Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird
reviewed by Steffany Comfort Maher - March 23, 2016
The widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has brought with it an emphasis on teaching informational text. The authors of Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird acknowledge the ongoing debate about CCSS involving which subject areas should be teaching the majority of the informational text students read. Author Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle also contend that ELA teachers should be teaching nonfiction text with literary fiction not just to meet CCSS, but also to prepare students for college and the world beyond school.
Harper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird is a mainstay on lists of most frequently taught books in secondary schools (Applebee, Burroughs, & Stevens, 1994; Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006). In choosing to focus on this novel, Fisch and Chenelle have a wide audience including the countless ELA educators who teach this novel every year.
In the preface, Fisch and Chenelle explain their motivation: Teachers need to be able to incorporate nonfiction in ways that are meaningful, substantive, and enhance rather than taking away from their teaching of literature (p. ix). The informational texts included in their book not only connect to Mockingbird in meaningful ways, but also draw out important issues that may otherwise be overlooked in typical readings of the novel: fear, poverty, the abolition of entails, the proper behavior for a young lady, the right to a lawyer, racial and gender stereotypes, lynching, miscegenation, and heroism (pp. xxi). These texts also constitute a variety of genres: inaugural address, historical analysis, autobiography, etiquette book, farm manual, newspaper editorial, and Supreme Court decision (p. ix). Fisch and Chenelle describe these texts as: being (a) historically specific in their relation to the primary text, (b) [providing] background to help students contextualize the work, or (c) [relating] topically or thematically to the primary text (p. ix). As such, these texts work in complementary ways to teach literature.
Designed to foster student inquiry and critical reading, Using Informational Text is written as a resource rather than an instructional manual. Teachers are invited to select the materials that best fit their approach to teaching Mockingbird and address student interests and concerns. Included with the book is a website which provides additional units, resources, answers, rubrics, sample responses, and additional material that can be modified to fit pedagogical needs. Because the authors have secured permission, teachers are also free to photocopy sections directly from the book.
The rest of the book is divided into seven units, which each include an informational text and related materials. Each unit begins with an overview of the text, requisite materials, and suggested timing to use these resources in conjunction with the reading of Mockingbird. There are also notes on the nonfiction piece, briefly situating it historically and in association with Mockingbird, and suggested media links. The sections that follow include features like Vocabulary Warm-Up and Check for Understanding, each of which introduce a text box that includes the CCSS covered by the activity as a handy guide for teachers. Included with each informational piece are text boxes asking students to participate in different critical reading skills. Some ask them to reflect, like this example:
Reflect on the introduction: The introduction tells you that entailments were abolished just after the American Revolution. If that was the case, why do you think Harper Lee mentions them in Mockingbird? (p. 38)
Others offer a key idea, such as the following:
Key Idea: Jones is comparing what he experienced while defending Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s to the current situation facing lawyers defending Guantanamo detainees. What might happen if these Guantanamo lawyers were publicly identified? How is this situation similar to Joness experience and what Atticus faces? (p. 83)
These text boxes could be distracting to students trying to concentrate on reading the informational text; there are several of these boxes throughout each reading, and each one offers two to three different points to consider. However, a teachers direction as to which ones to focus on and which to ignore could help students stay on task. Each point addressed in the text box encourages students to think critically about the selection and make connections to Mockingbird or relevant historical events.
With each nonfiction selection, Fisch and Chenelle include vocabulary exercises, reading prompts, discussion and writing prompts, graphic organizers, scoring rubrics, multiple-choice and open-ended questions, media links, and creative group project ideas, all of which connect the informational texts to the novel. The authors justify the inclusion of multiple-choice questions and vocabulary preparation for standardized tests as a real aspect of students lives. Fisch and Chenelle argue that the best practice of skills necessary to perform well on standardized tests takes place in the context of meaningful curriculum rather than decontextualized test preparation.
Fisch and Chenelle do an exceptional job of incorporating informational text in conjunction with a classic literary text in high school English courses. Busy teachers will appreciate the meaningful informational texts connected to Mockingbird, related activities, and corresponding CCSS connections that are provided for them. Furthermore, each issue that is raised has an important historical context and can also be connected to students present-day lives. As such, this book can be used as a starting point for important classroom debates on present-day issues. For example, Unit Two discusses poverty in the context of Mockingbird and builds student knowledge of the abolition of entails. A teacher could easily connect this to poverty in the U.S. today. Unit Six focuses on the history of interracial marriages and could be connected to the current same-sex marriage debate. The same can be done with many of the other issues addressed, such as racism and gender stereotypes. Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird is a valuable model for connecting nonfiction texts with literary works and bringing the critical analysis of historical, political, and cultural questions to the forefront of instruction.
Applebee, A., Burroughs, R., & Stevens, A. S. (1994). Shaping conversation: A study of continuity and coherence in high school literacy curricula. Albany, NY: National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning.
Stallworth, B. J., Gibbons L., & Fauber, L. (2006). Its not on the list: An exploration of teachers perspectives on using multicultural literature. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(8), 478489.