To honor Harper Lee on the occasion of her 86th birthday this week, see how To Kill a Mockingbird captures the letter and spirit of the Common Core State Standards with an examination of informational texts along with a literary analysis.
Image: A scene from the play "To Kill A Mockingbird," performed in Monroeville, Alabama (April 2010)
The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Is Mockingbird an endangered species?
To Kill a Mockingbird appears on the list of Common Core State Standards English Language Arts 9–10 grade exemplar texts (Appendix B p. 107), and poll results rank it as second only behind the Bible as the book that makes the most difference in people’s lives. Even so, teachers are concerned that important fiction such as Mockingbird will be overwhelmed in the call for more informational texts in an already crowded curriculum. But, as we’ve seen in other posts in EDSITEment Closer Readings blog, fact and fiction can work together to create an ideal CCSS application of a classic text—if you harness the defining strengths of each. Indeed, Mockingbird finds a new life within the Common Core Standards.
A Southern tragedy revisited in fact …
Eighty years ago this April, nine black youths, ages 13 to 19, were wrongfully convicted by all-white juries of raping two white women on a train in north Alabama and all but the youngest were sentenced to death. The Alabama Encyclopedia labels the Scottsboro trials “an unmitigated tragedy.” Each of the defendants eventually got out of prison, but the so-called Scottsboro Boys struggled to adapt to life as free men.
Fast forward to April 19, 2013: In a formal ceremony at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, signed posthumous pardons for the group of young men wrongfully convicted back in the 1930s. “This is historic legislation, and it’s time to right this wrong,” Bentley said in a statement.
Finds an enduring “truth” in fiction
To Kill a Mockingbird heroically came forward to right such a wrong on its publication in 1960. The Scottsboro Boys case was an inspiration for the novel and there are many parallels between the fictional trial of Tom Robinson and that of the Scottsboro boys. The story transcends 1930s rural Southern setting. Lee’s mirror reflects the racial inequality rampant in America during the late 1950s when it was written, and themes and issues it raises will surely retain a place in the public discourse. Teaching how such a historical event is the impetus for great fiction and how that fiction can in turn universalize events underlying higher level skills such as character analysis and evidence-based reasoning is the task at hand.
Teaching Mockingbird with informational texts
Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
The lesson To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys Trial: Profiles in Courage draws on select informational texts, court transcripts, and other primary source material from the 1933 Scottsboro Boys trial, a continuation of the first trial. By building on skills relating to the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, it speaks to the distinctions between the literary and nonfiction texts and compares renditions of similar trial experiences.
The comparative analysis of activities 1 and 2 looks at primary source documents taken from the Scottsboro trials homepage alongside the novel’s account of the Robinson trial. For example, the testimony of Miss Hollace Ransdall, hired by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1931, provides an adult point of view and serves as a counterpoint to Scout’s first-hand observation through a child's eyes of the fictional trial. These comparisons are extended by perusing timelines, the treatment of the defendants, and the speed of the fictional and nonfictional trials.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
In activity 3 students will then move onto an analysis of complex characters with multiple motivations, based on biographical information, court transcripts, and excerpts from the novel. Students will compare distinguishing traits of historical vs fictional characters and instances of where each exhibits courage or cowardice. In this way, they will arrive at an understanding of how a fictional account of courtroom drama differs from a historical account.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
At this point, the student has performed the analysis necessary to form a conclusion about the final arguments raised and the claims made in the Scottsboro trial prosecution and defense summations. Evaluation can be made of both the evidence and reasoning presented by both sides to the jury. Discussion questions in the activity expose revelations about race and regional and religious views in the 1930s rural American South.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
The lesson’s assessment contains topical essays that measure the understanding of the courage and idealism exhibited in both the fiction and nonfiction trials. Suggestions for additional research projects and creative writing activities stem from fictional or historical accounts from the civil rights era and consider how actions and circumstance converge to shape a courageous act.
The Scottsboro trials illustrates through fact what Harper Lee tries to instruct through fiction – the courage it requires to take a stand for the great leveler - our Constitutional principle of equal justice for all under the law:
“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe….but there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” -Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird
Additional resources to teach To Kill a Mockingbird
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: Profiles in Courage: a close reading of the concept of courage in To Kill a Mockingbird.
- The Alabama Encyclopedia’s article on To Kill a Mockingbird: background, links, and images for the novel.
- Mary McDonagh Murphy’s Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of To Kill a Mockingbird (2010) considers the profound influence and legacy of this “our national novel” as it continues to stir emotions, create controversy, and transform lives.
- Library of Congress: Scottsboro trial transcript,1931.
- NEA’s The Big Read on To Kill a Mockingbird offers a plethora of multimedia sources