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To Kill a Mockingbird and the Gift of Imperfect Literature: Reflections by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

 

When a novel becomes a staple of secondary curriculum, it embeds itself into the imaginations of thousands of teachers and students. The characters take on an archetypal quality in the classroom, and in the world, serving as reference points for other characters, for real and fictional relationships, and for evaluating “character” more broadly.   

To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee, who died on February 19th, certainly holds such a place in the English Language Arts classroom and the collective American secondary school imagination. From “Mockingbird Monologues” to Teaching Tolerance’s companion curriculum, this book has sparked a myriad of creative and analytic talk and debates, writing assignments and projects.

The wise young Scout, the admirable Atticus and the mysterious Boo Radley: these are characters whose specificity continues to fascinate young readers. For English classrooms, they also offer a springboard into conversations about the voice of the narrator, power from the standpoint of race, gender, age and ability, and, with the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, (the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird that many regard as an initial draft) the effects of revision. To Kill a Mockingbird’s small-town setting in a time period not so long ago has also positioned this novel as a bridge to social studies, galvanizing readers to investigate the painfully real policies and long list of actual victims of racist leadership. These analyses can also promote healthy questioning of the novel’s focus on the white characters, and the way in which the black man at the center of the story is not given the kind of interiority or principled philosophy of a Scout or an Atticus.

This one novel, in short, embodies the promise and the limitations of a great work of literature. Harper Lee gave us a gift that continues to evolve as each new generation of readers finds different resonance with the world of Maycomb, Alabama.

Lucy Calkins
Mary Ehrenworth
Audra Robb

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

Published Thursday, Mar 3, 2016

Harper Lee
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird
 To Kill a Mockingbird

 

When a novel becomes a staple of secondary curriculum, it embeds itself into the imaginations of thousands of teachers and students. The characters take on an archetypal quality in the classroom, and in the world, serving as reference points for other characters, for real and fictional relationships, and for evaluating “character” more broadly.   

To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee, who died on February 19th, certainly holds such a place in the English Language Arts classroom and the collective American secondary school imagination. From “Mockingbird Monologues” to Teaching Tolerance’s companion curriculum, this book has sparked a myriad of creative and analytic talk and debates, writing assignments and projects.

The wise young Scout, the admirable Atticus and the mysterious Boo Radley: these are characters whose specificity continues to fascinate young readers. For English classrooms, they also offer a springboard into conversations about the voice of the narrator, power from the standpoint of race, gender, age and ability, and, with the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, (the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird that many regard as an initial draft) the effects of revision. To Kill a Mockingbird’s small-town setting in a time period not so long ago has also positioned this novel as a bridge to social studies, galvanizing readers to investigate the painfully real policies and long list of actual victims of racist leadership. These analyses can also promote healthy questioning of the novel’s focus on the white characters, and the way in which the black man at the center of the story is not given the kind of interiority or principled philosophy of a Scout or an Atticus.

This one novel, in short, embodies the promise and the limitations of a great work of literature. Harper Lee gave us a gift that continues to evolve as each new generation of readers finds different resonance with the world of Maycomb, Alabama.

Lucy Calkins
Mary Ehrenworth
Audra Robb

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

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