A Social Justice Framing for the Classics

Scaffolding discussions on race and socioeconomic difference in classic literary works can help make them accessible for teen readers.

March 20, 2019

As an English language arts teacher in Alaska, I’ve enjoyed teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to high school freshmen at one of the most diverse schools in the country. However, keeping students tuned in to any classic work of literature can be difficult. One way I work to engage my students is by teaching how to become socially conscious and make a difference in their communities in and out of school.

I’ve long believed that classic literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, can be a tool to cultivate critical thinking skills and engage students in and out of school. It’s just a matter of framing the texts for students in the right way. I’ve found positioning such works within a context of social justice and race to be useful in opening up conversations about privilege and power among students. My students have had transformative conversations centered on race and socioeconomic differences.

Every year without fail, I have at least one or two students who begin reading Harper Lee’s novel believing that racism is a thing of the past, no longer a problem in our society. It’s only through conversations about race—getting students to the point of feeling safe enough to have conversations about race—that I begin to see the aha moments necessary to expanding a student’s worldview.

Culture Cards

I begin the year by assigning an activity I call Culture Cards to help students first learn how to culturally affiliate themselves, an activity many have never done before entering high school. Culture Cards gets students thinking and talking specifically about their race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, and family background.

I typically use index cards folded to make four quadrants. Students write their name and cultural affiliation in the top left box. I use a cultural diversity wheel to show students that there are many aspects of a person’s culture, from race, ethnicity, and heritage to religion to socioeconomic status to gender and sexuality. Some of these topics are difficult to discuss, and I ask students to disclose only what they’re comfortable disclosing. Discussing these affiliations helps our classroom community grow closer, which in turn helps us talk authentically about ideas of race and social justice when we come to books such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the other boxes on the cards, students share cultural foods of importance, cultural activities, and a self-representation (a drawing or photograph). On the back of the card, I ask them to sum it all up in a six-word memoir (in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway) and to share a meaningful memory. This helps students begin to see their own place and cultural agency in larger civic discussions.

A student recently shared their card, starting with the observation, “I’m obviously white.” Collectively, as a class with backgrounds from all over the world, we were able to slow this presentation down and question this statement to deepen our understanding—and the student’s understanding of themselves. They got much more specific and identified as northern European, specifically English and Scottish.

Breaking down these labels opened up pathways to discuss the labels presented in To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether the label is a last name that can be associated with social stratification, such as Cunningham or Ewell, or a character’s race as conveyed through a pejorative term like the N-word, students need guidance navigating sensitive conversations and opportunities to advocate for themselves publicly and to engage in civic discourse. Empowering students to speak up and speak out against perpetuations of racist language in society, for example, is an important step to realizing societal change in regard to destructive language and ideologies.

Body Biographies

In another activity—a presentation I call Body Biographies—I have students work in groups of four or five, assigning each group a character from the novel. They trace the outline of one of their bodies on butcher paper and then search for textual quotes by or about the character to write on the body; they also draw symbols that visually represent the character. Later on they will explain why they chose the particular quotes and symbols they used.

Students represent characters like Atticus, Calpurnia, Scout, and Aunt Alexandra in ways that stimulate critical conversations about those characters’ values, particularly concerning race. We hang the body biographies on the walls in the classroom and out in the hall to extend the conversation—for one thing, having them up helps the class refer back to the group presentations and class discussions when we examine similar themes later in the year through other readings.

Librarians, teachers, and students passing in the hallway who see the body biographies have come asking questions or telling me something they remember about reading To Kill a Mockingbird. These conversations, as well as ones that happen each day in the classroom while we read the text together, help students increase their understanding of who they are and who their peers are.

Teaching our students to be civic minded about race in the 21st century keeps the classics relevant and vital.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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