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Teaching Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

President George W. Bush presented Harper Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov. 5, 2007.Gerald Herbert/AP/File

Harper Lee’s death on Friday marks a moment for so many of us. “To Kill A Mockingbird’’ is not just an important novel; it has been called “our national novel.” Nearly every student in the United States reads the book at some point in middle or high school — and has for decades — which means that in an increasingly divided nation, reading “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ is perhaps as close to a common experience as many Americans have.

The book is set in Jim Crow-era Alabama and is told through the voice of Scout, a white girl whose lawyer-father, Atticus Finch, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman. Today, the legacy of these times still resonates. As America watches its race relations simmer and often boil over, too many of us ignore or are unaware of the history behind where we find ourselves now.


That’s why teaching “Mockingbird’’ is so important.

The world it describes — a world of racist ideology and of racial prejudice, marked by deep divisions around questions of belonging and justice — is a world difficult to teach, particularly since too many of our students live in communities where violence is spurred by bigotry and hatred. And the United States is not particularly good at talking about race; a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that two-thirds of all Americans feel uncomfortable talking about race with someone of a different race.

But not talking about race has only made things more difficult. Given the climate in America today, discussions on race are more important than ever. They are certainly long overdue.

One year ago, Facing History and Ourselves launched Teaching Mockingbird, a curriculum and professional development program to help teachers tackle these critical issues and start talking about race with students from all backgrounds, with the novel as a jumping-off point.


As students read “Mockingbird,’’ they see this world through Scout’s innocent eyes. Along with her, they feel confusion and discomfort as she learns the unwritten rules of her world. This provides the entry point for important conversations about race in our own world today — conversations that students desperately need and want to have.

As one Facing History teacher remarked, “It’s easy to imagine how righteously we, as products of this historical moment, would behave if transported back in time; it’s harder and more valuable to ask what features of our current, still-imperfect, still-changing society we might stand up for or against right now. Which of the unwritten rules we and our students currently live by would we and they do well to start questioning?”

“Mockingbird’’ is most often taught as a “coming of age” story, and it’s a classic of that genre. But it’s also a social novel, even a political one, which encourages readers to consider what it takes to create social change and sustain democracy.

As we deepened our work, Harper Lee’s words began to resonate more than ever. We began to see that Lee has given us more than a great literary classic; she has given us room to find our own voice to talk about race.

Last week, during a record-breaking cold snap, nearly 80 Boston-area teachers braved arctic air to participate in a Facing History program to learn about holding better conversations about race in their classrooms. In the wake of too many events at schools in Boston and around the country, this is the professional development that teachers tell us they really need.


While articles and interviews in the coming days and weeks will look back on Harper Lee’s historic accomplishments, we at Facing History are looking forward. Reading Mockingbird enriches our conversations about justice, about goodness, about living in a divided society, about making difficult choices and about the possibilities of social change. Harper Lee’s book is a timeless gift: literary ground to have the discussions that so many of us fear. Our challenge is to continue to breathe life into the stories of Scout, Atticus, and Tom — and to have the important discussions on race with all Americans that they, in their time and place, never could.

Roger Brooks is president and CEO of Facing History and Ourselves, a global education organization.