Contributed by Julia Rubin, Middle School English Teacher, Jules Greene, Middle School History Teacher and Diversity & Inclusivity Coordinator, Jenn Gingery, Middle School History Teacher, Yanelly De La Rosa, Resident Teacher, History
To this day, Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of the most widely read novels in the United States, and continues to be studied in schools. The 2015 publication of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman both fueled readership of Mockingbird and brought to light questions about one of our great heroes of literary fiction, Atticus Finch, particularly in relationship to his views about race and the importance of racial equality. Here at Hillbrook, To Kill a Mockingbird has been a part of the eighth grade curriculum for many years. As teachers, we take pride in our ability to ask why, to reflect on our own teaching practice, and to provide for our students the most meaningful learning experience that we can. So we asked ourselves, how can we continue to make To Kill a Mockingbird relevant to our students’ lives today?
This year, as we approached Mockingbird Season, history and English teachers, Jenn Gingery, Jules Greene, Yanelly De La Rosa, Julia Rubin, and Head of School, Mark Silver, came together to design a series of conference-style learning experiences that would bring Mockingbird to life.
In order to reach those goals, the 8th grade class participated in three two-hour workshops on varying topics related to race, gender, class, and intersectionality. The first workshop in the series, entitled, Legacies of Reconstruction & the Current State of Race for Blacks and Whites in the United States, served as a deep dive into the history of race in the United States in order to better understand the way in which this historical dynamic shows its presence in our social climate today. For example, students studied the impact of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, vagrancy and Jim Crow laws, alongside current-day resistance movements like Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. With this historiographical deep dive under their belts, the novel provided an impactful launching point for students to connect personally with the characters and think about Harper Lee in the context of her time, intently exploring her strengths as well as wonder about her biases as a writer.
The next workshop in the series, An Introduction to the Culture of Poverty: The Current-Day Impact of the Moynihan Report, focused on ideas around class and socioeconomic status, and provided an introduction to the social theory called the Culture of Poverty, attributed in part to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, written during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon Johnson. Alongside an investigation of the Moynihan Report, students looked closely at Harper Lee’s construction of the Ewell family from To Kill a Mockingbird, the antagonists of the novel who are responsible for causing the death of another character, Tim Robinson. It is compelling that, unlike other marginalized groups in the novel, Lee does not encourage her reader to “walk in another man’s shoes” as Atticus from Mockingbird urges. Instead, she uses her authority as storyteller to regard the Ewells as “trash.” The Ewell family embody much of what The Moynihan Report described about impoverished people — not only are they impoverished, but they also have “poor” values. Looking at class and socioeconomic status in Mockingbird allowed students to “read against the grain”, or look at the ways in which the novel leads readers toward certain biases, with a deeper goal that encourages cultivating awareness and empathy for marginalized groups – even the most difficult ones – which is one of the central tenets in building cultural competency.
In our third and final workshop, students were introduced to a concept coined by Civil Rights Advocate Kimberle Crenshaw, called intersectionality. Intersectionality argues that people who have more than one social identifier that places them in a minority group will likely encounter greater degrees of difficulty in achieving equal representation in the eyes of the law. Harper Lee’s novel includes several characters who are “standing at the intersection” and these characters allowed students to dig deeply into the issues, substantiating their claims using evidence from the novel.
Students deepened their understanding of intersectionality and privilege by engaging in a dramatic simulation. “Stepping into the shoes” of characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, students, as these literary characters, stood at a starting mark on the ground, and then were asked a series of questions that allowed them to reflect upon the characters’ experiences in the novel. Examples of reflections included, “If your character can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward” or, “If your character were ever discouraged from an activity because of race, class, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, take one step back.” After responding to the questions from this fictional perspective, the student-as-characters who arrive at the front of the line are the ones with the “most privilege.” Through this hands-on experience, our class decided together that the character they perceived as possessing the most privilege was Atticus Finch.
The culminating assignment for eighth graders upon completion of Mockingbird was to write a sourced “This I Believe” speech, in which they were given the choice to bring their own voice to their investigations on race, class, gender, or intersectionality. They also supported their personal claim with textual evidence from Mockingbird as well as multiple sources of scholarly research in these areas of study today.
Finally, they read their essays for their classmates, an opportunity to share their work and their individual reflections with each other. In one eighth grader’s speech she stated, “Privilege is an advantage given by certain identities. For example, I am extremely privileged. I have grown up in a financially stable home, I am able bodied, I have an education and I have grown up in a very stable and safe community. However, I am also a female and am Asian. Even though I have so many more privileges than disadvantages, I think about my disadvantages so much more than my privileges.” Another of her classmates wrote, “I believe that now, more than ever before, we as Americans must climb into the skin those who are in need. We must see things from their point of view and be able to understand that stereotypes, while easy to believe in and use, do nothing but hurt the people who they depict. If we all manage to take Atticus’s advice, we will be able to truly make America the land of the free, and through empathy and courage, the home of the brave.”
In our efforts to fulfill our goals for Vision 2020, students were provided with dynamic experiences created by teachers that “enhance cultural competency and prepare our students to be leaders in an increasingly diverse and connected world.” Returning to our initial essential question, Is reading To Kill a Mockingbird still relevant today? We respond, indeed!