For a brief look some of the concepts and practices used to enhance literacy in the English classroom…click here!
For a brief look some of the concepts and practices used to enhance literacy in the English classroom…click here!
“What did I just watch?”
“Wasn’t this supposed to be a project on To Kill a Mockingbird?”
When composing this assignment, I had the intention of not only deepening students’ understanding of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but of helping students to see the modern relevance of the novel as well as the personal relevance. The trailer you just watched intentionally mentioned no characters or scenes from the book. Many students thrive on explicit instruction and direction and that isn’t always the easiest thing to provide in the English discipline. English Language Arts focuses a lot on personal feelings and interpretations and survives on creativity which can be nearly impossible to direct at times. As the final project of the unit on this book, the students will be asked to compose a book or movie trailer based on one scene or theme from the book. In order to show students the level of freedom they have with the project and just how honest and creative I want them to get, I chose to almost leave the book entirely with my example; I wanted to provide the students with a very obscure example of what I am expecting from them.
I took a moment to view today’s world through the story’s lens and while this could take you in any number of directions, I chose to portray fallen soldiers as mockingbirds. Many characters in the book can be considered mockingbirds as innocent individuals that are harmed or negatively impacted by their encounter with evil and I wanted to show students how this symbolic bird in the story could be applied elsewhere. The focus on this reading of the story is to make the characters or narrative relatable and personal and I want the students to really explore this.
The problem with giving students so much freedom is that those students who struggle without direction might have difficulty getting started. Many students will still struggle and worry about such things as “what is she looking for” and “what if I’m wrong and my grade suffers”. Simply telling students to be creative and awarding them freedom with this project may only add an additional stressful element for some. By providing this unconventional example for them, I am hoping to help them visualize just how far they can take it. I want this example to show them that it’s okay if your interpretation of the text makes absolutely no sense to someone else; as long as some connection can be made to the text, the project will be a success.
If you haven’t gathered by now, I am one of those individuals who has always performed better with explicit directions to follow and struggled for a while with how to truly allow myself the freedom to be creative and grow. Putting this trailer together not only expanded my knowledge and understanding of the commonly used “iMovie” application, but I was able to recognize how a project such as this one would have helped me as a student to understand the wide parameters in which I could work.
One of the commonly used techniques to help students visualize a text is to have them imagine the text as a movie. While studying literature, and specifically To Kill a Mockingbird in this instance, one of the goals is to open students up to ideas such as author intent, symbolism, and personal interpretations. This project will not only help students to visualize the text, but also to understand that literature is often ambiguous and your past experiences and personality will shape your un
derstanding and interpretation of the
book, and that’s okay – great even! This project will help students to understand that everyone’s movie will be different and by viewing not only your own project, but other students’, students’ comfortability with such concepts should increase.
So, have fun with this and encourage your students to do the same! Reading should be fun and we want to continue to drive that point home. We don’t want to simply tell students why reading is great, but convince them of it!
What is disciplinary literacy? Well, that depends on who you ask. An English teacher will most likely give you a very different answer than one who teaches science. Disciplinary literacy goes beyond what makes a student a proficient reader and writer demanding the student understand the requirements and expectations of a variety of disciplines. With the risk of sounding dramatic, a student is expected to be, in a way, bilingual in the English language. Each discipline comes with its own set of tools, styles, vocabulary, and a teacher who expects their students to comprehend and utilize those things.
Many of the large disciplinary issues arise when expectations are set for students who may have basic literacy skills but have not developed the “specialized strategies, vocabulary and knowledge base required for understanding complex discipline specific texts” (Lee). The vicious circle this creates is that in order to understand a discipline’s readings, one is required to know the content of that discipline and in order to know the content, one must read discipline specific literature. We must find a way to around this and reading strategies that allow us to break the circle.
Each discipline encourages students to become a member of their particular society. In order to provide them with the opportunity to be a successful member of that society, we need to teach them the necessary discipline specific practices. Students need to learn the different tools of the discipline in hopes that they will become accustomed to that discipline’s culture and can communicate in ways that other members will understand. “Disciplinary literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline” (Brozo). Educators must find a way to meet in the middle; they must take the time to teach the strategies of each discipline.
Many strategies for literacy in each discipline allow the text to dictate the process and the students to achieve the goals of the text. Understanding what tools and strategies authors use to compose literature for different disciplines can help students “understand a range of warrantable interpretations” (Lee). However, there are a large number of things that can influence and determine students’ comprehension and understanding. Prior knowledge in its many forms can “influence what we comprehend, pay attention to, and perspectives taken” (Lee). Prior knowledge and experience isn’t something teachers have control over or any way of knowing, so it will take some effort to figure out what reading strategies and practices work best for students.
Annette Lamb’s revised definition of reading as “the process of constructing meaning from symbols” allows us to expand our arsenal of tools and strategies to help the students even further. The strategies we commonly see proficient or advanced readers use include asking questions, making predictions and summarizing, to name a few, but perhaps we can break out of our traditional teaching strategies to get students to this point. A wide variety of texts and tools is what we need in order to engage a wide variety of students.
The next step is to find a way to engage students in today’s digital age without losing the traditional reading practices and benefits. Some have found great success with the new(er) digital technologies and the opportunities for interaction they offer. From reference databases to transmedia storytelling, students have access to a multitude of choices. The new age of digital reading offers more options than previous generations had to experience a narrative which means more opportunities for students to learn and more opportunities for distraction. It’s vital to ensure that students are still absorbing the value of the content and if mobile devices and multimedia are going to make that happen, we should take advantage. However, we don’t want to risk “over-reliance on audio, bells-and-whistles features that distract readers. . .‘eye candy’ unrelated to the story can divert attention, cause readers to lose focus, and adversely affect learning” (Lamb). Ultimately, we don’t want to completely avoid these devices as they offer numerous advantages and opportunities for differentiated learning; we do however need to be meticulous about the technology we choose to utilize.
How to ensure disciplinary literacy and who is responsible for it are not issues that are going to be solved tomorrow, but they are concerns we need to be aware of and keep in mind. One group of professionals suggests one possible solution is to open a dialogue between literacy specialists and discipline specific teachers. If a compromise is made and a middle ground found, great strides in disciplinary literacy can be made benefiting both students and teachers.
Brozo, William G. & Carla Meyer & Trevor Stewart Gary Moorman. “Content Area Reading and Disciplinary Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (2013): 353-357.
Lamb, Annette. “Reading Redefined in a Transmedia Universe.” Learning & Leading with Technology (2011): 13-17.
Lee, Carol D. & Anika Spratley. Reading in the Disciplines . New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York , 2010.
The following resources are intended for students in (or around) 10th or 11th grade to be utilized in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird. It would be a disservice to students to not discuss such things as the Jim Crow laws, lynching and gender roles and what all of that meant for our country (especially the south) at that time. Even though this is intended for the English classroom, these secondary texts can help set the stage for students and paint a clearer picture as to the importance and relevance of the novel across many disciplines.
As the primary novel the following texts are intended to support, a brief understanding of the complexity of To Kill a Mockingbird may be helpful. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee follows a young Scout as she reflects on events from her childhood and what it was like growing up in a small southern town in the 1930’s. Scout’s father, Atticus, is a lawyer selected to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Based on a selection from the novel, the quantitative measure of this text places it at an average reading level of 8th grade. After looking into what grade various schools have decided to teach this text in the past, this measurement seems accurate as many schools have begun teaching this text around 8th or 9th grade. However, based on some of the vocabulary and many of the themes and concepts discussed below, I do feel that may be a bit too early to begin teaching this text.
|Measurement Tool||Grade Level|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||Grade 7.3|
|Automated Readability Index||Grade 8.6|
|Flesch Reading Ease||81.3/100|
|Gunning fog index||Grade 10.0|
|Laesbarhedsindex (LIX) Formula||31.5 = below school year 5|
|SMOG Index||Grade 7.6|
|Average grade level||Grade 8.1 (mean of above)|
While I can see the arguments others may have in favor of teaching this text to younger students, I feel the qualitative level of this book requires a bit more maturity than 8th graders might have. Because of the meaning and knowledge demands required to fully comprehend this text, I think it would be best taught at the 10th or 11th grade level; however, keeping in mind that most districts have it on the middle school reading list, I think even waiting that extra year until students enter high school would be beneficial.
Certain parts and concepts of the novel are moderately to exceedingly complex and may be difficult for students to comprehend or imagine. Those same difficult scenes are what make the novel so impactful and I think it’s imperative to make sure students are prepared for them to ensure they get everything this novel has to offer. The story includes such concepts as rape and lynching which may be difficult for some students to imagine as well as expected gender norms much more radical than what students are used to today.
Although there are many more terms that would come up during the reading of the novel, some of the vocabulary terms I would consider introducing to students before reading would be:
1.Temerity: Reckless, offensive boldness
2.Tyranny: A government in which a single person assumes absolute control
3.Fractious: Inclined to make trouble
4.Benevolence: Inclination to perform charitable acts
5.Prowess: Superior skill or ability; strength or courage
6.Tacit: Unspoken; understood without being expressed
7.Auspicious: Presenting favorable circumstances
8. Aberrations: Deviations from the proper course
9.Volition: The act of making a conscious decision
10.Perogative: A right or privilege
The purpose of the text paired with these secondary texts is to help students understand why this novel is still impactful and important and at the same time why we continue to read older novels and what it is that makes them timeless. In doing that, students can also understand the power their actions and words can have over others and the importance of tolerance and for standing up for what is right. In addition, this is also a great teaching tool for such ELA lessons such as symbolism and voice.
2. Facing History and Ourselves. 2016. Hey, Boo: Considering the Character of Scout. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/video/hey-boo-considering-character-scout.
This brief video asks various readers and experts to share their views and opinions on the character of Scout. They discuss the different issues that her character encountered and had to deal with.
Based off an excerpt of the video, the quantitative measure of this text averaged around 8.5. I do want to note that I did not enter the entire video for measurement but do feel the measurement to be accurate. The video is not very complex but should be enough to jumpstart students’ deeper thinking about the issues the text and characters encounter.
|Measurement Tool||Grade Level|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||Grade 6.0|
|Automated Readability Index||Grade 6.8|
|Flesch Reading Ease||81.5/100|
|Gunning fog index||Grade 11.4|
|Laesbarhedsindex (LIX) Formula||28.6 = below school year 5|
|SMOG Index||Grade 10.7|
|Average grade level||Grade 8.5 (mean of above)|
I would place the qualitative level of this video around the same level, between 8th and 9th grade. Based on the text structure, language, meaning and knowledge demands I would label this video as slightly to moderately complex.
The structure of the video is easy to follow with clips from the movie illustrating what the commentators are referring to and the majority of the language should be very easy for students above 8th grade to understand. That being said, there are a few vocabulary terms I pulled from the video which students may find helpful to understand before viewing:
Overall, I find the commentators and their positions and feelings easy to follow as I think they do a good job of explaining their thought process; however, the knowledge demands and life experience required for absorbing it’s importance are why I would consider labeling the video as moderately complex. This book was written and takes place in a very different time than current students grew/are growing up in which could make it slightly difficult to understand the significance of Scout’s character. Further explanation as to how girls were expected to dress and behave in the 1950’s may help students in fully understanding and appreciating this video as well as Scout’s character.
The purpose of the video (task) for the reader is to open students’ eyes to another aspect of what makes this novel so important. Even as just a young child Scout is such a complex character and much of what makes her so impactful is her drive to be herself. She does not want to fall into the expected gender roles society has placed on girls at that time and hearing what her character meant to different people should allow the students to take from her character what is meaningful to them.
2.The Great Debaters. By Robert Eisele. Dir. Denzel Washington. Perf. Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise. 2007. Film. The Great Debaters. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Ix7zOWty9Wo/hqdefault.jpg
This movie clip taken from a very moving film is a powerful depiction of the common lynchings that were taking place around the same time the novel is set (1930’s). We see this scene from the viewpoint of the black characters and really feel its impact.
The narrative of this clip is presented using very few words; for that reason, I would say the reading levels given through the various quantitative measurement tools are irrelevant in this case. I think this clip shows that while these tools can be of great help in my situations, they are not to be read blindly. This movie clip offers a very impactful and mature narrative that would not be appropriate for students in kindergarten, as the simple vocabulary may suggest. What is being communicated in this clip goes beyond words and I would only suggest presenting this clip to a more mature audience – 11th or 12th grade.
|Measurement Tool||Grade Level|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||Grade -1.4|
|Automated Readability Index||Grade -3.0|
|Flesch Reading Ease||111.3/100|
|Gunning fog index||Grade 1.4|
|Laesbarhedsindex (LIX) Formula||9.3 = below school year 5|
|SMOG Index||Grade 3.0|
|Average grade level||Grade -0.7|
Qualitatively, the structure and language of the clip are only slightly complex as can be seen with the language based average grade level is below first. The narrative uses very few words and is therefore only slightly complex if we take only the spoken word into account. However, I would describe the knowledge demands and meaning of the clip as very to exceedingly complex. I was reluctant to include this clip as a suggestion for secondary How to Kill a Mockingbird material due to its graphic nature, but I personally feel a clip such as this one is an impactful way to truly drive the point home with students. The world is not always nice and sometimes we need to show students the real way the world used to be. Watching a scene such as this one has the potential to be a life experience in itself.
Like previously mentioned, there are few words in this scene and none that I feel need to be defined before viewing. I do, however, think the word lynching and what it means should be discussed. Lynching is still seen in today’s society – not in the ways we have historically seen it, but in ways of taking law enforcement away from police (an example of that can be seen in another article listed below). That being said, it is a deep issue that should be discussed with students before viewing this clip.
3. Landis, Josh. Fear Factor: How Herd Mentality Drives Us . 2008. 21 October 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/fear-factor-how-herd-mentality-drives-us/>.
Perhaps pairing well with the clip from The Great Debaters and ultimately the lynching scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, this article discusses the affect large groups have on individuals. It talks about the power fear can have over an individual and what that means in a group setting suggesting that fear can “cause otherwise thoughtful people to stop thinking for themselves and follow the crowd”.
The average readability level, as listed below, is suggested at or around an 8th grade reading level (7.7 to be exact); however, I suggest the quantitative measure just slightly higher at a 9th or 10th grade level (depending on the class). There are a few longer sentences and some vocabulary words I would place at the high school level rather than the middle school level.
|Measurement Tool||Grade Level|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level||Grade 5.5|
|Automated Readability Index||Grade 6.3|
|Flesch Reading Ease||80.1/100|
|Gunning fog index||Grade 9.3|
|Laesbarhedsindex (LIX) Formula||30.2 = below school year 5|
|SMOG Index||Grade 9.2|
|Average grade level||Grade 7.7|
I would suggest this article, on a qualitative level, for the same grade levels – 9th or 10th grade. The language features and vocabulary are only moderately complex with only a few places we see more complex sentence structure and meanings. It’s not that the meaning of what the author is trying to say is disguised, but the comparisons he makes may take some background knowledge on the students part. In order to understand the article, students will have to have some social knowledge as well as some familiarity with the stock market and the connections he is trying to draw between that environment and the herd mentality. A few of the key vocabulary words I would like to introduce students to before we read the article are:
The purpose (task) of the article is to provide some insight as to how lynching and similar horrific acts often escalated to the level that they did with little pushback.
Further Supplementary Material
This news clip from ABC News gives a brief history on Harper Lee and how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be. I believe seeing how much of this story was based off of her personal experience and how such an event during that time affected real people would be a good introduction to the text.
This short poem by Langston Hughes written in the 1932’s was based on the true story of eight African-American boys from Alabama who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. The American communist party stepped in on their behalf after hearing of their anything-but-fair trial.
This documentary recounts the case of the eight African-American Scottsboro boys accused of raping two white women and the struggle and injustice they experienced. Many people see this trial as one of the leading causes of The Civil War. This true story would assist in setting the stage and giving students another view of life in the south in the early 1900’s.
This press release from the Black Lives Matter organization discusses the lynching charges brought against Jasmine Abdullah for attempting to release a black man from police custody after allegedly rioting. As mentioned above, this is how the term lynching can be seen in today’s society.
This very well known, grammy award winning song might be a nice way to conclude the unit. The lyrics and meaning might mean more to students after their new understandings and appreciation for the time period and struggles that came with it.
One of the most widely taught books in high school English courses is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I myself had to read the book twice during my high school years and skimmed through it twice thinking of it only as an assignment. It was not until a few years later when I decided to read it on my own after a few college literature courses and some adult life experience I was able to appreciate its deep importance.
I think one of the main causes for my initial neutral and uninterested approach to the book was that I was not set up to what I was about to read. I had limited knowledge of the time period and was unsure as to why any of it mattered. I truly believe this is one of the most important books for adolescents to read but I think many improvements can be made to how we teach it. Not only does it require a brief history lesson before beginning, but there must be a connection made for the students between things in their lives, or at least the current world they are living in, and the world the novel is depicting.
I want to further explore how to not only interest students in such an important piece of literature, but really help them to understand why it’s important. The themes of race, injustice, ignorance and discrimination are some of the most obvious (and of course important) but I hope to also showcase how Harper Lee used this story to paint us a picture of hope and nobility. I think this novel requires us to ask more of ourselves and I want to find the best way to implore students to imagine themselves in another’s skin to get a better understanding. This would not only help with appreciation and understanding of the novel, but would encourage respect at the same time.
Sources for further research:
1.) Teaching Mockingbird (book)
This site has many videos and strategies for setting up the history of the novel before beginning
This article from TIME magazine discusses how some of the incidents from the book were true events but Harper Lee’s life. Perhaps allowing students to see the story beyond the fictional confines would increase it’s impact.
This article suggests using the film which I wish would have been available to me when I first read the book.
The above article was suggested by a teacher as an introduction for students to lynching in America.
The above article is a second article suggested regarding lynchings
Hi world! My name is Ashley Deluca and I am currently a student working towards my masters in literary studies and secondary education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I received my bachelors degree in rhetoric and writing and political science from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse (way back in 2008). I decided to take some time to figure out what I wanted to do in the long run and to be honest, I just couldn’t seem to figure it out…until I had my daughter. I loved watching her grow and learn and even more, loved sharing my love of books with her (even if it is strictly princess stories for now). I decided I wanted to teach and hopefully help others not only get as much out of literature as I do, but help them in other aspects of life as well. I’m so excited to start teaching at the high school level but also hope to eventually earn my PHD and teach at the college level – that’s a bit in the future though!