To Kill a Mockingbird Lesson Plans: 9 powerful ideas to teach
Set in the racially divided American South in the 1930s, To Kill A Mockingbird provides a historical window into not only America’s past, but also our present, our future, and, in fact, the span of human history. The questions and themes in the book, including racism, prejudice, and morality, are as relevant here and now as they were in fictional Maycomb, Alabama.
Here are nine impactful ideas for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. These strategies work in a traditional classroom setting and can also be adapted to distance learning situations. Use these ideas to help bring this classic piece of literature alive for your students.
1. Help students gain historical perspective
Before they begin To Kill a Mockingbird, students should understand the history of slavery and segregation, especially as they influenced the social landscape of the Deep South in the early 1900s, using resources such as this timeline. In addition, ask students to research Jim Crow laws as well as stories of individuals such as Emmett Till and George Stinney.
This background research may take various forms, such as assigned reading or classroom viewing. You may also choose to assign different students or groups of students various stories of racial segregation and discrimination.
Have them present their findings to the class. This can take place in a classroom setting or via a virtual learning platform.
You may also want students to explore the Civil Rights Movement, which was in full effect when Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.
As a thematic extension to the history of racial inequality in the United States, consider exploring the history and concept of race itself. Students may investigate other instances of racial or cultural division throughout history, such as issues of race in ancient cultures or more modern atrocities such as Hitler’s pursuit of the ‘master race’ or Apartheid in South Africa.
2. Explore personal experiences
In addition to race, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with issues of class division. Set the stage with class dialogue and activities designed to allow students to share their own experiences with racial or class division. This resource contains several great pointers for class discussion, including a video on implicit bias:
In addition to discussion, consider object lessons designed to facilitate greater understanding.
Sample activity: One such activity is to hand each student one of three colors of yarn upon entering the classroom. Students will tie the yarn to their wrists. Students with red yarn may act normally; students with yellow yarn may not speak for any reason; students with blue yarn can speak only if they raise their hand but cannot use their desks and must sit on the floor.
Consider ways that you, as the teacher, can also respond to the students differently based upon their yarn color.
You may be more generous toward one color of yarn than another. You may ignore or be slow to respond to another color of yarn. Allow this activity to progress for some time and then facilitate a discussion about what it feels like to be in either a favored or a disenfranchised group based solely upon yarn color.
The goal of these types of activities is to allow students to experience first-hand the nature of discrimination and favoritism due to race or class.
3. Understand the author
A key to appreciating any good piece of literature is to understand the author’s story and experience. Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Alabama. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird based on her own experience and observations, and she loosely modeled the central events of the story after an actual event that occurred near her hometown when she was 10 years old.
Before beginning the novel, provide resources about Harper Lee or have students do their own research on the author. Understanding a bit of the author’s story and perspective will enable students to connect more deeply with the novel and see it not just as a work of fiction, but as a representation of actual human experience.
4. Keep a thematic journal
To Kill a Mockingbird provides material for rich discussion surrounding a variety of themes, including:
- Race and prejudice
- Class divisions
- Equality vs. inequality
- Good vs. evil
- Moral education
Help learners identity and connect with these themes
by keeping a thematic journal. As they read, ask students to copy passages into their journals that reflect the various themes. Students should quote each passage exactly, make note of the page number, and list the theme or themes it reflects, like this:
“I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.”
pg. 148, Class divisions
You may have each student record passages relevant to all of the book’s themes, or you may assign individuals or groups different themes. Have the students share their passages and related themes during class discussion, whether in person or virtually. You may also assign passages that you want your students to record, asking them to identify the themes associated with those passages.
As an added bonus, this thematic journal becomes a very good reference for textual evidence as students write final essays or complete unit projects.
5. Explore the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird serves as a symbol of an important theme in the book: innocence and its loss. Help your students explore this theme throughout the novel by keeping an innocent character chart.
Identify characters who represent innocence in some way. Ideas include:
- Jem and Scout, who lose their childhood innocence, but gain wisdom as the events of the story unfold.
- Tom Robinson, and the question surrounding his guilt or innocence.
- Boo Radley, gentle and innocent but misunderstood and hidden away from society.
- Atticus Finch, a symbol of truth and goodness but painfully aware of the reality of evil in the world.
Have students maintain a character chart or journal pages dedicated to specific characters. As they read, ask them to note evidence of innocence or lack of innocence in these characters. Have students pay special attention to how characters experience loss of innocence as the story progresses.
6. Consider human complexity
One idea that emerges in To Kill a Mockingbird is the question of human complexity. Many characters show admirable qualities as well as character traits that are very problematic. This is especially true as it relates to their attitudes towards race and class.
Choose characters to profile and dialogue about, asking questions such as:
- Is any person “all good” or “all bad?”
- What positive character traits does this character demonstrate?
- What negative character traits does this character demonstrate?
- Do the character’s negative traits outweigh the positive, or vice versa?
- Can we excuse certain negative beliefs and traits in a person as a reflection of the era or place in which they were born?
- Do a person’s wrong actions or beliefs in some areas mean that we cannot trust their ideas or opinions about anything else?
- How do we see this sort of human complexity in ourselves, those we know, public figures (politicians, musicians, athletes, etc.) or other historical or literary figures?
All of these questions also provide excellent opportunities for class discussion and essay topics.
Another way to explore human complexity is to have students read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and compare the side of Atticus Finch revealed in that novel with the Atticus Finch we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. Comparing Mr. Finch in these two books brings to life a more complex, and even problematic, character.
Have students consider: What do we make of the fact that Atticus, a symbol of morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird, also harbors certain beliefs about race in Go Set a Watchman that the modern reader understands to be wrong?
7. Hold a debate
Late in the novel, Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout out of anger toward their father following the court case. Boo Radley comes to their defense, killing Bob Ewell. The Sheriff and Atticus debate whether to reveal what Boo Radley has done.
This scene brings up questions of innocence, truth, justice and morality. Stage a class debate in which students must argue in favor of or against exposing the truth of how Bob Ewell was killed. Questions to consider include:
- Is it right to lie to protect somebody? How do we know if and when it is right?
- Is it ever okay for the justice system to cover up facts if doing so may protect an innocent person?
- When issues are complex, not black and white, how do we decide what is the right thing to do?
Extend this line of questioning by having students read about people who lied or disobeyed their governments for the greater good. Examples include:
- The family of Corrie ten Boom, who hid Jews from the Nazis.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German executed due to his connection with a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.
- Rosa Parks, who refused to follow unjust laws of segregation.
- English colonists, who fought the Revolutionary War due to unjust treatment.
8. Keep a “law vs. code” chart
A somewhat more advanced topic for discussion in To Kill a Mockingbird is the idea of law vs. code. Atticus Finch brings this theme to the forefront in his closing arguments during Tom Robinson’s trial.
Have students examine this dynamic by keeping a “law vs. code” chart. Students should compare and contrast the actual laws in the book’s Maycomb, Alabama with the social codes that dictate human behavior and relationships in the novel.
Students can also include their own present day observations in these “Law vs. Code” charts. For example,
- Are there social codes at school that, while not official rules, shape how people interact with one another or are treated?
- Do these codes exist in other areas of the students’ lives, such as their sports teams or other extracurricular groups?
- Are there “codes” that exist in their families, neighborhoods, cities, states, or in our country?
The keeping of a “law vs. code” chart should include exploration of the ways that these codes can be good and the ways that they may be bad. Have students look at ways that codes might reflect or promote prejudice or discrimination. Also, have them look for ways that codes may support appropriate behaviors and beliefs.
9. Make connections with current events
Finally, students can use To Kill a Mockingbird as a springboard to discuss current events and other matters of cultural relevance. Issues of race and class discrimination remain relevant topics in our society, with news headlines regularly featuring matters related to race, wealth, class-based stereotyping and privilege. For example,
- Police brutality and Black Lives Matter
- Asian students and standardized test scores
- Affirmative action policies
- Advantages given to children of wealthy parents
The list of possible, current event topics is extensive and can help students understand how the events that unfold in the book still matter today.
These nine, content-rich ideas will help you build a unit of study that thoroughly explores the themes and lessons in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that are relevant to our world today. Each of these ideas can be adapted for classroom or virtual learning to bring this classic, culturally relevant piece of literature to life.