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  • August 22, 2016

    What Students Should Get From Reading To Kill a Mockingbird

    What Should Your Students Get Out of Reading To Kill a Mockingbird?

    More than anything else, your students should learn the importance of learning to walk in someone else's shoes.

    Harper Lee's classic novel, set in Alabama in the 1930's, is the story of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch who, through her everyday experiences with the people of Maycomb, learns about prejudice, hypocrisy, justice, society, and personal character.

    Every event in this beautifully crafted novel will show your students somethingabout real life. Every character contributes to a masterful 3D painting of life in the South at a time when racial prejudice was at its height. Conflicts between black and white, right and wrong, justice and injustice, appearance and reality abound in every chapter.

    Through it all, though, the rock-solid theme is, as Atticus Finch tells his daughter: you should walk in someone else's shoes to see life from that person's perspective before you judge that person's character. It is a simple idea shown again and again through each of the characters in the book. It is the theme that binds all of the action.

    How To Approach Teaching Mockingbird

    Start with a simple, fun example showing students how different people can perceive the same thing in many different ways. This addresses the fundamental principle of point of view. Our LitPlan Teacher Pack starts the first lesson by showing students a simple line drawing and having them each give answers about what that line drawing could be. This acts as a springboard for discussion about the main theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, noted above.

    You can drive the discussion to ways we sometimes each see the same person in different ways. Consider a controversial public figure--someone people have differing opinions about. You can facilitate this discussion by asking leading or thought-provoking questions. Ultimately, the discussion needs to lead to an introduction to the theme of learning how to walk in someone else's shoes before passing judgement on a person--and a transition into reading the book.

    Following the Theme in Mockingbird Through Characters

    Graphic organizers are a great way to follow the theme through this novel. A simple one with a character's name in a center circle with spokes out to empty circles would work great. Each spoke circle will be a different character, and the circle should contain information about how that character views the character in the center. If you fill one of these out for many characters (Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Mrs. Dubose, etc.) and periodically add to the contents, as students read the book, they will begin to see how Harper Lee uses the characters to show how different people can view the same person in different ways.

    Is Boo Radley a Monster?

    When we figure out that Boo Radley gave Scout the blanket, it's an "Awwwww" moment. It touches our hearts. Through his tender act of love, this act of kindness, the character of Boo Radley is illuminated. Is he crazy? Is he a monster? Is he mentally slow, or is he frightening? He is shown in many different lights through many different characters.

    This is a valuable opportunity to teach students about considering the sources of information that they receive. Do an exercise with your students where you examine each of the facets of Boo Radley's character as presented from various sources in the story. Which sources are the most reliable? It is through statements about Boo Radley as well as the actions of Boo Radley himself that we, by the end of the novel, come to realize who he really is as a person--as does Scout.

    And Others

    Boo isn't the only character for which this kind of examination is possible. You can do it with Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Atticus, Mrs. Dubose, Aunt Alexandra ... almost any character in the book. That is one of the remarkable qualities of Harper Lee's writing in this story: almost every sentence is crafted towards revealing something about character--and through the characters, ultimately, the theme.

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  • February 20, 2016

    by Mary B. Collins

    If you are looking for a Holocaust book to teach in the middle grades, consider these four titles:

    Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

    GRADES 5-8: It’s 1943 Copenhagen and the Jews of Denmark are being “relocated,” so Annemarie Johansen’s best friend, Ellen, moves in with the Johansens and pretends to be part of the family. When Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission, she must find the courage to save her friend’s life.

    The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

    GRADES 5-8: Hannah dreads going to her family's Passover Seder. Her relatives always tell the same stories, and Hanna's tired of hearing them talk about the past. But when she opens the front door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she's transported to a Polish village--and the year 1942. Why is she there, and who is this "Chaya" that everyone seems to think she is? Just as she begins to unravel the mystery, Nazi soldiers come to take everyone in the village away. And only Hannah knows the unspeakable horrors that await.

    Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

    GRADES 5-9: Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank's remarkable diary has since become a world classic -- a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit.

    Night by Elie Wiesel

    GRADES 8-12: Night is Elie Wiesel's masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be.

    Each of these books is powerful in its own way. Number the Stars is probably the least "graphic" of the horrors of the Holocaust. Likewise, Anne Frank's diary ends without graphic descriptions of what went on in the concentration camps. Both of these works focus more on the effects of the Holocaust on families outside of the concentration camps. The Devil's Arithmetic includes some time inside the concentration camps, but isn't as graphic as Elie Wiesel's Night. Night is more suited for more mature students in grades 8-12.

    All four of these Holocaust books are critically acclaimed and excellent choices for making students aware of the Holocaust and its effects on Jewish people.



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  • February 16, 2016

    by Mary B. Collins

    One of the most common questions I get asked is, "How long should a novel unit be?". The answer to that question depends on the book, the level of your class, and your objectives.

    The Basic Novel Unit: Reading and Comprehending

    When creating a novel unit, I generally try to keep reading assignments less than thirty pages each for middle and high school students and twenty pages or less for elementary and intermediate school students. The number of pages per reading assignment and the length of the book will be the primary factors in determining the length of time needed for your basic novel unit.

    For each reading assignment, you will need to determine whether the reading will be done in-class or at home. For in-class reading assignments, you'll need to determine if reading will be done silently or orally, individually or in groups. I like to use combinations of all of these variables throughout a unit of study to give students the opportunity to practice each kind of reading. For example, different skills are required for oral reading versus silent reading and reading at home versus reading in class. Home presents different distractions than the classroom does. Reading orally in front of a whole class is different from reading with a favorite partner or friend. Mixing up the variables exposes students to many different reading situations and helps to develop well-rounded skills.

    On the most basic level,  students will need to read the book and show to you that they understand what they have read. That means you'll need comprehension questions or some other way to determine whether or not they have read and understand the assignments.

    You will likely need to address vocabulary in some way. Whether you choose potentially problematic vocabulary words from the text or have students keep a list of words in the text that they don't know, there will undoubtedly be vocabulary that needs to be dealt with so students can understand the story to its fullest.

    So, you will need to schedule reading assignments, comprehension assessment, and vocabulary study at least.

    Beyond The Basics: Elements of Fiction

    The next block of study usually added to a novel unit is related to the elements of fiction: setting, plot, characters, conflict, theme, tone, and perhaps historical context. Delving into these elements gives students the opportunity to develop some analytical and critical thinking skills--and helps students more fully engage with the meaning of the novel. Students have to go beyond basic comprehension to look at the characters and events with both macro and micro vision. For example, where does this story fit in the big picture of its historical context? Or conversely, what exactly is it that causes a character to do or say a particular thing? Discussing each of the elements of fiction as it relates to the novel at hand provides a framework for a number of lessons and activities. The exact number really depends on how deeply you want students to dig and how capable your students are of analytical work.

    Language Arts Skills: Reading, Writing, and Thinking in Response to Literature

    Using a novel as a foundation of content with which to apply and practice language arts skills is common practice. It will add a significant amount of time to your novel unit, but many teachers believe this is time well-spent.

    A well-written novel provides abundant opportunities to look at word usage, examples of figurative language, sentence structures, and the construction of suspense or humor in the story. A close reading of the way an author uses words and constructs the novel--words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters--helps students see how language can and should be used purposefully. Studying examples and then practicing emulating them in written or oral work, group work, or whole-class participation helps students' written and oral language skills grow.

    As students discuss characters and themes, conflicts, allusions, and ideas presented within the novel, you have the opportunity to elicit responses from students on a big variety of things, in both written and oral forms. When writing letters or emails from one character to another, for example, student not only have to understand both characters, they need to know how to communicate as one of the characters AND how to express that in the appropriate format. There are literally hundreds of writing assignment and role-playing activity possibilities for any single novel: letters, journals, research papers, poems, presentations, skits, essays, videos--the list is practically endless.

    With endless possibilities, how do you decide which things to include in your novel study? After all, it's unlikely you can spend months on one book--and you shouldn't even if you could. Each book students read provides its own set of questions and discoveries, opportunities for learning, and challenges. To determine what to include in your novel unit, you have to step back and consider three broad things: your curriculum objectives, the makeup of the book itself, and the needs/abilities of your particular students. These three things together will help you determine where to focus your language arts skills lessons and activities. Some books just naturally lend themselves to one thing more than another. A book like Huckleberry Finn, with lots of slang dialogue gives you the unique opportunity to discuss regional dialects and how they are constructed as well as "translating" them into standard English. On the other hand, one of Charles Dickens' novels would be filled with great examples of descriptive writing and character development. Maybe your students are already great at writing descriptive compositions. If so, you could concentrate on something else. You really have to look at the book, your students, and your curriculum to determine how to best spend your lesson and activity time.

    Putting It All Together

    Teaching is an art, not a science; there is no formula that fits every situation. You have to be the professional person who can weigh the elements involved and craft an appropriate plan. Even after you craft a plan for teaching a book once, the same formula won't necessarily hold for the next book you teach--or even the next time you teach the same book. In a given school year you need to cover a certain number of books which each lend themselves to different experiences for your students--choosing books, lessons, and activities that advance the development of your particular students within your particular curriculum. Start with the Basic Novel Unit and add the lessons and activities that will most effectively teach your students, using the best of what that book or author has to offer.



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  • February 16, 2016

    After several months of technical difficulties, it's great to be back blogging again! If there are topics related to teaching English or literature that you would like to know more about, email me at mcollins@tpet.com with your questions or suggestions, and I'll tackle as many topics as I can.

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