Are you teaching To Kill a Mockingbird this year? Whether you view it as a treasured classic, or an outdated relic, I have some tips.
Today’s blog post will be a little different. I would typically start by sharing ideas for teaching the novel in question. However, I think To Kill a Mockingbird is ready for a curriculum overhaul. It’s a fictional story sharing the trauma of systemic racism through the eyes of a young White girl. Her father, an immortalized literary hero, didn’t even win the case. Why are we still teaching To Kill a Mockingbird? Why are we holding on to this novel?
I recommend NOT teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.
Not convinced? Let’s talk about it. While I never connected with TKAM, I know many teachers have fond memories of reading it as a child, and have a lot of emotions wrapped up in teaching the book. But we have to be honest with ourselves. It’s not progressive. And like The Help, a White author wrote it for a White audience, and regardless of Lee’s intentions, TKAM is one big White Savior trope. Worst of all, it’s often the only book in a school’s curriculum that addresses racial injustice. And I hope that even lovers of TKAM will agree that at the very least it should not be the lone perspective on race that we give to students.
I hope you will join me in removing TKAM from your curriculum. That said, I know that because of state and/or district requirements it’s not not an option for every teacher to just eliminate certain problematic texts. So today, while I encourage teachers to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird if they can, I will offer some solutions for those of you who still have TKAM as a required novel. Below you’ll find a few tips and resources, but you can find even more in my Rethinking the Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird resource that I compiled with Dr. Sheila Frye from Teaching Literary.
Pair it with something more representative
If you’d like to have discussions of systemic racism and issues of justice grounded in the real-world, the nonfiction book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is perfect. Stevenson’s book is part-memoir and part-analysis of the justice system. The overarching narrative of the book is about one man, Walter McMillian, wrongly imprisoned for murder in 1986 and Stevenson’s years-long battle to free him from Death Row. This is a story of a real-life Black man written by his real-life Black attorney, and it is incredible. It even takes place in the same community as Harper Lee’s novel. Interwoven with McMillian’s story are chapters about the treatment of women, children, and the mentally ill in the justice system. This provides such a thorough view of the system while still using real people’s stories to ground the action. You can use either the young adult version or the original version – both would succeed in high school.
If you’re looking for coming-of-age stories, you could replace the novel with many YA choices. Author Jason Reynolds says, “I always say if my books are still being read forty years from now in schools, if they’re being taught as the books introducing young people to literacy in schools, I failed. Forty years from now, we ain’t figured out new books yet? Literary is living, it’s growing, it’s changing, it’s expanding, it’s evolving. People are living and growing and expanding and changing and evolving. Books have to continue to do the exact same thing in order for us to see eye-to-eye with the young people who they are trying to engage with.”
Have a classroom discussion on justice
Building Background: “What is Justice?” (3:00)
This video is a super quick introduction to justice that you can use to spark conversation in your students. Some core concepts introduced here are the goals of the American Justice System (as Fania Davis puts it, “Do harm to someone who has done harm to show that doing harm is wrong”), the impact on victims, and other alternatives (the Gullah “just law”).
Facilitate a student discussion of justice. In our society, the most visible form of “justice” is punitive. What happens when students break the rules at school or at home? This can be a tough conversation, but turn concrete examples into general concepts: corporal punishment, exclusion, shame, etc. (Students can also work on generating a list in small groups, since that may allow them to feel more comfortable.) Once they have a list, ask students to imagine what they want the punishments to be. This requires students to think critically about the goals of justice for the victims, the perpetrators, and society. It is the best way to get to the core of what justice means in our students’ lives.
Video: “What is Transformative Justice?” (10:29)
Several practitioners of transformative justice talk about its scope and potential. One of the key takeaways from this video is that answering harm with harm does not move a community forward. In To Kill a Mockingbird, most readers believe Tom’s testimony that he didn’t harm Mayella. However, when we talk about justice in the classroom, we will encounter students who want to talk about “well, what if he did do it?” Discussing alternatives to punitive justice is important. Also, it helps break down the social construct that there’s only one way to serve justice.
Bring in some nonfiction
I recommend Just Mercy as a core text to replace To Kill a Mockingbird. But if you cannot get approval for new books, here are two chapters you could share as stand-alones. Each is 15 pages.
Chapter 1 of Just Mercy is called “Mockingbird Players” and introduces the Monroeville setting and the primary case of the book, that of Walter McMillian. Students will be able to connect the novel to real-life events that continue to happen.
Chapter 8 of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is about the incarceration and execution of children. One story included is about Ian Manual, who shot Debbie Baigre when he was thirteen years old. In this video, students will hear in her own words that Baigre quickly forgave Ian and fought for his release. This is an interesting case because it questions the purpose of incarceration. If Ian was remorseful and a child with an under-developed prefrontal cortex, why was he sentenced to life in prison? Why was he viewed as irredeemable? And if his own victim wanted his release, why was he kept in jail?
I hope you took something useful out of my blog post on (not) teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. Does your district still require you to teach it? I’d love to hear how you’ve been adapting and supplementing for your students! Comment below so we can all learn!
Many teachers are working to diversify their curriculum to include more voices, and it’s been a big focus for me this year. I’ve been working with Dr. Sheila Frye (from Teaching Literacy) on a project called “Rethinking the Classics” to help teachers find supplemental texts and curriculum updates. So far, in addition to TKAM we’ve covered, The Giver, The Odyssey, The Outsiders, Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and we have many more to come.
Do you have a specific required text that you’d like to make more inclusive? Reach out to me @nouvelle_ela and I’ll see if I can help 🙂