book into two parts, each part containing sub-plots / parallel plots pertaining to the recursive themes.  The two parts are cohesive, and each episode is a complete narrative, but To Kill a Mockingbird is greater than the sum of these parts.

Ask students to conclude why Lee decided to split the books into to parts.

Reading Lit. 6: point of view 

Atticus fits Maycomb like a hand in a glove, or does he?  Students compare his points of view to the popular attitudes of Maycomb.​

Students should also analyze the point of view of the kids as they lose their naivete. How do Scout and Jem’s points of view change as the realities of Maycomb are revealed?

Point of view in To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by the Hale Centre Theatre

Sample lesson (early in the novel): Views in Maycomb

Into: In many ways, Atticus fits in perfectly in Maycomb, but in other ways he does not. Ask students to identify how he fits and how he does not. Create a two-column chart as a class.

Atticus often disagrees with the popular views in Maycomb.   Mrs. Dubose and Aunt Alexandra represent the popular points of view regarding gender, race, and family history.

Through: Students create a chart of the unwritten rules of Maycomb.  You may want them to work collaboratively in groups (Speaking and Listening standards).  If time allows, students may come back as a class and create comprehensive list.

Unwritten rules of Maycomb

(Race, gender, family lineage, etc…)

Textual Evidence

(paraphrase or quote)

Atticus’ Point of View
1  

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Writing: What is the difference between what the town teaches Jem and Scout and what their father teaches them?  How do the kids try to deal with the differing points of view?

or

How does Lee develop the points of view?  For example, think about the tension that the different points of view create between characters like Atticus and Mrs. Dubose.

Writing 1: writing argument (and character motivations)

Students combine their understanding of interacting elements (conflict and character motivations) and the skill of writing argument.

Sample lesson: Trial on Trial 

Into: Who is really guilty during this trial? Bob Ewell? Mayella? Mr. Gilmer? The jury? The sheriff?  The class will be put these characters on trial and focus on their motivations.  What motivated them to do defy their legal duty?  

Review character motivations. Discuss motive as a an element of criminal law.

Through: Each student or group will put one participant on trial.  They are to compose a persuasive opening argument as a prosecuting attorney.  Students will use textual evidence in order to describe the crime and the motivation behind it.

  • Bob Ewell: Stands accused of making false accusations.
  • Mayella Ewell: Stands accused of lying under oath.
  • Mr. Gilmer: Stands accused of disrespecting and abusing a witness.
  • The Jury: Stands accused of dereliction of duty (doing a crappy job.)
  • Sheriff Heck Tate: Stands accused of poor investigation and documentation.
  • Atticus Finch: Stands accused of not doing enough to defend Tom Robinson.

Remind students that writing an argument includes…

  • Claim
  • Reasons
  • Evidence
  • Addressing opposing claims

Students should use transitions and maintain a formal style (Writing standards 1C and 1D)

Writing: Compose your formal argument supporting the guilt of ________________________.

or

Think about Atticus. What motivates him to do the best job that he can even though he knows that he is going to lose?  What would be his motivations to do a poor job defending Tom?

Character motivations and putting the trial on trial in To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by A.D. Players at the George

Writing 9: Research to Build and Present Knowledge

Students develop focus questions and integrate information from multiple sources to explore the context of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Students conclude to what extent Lee’s portrayals are accurate in regards to their focus questions. Students present their findings to address listening and speaking standards.

Assess mastery

There are four basic ways to demonstrate mastery of the standards addressed in your To Kill a Mockingbird unit:

  1. Compose a literary analysis essay or composition (e.g. analyze how Jem’s point of view changes and how the change develops a theme).
  2. Complete a summative assessment (including tasks like the analyzing of key excerpts in terms of Lee’s word choice).
  3. Apply knowledge and skills to an unfamiliar text (e.g. analyze the symbolism and theme development in a short story).
  4. Use knowledge and skills creatively (e.g. write an original story that uses symbol(s) to develop the main theme).

Writing using symbolism

Related post: To Kill a Mockingbird Final Task Ideas

Extend learning

In wrapping up on how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, here are some ideas on extending learning beyond the key standards of the unit:

Opinion Article: Putting Mockingbird in its Place (W4 Production and Distribution of Writing)

Now that you are an expert on To Kill a Mockingbird, write an article on its place in American literature.  Should it be required reading in American classrooms? Do you see flaws indicating that the book has been overrated? Use your knowledge of the book and its context to support your conclusion.

Opinion Article: Hypocrisy (W4 Production and Distribution of Writing)

Lee uses the hypocrisy that Scout observes to criticize the society.  For example, the same people arguing against prejudice in Europe are perpetuating prejudice in America.  Lee shows that the people are not as virtuous as they believe.

Think about a hypocrisy that you see within your own society.  Write an opinion piece illuminating the issue and analyze why it is hypocritical.  Write an article on a law, policy, or social norm that is hypocritical in your view.

Opinion Article: The Jury System (W4 Production and Distribution of Writing)

Is the jury system used in the United States fundamentally flawed or fundamentally just? Conduct research on how the jury system works before answering.  Research the ways in which the jury system can fail to deliver justice. What are some other ways that courts could reach a verdict? Would you be proud to serve on a jury?

Staging Mockingbird (SL1.B Comprehension and Collaboration)

With a cooperative group, adapt a chapter (or part of a chapter) from the novel for the stage or screen. Do not be afraid to make changes for the new medium if they accentuate or clarify key elements (directors do this all the time). Keep track of the decisions / changes that you made and explain your choices.

Prior to your performance, give a brief summary of your group’s decisions and explain what elements you are emphasizing in the performance.

Students directing an adaptation of To Kill a mockingbird
Photo by Celia Looney

Free Robinson Campaign (SL5 Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)

You have been hired to create a “Free Robinson” campaign.  Use different media and your knowledge of argument in order to build public support and convince the governor of Alabama to pardon Tom Robinson.  Do not hesitate to use fallacious or manipulative reasoning, as your only goal is to free Tom.

You might create posters, a website, a speech, a radio announcement, newspaper ads, etc.  Include an explanation of you rhetoric and appeals.

“How to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird” conclusion

Post summary:

  • Should you teach To Kill a Mockingbird?
  • Face sensitive issues in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Do not put the novel on a pedestal
  • Teach To Kill a Mockingbird at an appropriate level
  • Pre-read for success
  • Structure a practical reading schedule
  • Engage with key elements and standards
  • Assess mastery
  • Extend learning

Teaching a rich example of literature like To Kill a Mockingbird is challenging.  It takes thought, preparation, enthusiasm, and practice. I hope “How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird” has given you at least one idea that you can employ in your teaching.

If you have found “How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird” helpful, please check out my complete To Kill a Mockingbird unit and teacher guide.

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