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From Attitude to Activism: To Kill a Mockingbird and Social Justice

Posted by Max Schneider on March 9, 2018 at 12:30 PM
Max Schneider

As any former adolescent can tell you, teenagers can be defiant at times. This resistance often comes from being constantly told what they can and can't do. We are evolutionarily wired to push the boundaries during adolescence, when, more often than not, we hear “You can’t do that!” rather than more positive enforcers. The article, "Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?", supports that defiance can be harnessed in a way that allows for enlightening learning opportunities and avenues for inquiry.

I try to keep this in mind while planning how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of young siblings coming to grips with the hypocrisy and racial injustice of their small Southern town. Students become more engaged when the Tom Robinson plotline is introduced. The obvious facts behind the case point towards a not guilty verdict, which are ignored by the all-white jury. This clear miscarriage of justice is tough for my students to wrap their heads around. How can this happen in the United States, where, as Atticus Finch states in his closing argument, “All men are created equal”?

This question then leads to further inquiry into our current criminal justice system. In what ways do the inequities we witness in To Kill a Mockingbird still manifest themselves today? Instead of listening to me this year (they hear enough from me), I brought in Eugene Young, who previously worked for the Delaware Center for Justice, to discuss criminal justice reform. Mr. Young’s talk blended the students’ understanding of what happened to Tom Robinson and some of the current reform issues in Delaware, including bail reform and the trying of adolescents as adults. His engaging and informative talk then acted as a springboard for the students to research and create an informative presentation on their choice of a current day controversial issue: mass incarceration and its causes, domestic violence, the death penalty, and jury selection among others. Furthermore, I asked the students to consider how these issues impact individuals based on their race, socioeconomic status, and gender. To finalize the unit, students chose a more contemporary book to read as part of a mini-book club; options included Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kielly’s All American Boys, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, and Dashka Slater’s Bus 57. In small groups, students made their own reading schedule, came up with their own discussion questions, and helped each other confirm and question the text while drawing connections between their book club pick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the criminal justice system topics they were exploring.

Click here to download the  To Kill a Mockingbird Book Club Lesson

Utilizing literature as a window (to see another world) or a mirror (to see ourselves) is an effective way to teach compassion and empathy to our students, regardless of their personal advantages. Dealing with the grave injustices many characters face in literature can allow students to relate to that experience despite not necessarily sharing in gender, color, sexuality, or social class.  By harnessing natural teenage defiance and coupling it with the knowledge of modern-day inequities, we are challenging students to confront the responsibility of doing something about it.

At Sanford, we value teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion. We foster, respect, and celebrate the differences and experiences of all people. Find out more about Sanford at

Max Schneider is a seventh and eighth-grade English teacher at Sanford. Before coming to Sanford, he earned his graduate degree in Teaching from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was selected as an Urban Fellow, a precursor to the Heinz Fellows Program at the Center for Urban Education.


Topics: Education, Diversity