Writing to Learn with To Kill a Mockingbird
For my freshmen English class, I have developed a unit about Harper Lee’s (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird. Within this unit,
students engage in three “writing to learn” (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 33) strategies; to extend their thinking and to improve their learning through writing. These writing tasks “are brief
and…call for fairly large amounts of thinking before writing can occur” (Duke & Sanchez, 2001, p. 13). Writing these pieces increases students’ writing fluency and their engagement with the text. My assessments of this writing will guide and improve classroom instruction by providing a view of my students’ thought processes as they read, and a view of their understanding of the content. As Shellard and Protheroe (2004) explain, “writing to learn at the middle and secondary school levels provides a means through which students can both develop and demonstrate understanding. Through the use of writing activities, teachers engage their students in learning” (p. 33). These writing activities are assessed based solely on content; not on grammar or spelling. Therefore, these tasks provide an opportunity for struggling writers to compose without fear of criticism, to freely express themselves through writing, and to grow more comfortable as writers.
Pre-Reading: Writing to Activate Prior Knowledge
1. Students will write pieces and make remarks that use descriptive language to clarify, enhance, and develop ideas (Maine’s Learning Results, 1999, G. 7).
2. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (NCTE, 1996, Standard 3).
3. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts (NCTE, 1996, Standard 6).
I begin our study of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) with a writing prompt to elicit students’ personal childhood memories, encouraging them to relate the novel to their own experiences. Research demonstrates that “autobiographical writing before reading increases understanding of a text, engagement in discussion, and understanding of characters; also, students who write before reading stories tend to like the stories better" [White 1992, 1995] (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 36). Therefore, students will spend the first ten minutes of class responding to the autobiographical writing prompt, and will then have another few minutes to share their responses in small groups. Sharing provides a genuine audience for the writing pieces. It also allows students to better understand the perspectives of their classmates, and to see diverse examples of descriptive writing and literary devices. Writing about and discussing their own experiences prepares students to make connections with the main character in To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960), Scout, and to relate to her childhood experiences throughout the novel. Using literary devises such as image, metaphor, and simile increases students’ awareness of the techniques used by the novel’s author, Harper Lee.
Pre-Reading Writing Prompt: Write about an important childhood event, a place that played a strong role in your childhood, or a person you recall vividly from your childhood. In your story, use image, simile, or metaphor to help your reader envision the event, place, or person you describe.
1. How does your perspective differ as an older person retelling this story, compared to the way you would have described it as a young child?
2. “Can [you] see how developing figurative language in a story contributes to the artistry” (Burnham & Cunningham, 2006, p. 8) of the story?
During Reading: Journal Writing
1. Students will reflect on what has been discovered and learned while reading, and formulate additional questions (Maine’s Learning Results, 1999, A. 2).
2. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes (NCTE, 1996, Standard 5).
3. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities (NCTE, 1996, Standard 7).
Journal writing is a useful writing to learn activity in which “students are invited to compose their thoughts and take stock of their beliefs and opinions before engaging in discussion" (Fischer & Frey, 2004, p. 151). I will begin the journaling process by discussing guidelines (students are to use complete sentences, complete paragraphs, and specific examples from the novel) modeling my own journal writing, and establishing the purpose of journaling with my students. Shellard and Protheroe (2004) explain “by explicitly explaining the purpose to students and then using what is written—for example, as a communication tool or to help students review key concepts presented in class—teachers ensure students begin to understand that journal writing can be a valuable tool for their learning” (p. 38). Throughout our study of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960), the purpose of journal writing is for students to communicate with me, and occasionally with each other, about their understanding of the characters and events in the novel, their reactions and opinions in response to the reading, and their questions and clarifications as they read. Additionally, sharing journal entries will help us focus our class discussions during the reading of the novel, and will ensure that each student is prepared to participate in an effective class discussion.
For two weeks, students will write in their journals daily, responding to informal writing assignments I provide. In this manner, students will develop a log of their reading and thinking experiences as they complete the novel. Some days, the entries will be turned in to me, and I will write responses to them in students’ journals. Other days the entries will be discussed in a class discussion. Once during each of the two weeks, the entries will be shared with a classmate, who will comment in the journal. Finally, students will reread their journals and write a reflection about the experience of thinking through their ideas, and dialoguing with others, using journaling. Bushman & Bushman (1993) say “the journal serves the students well for continued use throughout the study of a particular novel. The journal serves as a testing site for students’ thinking" (p. 37).
Sample Journal Writing Assignment:
In chapter three of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960), Atticus explains to Scout "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (p. 36). Based on this advice, select one of the two writing assignments below to develop, in one or two pages, in your journal today:
A. “Begin another version of the novel told in first-person from Boo Radley’s perspective. How would Boo Radley describe Jem, Scout, and Dill?” (Burnham & Cunningham, 2006, p. 6)
B. I have brought a variety of shoes into the classroom (men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes.) Examine a pair of these shoes and envision what the owner would look like and act like. Then, write about a day in this person’s life, wearing these shoes, from a first person perspective (Gardner, 2010, p. 1).
Concluding Class: Exit Slips
1. Students will reflect on what has been discovered and learned while reading, and formulate additional questions (Maine’s Learning Results, 1999, A. 2).
2. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information) (NCTE, 1996, Standard 12).
As another informal writing to learn activity during our unit about To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960), students will turn in exit slips at the conclusion of classes on Tuesdays and Fridays, to “provide closure to a classroom discussion” (Shellard and Protheroe, 2004, p. 37). I will provide each student with an index card, and I will ask them to write for the last five minutes of class. I will post a slightly different question each time we do this activity; asking students to sum up the main ideas of the day’s class discussion, what they have most enjoyed or disliked about the novel thus far, what aspect of their learning they would like to discuss further in class, etc. These responses will be far briefer than those written in students’ journals—they may even be lists. I will model appropriate responses by writing my own exit slips, as well, and reading them aloud at the very end of class.
“In addition to providing a tool to help students mentally organize the material that was presented, information gleaned from students’ responses can be used to plan the following day’s agenda” (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 38). Unlike the writing prompt, these pieces will not be discussed with classmates; instead they will inform my instruction. Duke and Sanchez (2001) say "writing of this sort often causes teachers to rethink how they are presenting information because students' response provide insights into the students' thinking processes" (p. 13). If I notice misunderstandings, I will be able to make clarifications right away. I will also be able to recognize and respond to students’ interests as a result of this writing.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) is a classic American novel that lends itself to discussions about racism, loss of innocence, courage, cruelty, and other engaging themes adolescents can strongly relate to. Through the use of a pre-reading writing prompt, I will stimulate student interest in the perspective of the narrator and the story of her childhood experiences; and I will draw students’ attention to effective aspects of the author’s writing. Through journaling, students will show their thinking processes as they make meaning from their reading; and they will develop connections between the novel and their own lives. Students will have the opportunity to dialogue both with me and in pairs through their journals, as well. Finally, by incorporating exit slips into our class routine, students will have frequent opportunities to monitor and summarize their understanding of the text and of our discussions; and they will communicate their learning needs to me. By making time to incorporate writing to learn strategies into my language arts curriculum, I will ensure that each student is engaged in his or her reading and fully comprehends this novel. These informal writing pieces will lay the groundwork for a formal final essay, as well, since students will have thought about and recorded their ideas throughout their reading of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960).
Burnham, P., and Cunningham, S. (2006). The Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. Lesson Three. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from http://www.neabigread.org/books/mockingbird/teachers/mockingbirdlesson03.pdf
Burnham, P., and Cunningham, S. (2006). The Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. Lesson Five. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from http://www.neabigread.org/books/mockingbird/teachers/mockingbirdlesson05.pdf
Bushman, J., and Bushman, K. (1993). Using young adult literature in the English classroom. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Duke, C., & Sanchez, R. (2001). Assessing writing across the curriculum. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Gardner, T. (2010). Spend a Day in My Shoes: Exploring the Role of Perspective in Narrative. IRA/NCTE. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/spend-shoes-exploring-role-265.html
Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.
Teaching Vocabulary with To Kill a Mockingbird
As a pre-reading activity in my Freshman English class, I will introduce new vocabulary from To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) before we read the first ten pages of the novel. I will help students understand the concepts represented by this new vocabulary, and therefore better comprehend the reading and relate to the characters. Research demonstrates that “teaching vocabulary directly increases student comprehension of new material by 12 percentile points,” (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001, p. 127) which will greatly enhance my students’ experience of this great work of literature.
While there are many unfamiliar words in this text, I have selected vocabulary that expresses the setting, mood, and characters’ personalities in this passage. Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) state that “the research by Stahl and Fairbanks  indicates that student achievement will increase by 33 percentile points when vocabulary instruction focuses on specific words that are important to what students are learning” (p. 127). Certainly, a conceptual understanding of this vocabulary will aid students in envisioning the scene set by the author as they begin reading.
Maine Learning Results English Language Arts objectives I will address include “A1: demonstrate an understanding that reading is a gradual process of constructing meaning and revising initial understandings,” and “A2: use the context of a work to determine the figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms” (Department of Education, 1997, ELA). Students will revise their initial understandings of words through class discussion, and will use context clues to define these words. Literacy objectives I will address include “acquire new vocabulary, participate in class discussions, and express ideas that build off the ideas of other students” (Sylvan Learning, 2010, p. 1). Students will be expressing their ideas in class discussions as they help each other construct definitions based first on prior knowledge and later on context clues and dictionary definitions.
This vocabulary instruction will precede our class reading assignment. Students will be reading pages one through ten of To Kill a Mockingbird, and they will encounter the following unfamiliar words in their reading:
1. assuaged (p. 3)—relieved from distress
2. taciturn (p. 4)—habitually uncommunicative
3. unsullied (p. 4)—pure and untarnished
4. strictures (p. 4)—limits or restrictions; severe criticisms
5. detachment (p. 6)—aloofness; disinterestedness
6. malevolent (p. 8)—wanting to cause harm; evil
7. vapid (p. 8)—dull
8. morbid (p. 9)—interested in gloomy topics; grisly
9. predilection (p. 9)—fondness
Lee, H. (1982). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Warner Books.
As I seek to “engage students in active learning” (Laureate, 2004, section 1) while also increasing their reading comprehension by teaching the vocabulary used in the literature, the strategy I will use is contextual redefinition. First, I will present students with the above words in isolation. I will pronounce the vocabulary words as I write them on the white board at the front of the classroom, and I will ask students to write the words in their notebooks. We will then engage in a class discussion wherein students share the definitions they believe fit each word, based on their prior knowledge.
Next, I will hand out context clues; in this case, excerpts from the first ten pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Lee uses the vocabulary words. Students will then use contextual analysis to define these words, circling the “clue words” (Laureate, 2004, section 2) in the sentences. Then, I will pass out nine dictionaries and assign nine students to look up a different one of the vocabulary words and check the dictionary definitions. We will engage in another class discussion wherein students “share definitions and reach a class consensus” (Laureate, 2004, section 2) and finally we will consult those who look up the words to confirm that our class definitions agree with the dictionary definitions.
After completing this active yet teacher-centered learning task, conceptual redefinition, student comprehension will be improved as the class reads the first ten pages of the novel. Students will have worked with words that are essential to understanding the passage before encountering them in their reading, which is especially important since “students must encounter words in context more than once to learn them” (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001, p. 124).
Ultimately, students will gain confidence with each of these vocabulary words, and in the future I will see them “use the word like they own it” (Laureate, 2004, section 2).
Department of Education, State of Maine. (1997). Maine learning results. Retrieved
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2004). Program 2, sections 1 & 2.
Vocabulary [DVD]. Reading in the Content Areas, Grades 6-12. Baltimore,
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & ***, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction
that works: research based strategies for increasing student achievement.
Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Sylvan Learning. (2010). Sample literacy objectives. Retrieved from