Authors: J onathan Streeter and Leah Toffolon
Grade Level: 5 – 8
Length of lesson: 1 to 2 periods with homework
- Theme: Change and continuity in American democracy: ideas, institutions, events, key figures, and controversies
- Era:Contemporary America
How was life in the rural south similar to the accounts found in To Kill a Mockingbird?
How can primary documents augment the reading of fiction?
Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird has long been used in the eighth grade to introduce life in the rural south during the Depression. Often the characters depicted and events described are not fully understood because students cannot place them in an historic context. Introducing oral histories of people living in the region from that time period offers students a more complete understanding. African Americans lived under Jim Crow laws that are alluded to in the novel; oral histories can highlight the desperate conditions they confronted on a daily basis.
- Use these sites to get some background information about actual Jim Crow laws in the south:
- Chafe, William; Gavins, Raymond and Korstad, Robert,eds. Remembering Jim Crow, African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New York: The New Press, 2001.
- For this activity students should have read up to page 211 in the novel (after the verdict in Tom Robinson’s trial is decided). Assign students in small groups to read the remembrances of African Americans. (Discussion questions handout included in download). Passages to read in Remembering Jim Crow.
Walter Cavers, pp. 31-32, 35
Arthur Searles, pp. 26-29
Anne Pointer, pp. 43-55
Point out that although some of the readings are from the 1950s rather than the 1930s, the same conditions existed.
- In the small groups, guided by discussion questions, have students discuss the experiences of the oral history narrators, comparing and contrasting them with the book To Kill a Mockingbird.
After reading and discussing the oral histories above, give students the writing assignment (provided in download), explaining that they will create their own fictional oral narrative, giving a voice to one of the near-silent black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Note: It is important to emphasize for students the difference between real narratives—primary source material chronicling real life struggles—and the fictional narratives they will be writing. This project is meant to help students visualize and understand the realities of Alabama in the 1930s through a perspective different from that of Harper Lee’s white narrator, Scout.
6.6 Being a Historian
6.11 Institutional Access
Narrative writing assignment checklist (provided in download).