“Students are all on a path from concrete to abstract thinking, and my job is to get students further down that path,” explains English teacher Kirsten Small. Every student makes the leap, she says, and it usually takes place during her class’s study of Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The unit is significant for other reasons, too. “It’s the first time students read a book for school that was written for adults, not children,” says Small, who thinks that To Kill a Mockingbird is the perfect book to teach students in seventh grade, “because kids are ready for a big challenge. And not only is the exercise of reading it so wonderful, but so are the messages in it. It has the perfect messages for seventh graders who are learning to be themselves away from their parents.”
Getting to the Cake
As they read the first half of the book, Small leads her students in an intensive vocabulary study to understand not only what the author is saying, but also what her underlying message is—what Small refers to as the cake, not just the icing. Students’ reading comprehension is expanded by their study of the history of the period in which the novel takes place, with a focus on topics like the Great Depression, racism, and life in the South.
In the second half of the book, students pick up the pace of their reading (from one chapter every two nights to two chapters each night) to focus on the accelerating story and explore in depth the two major themes of the book.
Gaining Perspective, Recognizing Courage
One theme is to understand things from other people’s perspective. Students do that literally by choosing a character and acting out the book’s pivotal courtroom scene over the course of several class periods. They do it again in what Small calls the hypocritical tea party scene, during which students wear hats, drink tea, and eat cookies while reading aloud from the book. The exercise helps students “in really understanding what’s going on, and to fully appreciate Harper Lee’s biting humor,” explains Small.
Students learn a lot about the book’s second theme of courage from Atticus, says Small, who defines courage as “doing the right thing, especially when it’s the hard thing to do.”
Understanding the Abstract
Throughout the book, Small leads her students toward their understanding of the abstract. “It usually happens because I drill it into them with the symbolism that’s in the novel,” she explains. “You’re not only supposed to understand what the author is saying, but her viewpoint on it as well.”
For instance, if something happens in the light or in the dark, or on the left or right, “the author intends to give you added meaning to what it is she is literally telling you.” And even though students have been exposed to the concept of symbolism in the past, there is something about this unit, says Small, that crystallizes the concept of the abstract for her students.
Reading that Resonates
To Kill a Mockingbird resonates with Small’s students, who remember the book and their seventh grade unit with what can only be described as reverence for having accomplished something great. Small believes the unit makes such an impact because her students can all relate to the theme of courage. “Kids are courageous everywhere,” she comments. “The book commends them for that, gives them the strength to continue doing those things, and validates their journey.”
Other reasons she believes it resonates are “because it’s a journey we all take together, it’s hard, and because it brings me such joy that I can’t help but having so much fun doing it—for 18 years!”
Torn and Tattered
To say that Small is passionate about To Kill a Mockingbird is an understatement. Over the years, she has amassed a collection of copies of the novel, including a valuable first edition, given to her as gifts from grateful students. Her favorite copy, though, is the one she has been teaching from since 1998. The book’s pages are disintegrating and the binding has come loose (Small keeps it stored in a plastic bag). There are colorful notes scribbled on almost every page. “People ask me all the time, ‘How did you figure this all out?’ I tell them, ‘The kids taught me.’ Every year somebody discovers something new about it and I write it down in my book."