To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities

To Kill a Mockingbird Pre-reading Activities

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Improve your teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird by engaging the students in To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities.  While pre-reading any challenging text is important, it is critical with this novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities help the students orient their imaginations to the context.  For many students, a rural town in 1930’s Alabama will seem like a different world.  The students need a working knowledge of this context regarding racism, sexism, and The Great Depression.

Students will get more from the study when To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities prepare them to engage with key elements like symbolism, point of view, and theme.  Students should have theme topics like hypocrisy, understanding, growing up, and courage in the fronts of their minds as they read.

The literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird

10 To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities

1) Build on prior knowledge (Jim Crow and segregation)

Discover what students know about segregation, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights Movement.  Students build upon this knowledge by drawing main ideas and details from a video about Jim Crow.

The Jim Crow era and To Kill a Mockingbird


Title: Understanding Jim Crow

Common Core Standard: Reading Informational Texts 2 (objective summary)

Into: Ask students to brainstorm what they know about segregation and the Jim Crow era for a class chart.  They should include everything from specific facts to general impressions.  Encourage them to include information about how the Jim Crow era came to be and how it was opposed.

Students may need some prodding to realize how much they really know.  Offer reminders as necessary.

Through: Explain that they will be watching a video from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  They should take notes as they watch so that they can write an objective summary.  An objective summary should be written in the third person point of view and not contain the author’s thoughts or opinions.

Student notes on “The New Jim Crow Museum”:

  • Main idea:
  • Supporting ideas:
  • Key details:

“The New Jim Crow Museum” (23 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf7jAF2Tk40 (Some especially upsetting are shown in minutes 7:25 – 8:55.)

Advisory: Prepare your students to engage with this information with maturity and sensitivity.  Remind them that these “jokes” dehumanized African Americans, encouraging persecution and even murder.  

Learn more about preparing your students for sensitive and upsetting content in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Asks students to combine their viewing notes by identifying the main idea, supporting ideas, and key details as a class.  If time allows, add to the brainstorm chart.

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

Use your imagination and today’s study 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…

2) Growing up (point of view)

This To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity starts students thinking about the theme topic of growing up.  Students write a brief personal essay on an event that changed their point of view.

Citing textual evidence on innocent creatures in TKM


Title: An Event that Changed My Point of View

Common Core Standard: Writing 2.B (developing a topic in informational writing)

Into: Quick-writeWhat does it mean to be “grown up?” How do you know when you are an adult? What are different points of view on the meaning of adulthood? Think about legal, cultural (rites of passage), and personal points of view.

Through: Explain that one theme of the upcoming novel focuses on growing up.  The kids in the story go through experiences that change their points of view.  Tell the students that they will be writing a short personal essay on an event from their own life that changed their point of view.

  1. Brainstorm events that made you think.
  2. Choose one to explore in detail.
  3. List important details: facts, definitions, quotes, or examples that help explain your change in point of view.
  4. Write your personal essay illustrating your change.

If time allows, allow students to share their personal essay for participation points.

Beyond: Make a prediction about the kids in the story.  How do you think their points of view might change during the course of the novel?

3) Review symbolism

Prepare students to think about symbols before they start reading.  This is especially true if your culminating task focuses on how Lee uses symbols.  This task asks student groups to present on the meanings found in visual and literary symbols.

Literary symbols activity for To Kill a Mockingbird


Title: Visual Symbols and Literary Symbols

Common Core Standard: Reading literature 2 (theme development)

Into: Use a slideshow to display popular visual symbols (the Great Seal of the United States, the peace sign, the bat symbol, the Nike swoosh, etc.)  Have the students yell out what the symbol represents.  Encourage them to express abstract ideas, feelings, and connotations. For example, if they say that the swoosh symbolizes Nike, urge them on until someone says speed or agility.

Explain that visual symbols can represent abstract thoughts or powerful feelings but that literary symbols can be even more complex.  Literary symbols can have multiple, complex, or even contradictory meanings.

Through: Have the students work in groups to create posters.  Each group must present one visual symbol and one literary symbol.  The literary symbol can be from a book, poem, song, short story, comic book, film, or even TV show.  They might analyze the mockingjay in The Hunger Games, the apple in Snow White, onions in Shrek, Edgar Allen Poes’ raven, and so on.

They must write a brief analysis of both symbols and present to the class.  Remind them to think about multiple meanings, connotations, and even contradictory meanings. (The bat in Batman represents the fear Bruce Wayne wants to instill but also (and secretly) his own fear).

Beyond:  Create a plan for a short story that includes a symbol to help develop the theme.  Briefly outline the characters, setting, plot, and theme.  Conceive and explain a literary symbol that conveys a message about life.

Related post: Teaching Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

4) Explore the controversy

This To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity gets students thinking about controversial literature.  Students hold a debate on whether or not any text containing the n-word should be studied in the classroom.

Exploring the controversy of To Kill a Mockingbird


Title: Controversy in the Classroom

Common Core Standard: Writing 1 (writing argument)

Into: Quick-write: What makes a book a masterpiece? What types of books should be taught in schools? Who should decide?  What types of books should be excluded from the classroom?

Students share their ideas for participation points.

Explain that To Kill a Mockingbird contains the n-word and characters who espouse hateful, racist stereotyping.  Even though the book was written to argue against racism, many feel that the book may be a bad influence on some and emotionally harmful to others.

Through: Host a debate on whether or not any book containing the n-word should ever be taught in schools.  Have the students move to the PRO side of the room and the CON side of the room so that they can form small groups.  You may end up with uneven groups, but it does not really matter.

Proposed: No book containing the n-word should be taught in the classroom.

Each group needs to compose an argument including:

  1. Introduction (main idea and summary)
  2. Reasons and evidence
  3. Concluding statement
  4. Anticipating counter arguments and offering rebuttal.

Have the groups share their their arguments.  After all groups have offered their arguments, give all groups as chance for rebuttal (counterarguments).

Beyond: Did the debate make you question your point of view or affirm your position?  Explain your answer. Can you appreciate both positions?

5) Hypocrisy skits

This To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity gets students thinking about hypocrisy.  Student groups create brief skits to demonstrate a hypocrisy that they perceive.  This task prepares students to watch for hypocrisy in Maycomb (the teacher arguing against intolerance in Germany, the trial, the missionary society, the honoring of Egyptian civilization, etc.)

Hypocrisy in To Kill a Mockingbird


Title: Hypocrites!

Common Core Standard: Speaking and Listening 1 (collaborate to express ideas)  

Into: Quick-write: Hypocrisy is when one claims to have moral standards that they do no actually follow (e.g. a teacher who does not allow students to have beverages in class but is always having a cup of coffee).  Write about a hypocrisy that you see in life.  Why is it hypocritical?

Students share-out for participation points.

Through: Explain that students will work in cooperative groups to create a brief demonstration of a hypocrisy for the class. Perhaps a student gets in trouble for drinking a sports drink in class and argues that the punishment is unjust since the teacher is always drinking coffee.

Tell the students that they do not need to write a script so long as they are clear about the point of views, motivations, and actions in the skit. If the hypocrisy in the skit is not obvious, students may want to preface their skit with an explanation.

Students perform.  If time allows, give audience members a chance to discuss after each skit.

Explain that To Kill a Mockingbird uses examples of hypocrisy to help develop the themes (messages about life).

Beyond:  Why is there so much hypocrisy in our lives?  Why do people act in ways that are contradictory to their stated beliefs?  What kind of hypocrisies might occur in To Kill a Mockingbird?

To Kill a Mockingbird unit banner

6) Profiles in courage

Lee wants the reader to think about the meaning and forms of courage.  This task encourages students to develop a more nuanced understanding by creating a poster on one form of courage.

Note: Students probably need access to technology for this To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity.


Title: One Form of Courage

Common Core Standard: Speaking and Listening 1.D (considering different points of view), Speaking and Listening 5 (visual displays)

Into: Quick-writeWhat is your definition of courage? Are there different types of courage? Use examples to support your answer.

Create a class chart of the different forms of courage (courage to go against the crowd, courage to risk your life to help others, courage to try new things, etc.)

Through: Students are to create a poster for the classroom on one type of courage. (You may want to organize selection so that you end up with a variety of topics.) The poster could include the following:

  1. Title (type of courage)
  2. Case study (example of this courage from history or real life)
  3. Individual (a person who demonstrates this form of courage)
  4. Insightful quote
  5. Application (how others might show this type of courage in their lives)

Use a wall of the classroom to create a gallery of courage and display the student work.  If time allows, conduct a gallery walk and ask students to reflect on the examples.

Beyond: Respond to this quote from To Kill a Mockingbird:

“’I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.’”

Do you agree? Make a guess about the what this character might be talking about.

or

Reflect on the gallery walk.  Which examples stood out to you and why?  Did you refine your own definition of courage? Explain.

7) The Scottsboro Affair

Students compare articles about The Scottsboro Affair in order to contextualize the novel and consider point of view and purpose in nonfiction texts.

To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Affair


Title: The Scottsboro Affair 

Common Core Standard: Reading Informational Texts 6 (point of view and purpose)

Into: Quick-write: What are some of the problems with our justice system?  In what ways can the system fail? Think about the influences of prejudice and human error.

Introduce the Scottsboro Affair:  “The Scottsboro Boys” (video, 8 minutes) Professor Carol Anderson gives an overview of the case.

Through: Students will analyze and compare texts on the same topic to think about point of view, purpose, and bias.

There are many articles to consider, but here is an example of a biased article from an Alabama newspaper at the time of the trials:

Biased article on the Scottboro Affair

More information on Scottsboro Affair articles

“The Scottsboro Affair” (article, 6 pages) from Facing History and Ourselves.

Have students analyze two or more articles in terms of

  • Point of view
  • Purpose and audience
  • Rhetoric and bias

Beyond: As consumers of information, why is it important that we be mindful of point of view, purpose, and audience?  What are some of the ways that we can be misled if we are not careful?  How can misinformation lead to injustice?

8) Jigsaw research

This To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity allows students to practice research methods while gaining understanding of the novel’s context.  Students conduct research regarding the women’s movement, segregation, and The Great Depression.

Note: This task requires access to technology or reference materials.

To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity context


Title: 1930’s America

Common Core Standard: Writing 7 (research questions)

Into:  Quick-write: Generate research questions on one or more of the following topics.

  • Feminism in the 1930s
  • Segregation in America
  • The Great Depression

Chart student responses as a class.  Explain that they might start by asking straightforward, simple questions but ultimately want to arrive at open-ended questions that require a thoughtful answer.  For example, they might move from “Could a black person marry a white person?” to “What were the factors impeding interracial marriage?”

Explain that we are building understanding of the context of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Through: Students are to conduct a short research project based on a research question of their choosing.  As research proceeds, it is typical to fine-tune, narrow, broaden, or redirect the research question.

Steps:

  1. Preliminary research question
  2. Preliminary research
  3. Final research question
  4. Formal research (Decide how formal you want this to be regarding citation etc.)
  5. Composition

Beyond: Students organize their research into a presentation for the class.

9) Debate the Jury System

This To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity gets students to argue about one element of our criminal justice system: the jury.  Students debate on whether or not this system is the best method of deciding guilt.

Note: Access to research technology is helpful but not essential for this To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity.

To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity debating the jury system


Title: Jury System on Trial

Common Core Standard: Writing 1 (writing argument)

Into: Quick-write: Perhaps you have heard people talking positively or negatively about jury duty.  Would you want to serve on a jury or would you try to find a way to get out of it? Explain your reasons.

Explain that the American criminal justice system decides guilt based on the conclusions of a jury of twelve ordinary people from the community.  The two sides present information and the jury must reach a unanimous decision: guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) or not guilty.  The judge then rules on the penalty.

Related link: “This is Why Juries Shouldn’t Decide Court Cases” from Business Insider

Related link: “Why Juries Work Best” from The Guardian

Through: Students will form groups in order to conduct a debate on the proposition.

Proposed: The jury system is so flawed that the government must take actions to implement a new system to decide guilt in criminal cases.

Remind students that even if they are personally unsure of their position, they can still argue it effectively.

Each group needs to compose an argument including:

  1. Introduction (main idea and summary)
  2. Reasons and evidence
  3. Concluding statement
  4. Anticipating counter arguments and offering rebuttal.

Beyond:  Which side won the debate and why? Have you made up your own mind about the jury system? Explain.

10) How Accepting Are You?

Students will practice some introspection in this To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity.  They will use a lesson adapted from Teaching Tolerance to think about being more inclusive and understanding.

To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activity acceptance


Title: Cliques in Schools (from Tolerance.org)

Common Core Standard: Speaking and Listening 1 (collaboration and discussion)

Into: “How accepting are you?” Quiz

Rate each statement on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 = very true).

  1. I do not have time for people who do not see things my way.
  2. I do not introduce myself to new people in my school or neighborhood.
  3. I always sit with the same people at lunch or during activities.
  4. I tend to judge people based on how they dress.
  5. My group of friends is tight-knit and does not like others butting in.
  6. I do not associate with people if they are unpopular with my group.
  7. I worry about being seen with some people.
  8. I often make fun of others to their face.
  9. I often make fun of people behind their back.
  10. I am not concerned about hurting people’s feeling online.
  11. I feel that people who are picked on bring it on themselves.
  12. I do not need to understand others because others do not try to understand me.
  13. I can tell everything I need to know about someone by looking at them.
  14. I enjoy it when others are mocked or criticized.
  15. I know that my point of view is the right point of view.

Discuss the quiz results as a class and explain that a major theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is about accepting others.

Through / Beyond:  Cliques in schools” from Teaching Tolerance

Students think about cliques in schools and the harmful effects of exclusion.

Conclusion

To Kill a Mockingbird pre-reading activities summary:

1) Build on prior knowledge (Jim Crow and segregation)

2) Growing up (point of view)

3) Review symbolism

4) Explore the controversy

5) Hypocrisy skits

6) Profiles in courage

7) The Scottoboro Affair

8) Jigsaw research

9) Debate the Jury System

10) How Accepting Are You?

Related post: “How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird

I hope that this post has given you some ideas that you can use to prepare students for reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  The book will mean more to the students when they can contextualize the novel and engage with the key themes and elements.

If you have found “To Kill a Mockingbird Pre-reading Activities” helpful, please check out my complete To Kill a Mockingbird unit and teacher guide.

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Featured image by the U.S. Department of Education

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