The year 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s work is so powerful and popular that it has never been out of print, selling more than 30 million copies.
To Kill a Mockingbird was not just a hit at the bookstore. It quickly became a staple in classrooms worldwide. The book is written from the vantage point of a woman remembering her 8-year-old self in 1930s Alabama. “Scout,” as she’s called, uses simple and compelling language. The story, set against the backdrop of a racially charged rape trial, moves along briskly.
Despite its popularity, To Kill A Mockingbird can be a minefield for teachers. Much of the book deals with the matter-of-fact racism of the Jim Crow South. The n-word crops up from time to time. The few black characters—universally deferential—are portrayed sympathetically. But they are viewed as distant, inexplicable strangers—just as an 8-year-old white girl would have seen them. And today’s students (as well as some teachers) do not comprehend the explosiveness of accusing a black man of raping a white woman in that time and place.
The basic message of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of great tolerance. “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” says Scout’s father, Atticus. That is what using cultural relevant pedagogy is all about—teachers walking in their students’ shoes.
Editor's note: Help your students understand the cultural and historical context of the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird using primary source documents from the Library of Congress.