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By Ben Kaplan, Upper School Head English Teacher
When I was in ninth grade, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. It was a shattering and inspiring experience. I recoiled in horror at the racist hate, marveled at the quiet courage and profound kindness of a widowed father, and thought about someday naming a son Atticus.
When I began working at MMFS, I relished the prospect of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth and tenth grade English classes, but recognized that the novel may not be readily accessible to some students with learning disabilities. Last spring, with the encouragement of my To Kill a Mockingbird mentor, Beth Schneider, I applied for and received a generous summer grant from the MMFS Parents Association to develop a curriculum for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to students who struggle with reading comprehension to such an extent that they may not otherwise be able to experience this remarkable book.
An initial challenge in this endeavor was how to handle the complex vocabulary. In the first chapter alone, I found 107 words that would be unfamiliar to my students. To clear this hurdle, for every chapter I created a master vocabulary “cheat sheet.” I keep the cheat sheet beside my book while reading aloud in class. Every time we come across an unfamiliar word, I will read it, say the synonym, and resume reading. The goal is to seamlessly integrate the translation in a way that enhances understanding while maintaining the flow of the story. I also created a multi-sensory way to preview key vocabulary before beginning each chapter.
Another obstacle was that the context of the story (1930s Alabama, race relations in a rural Southern town) is far removed from the realm of my students’ personal experience, so before we started reading, I devoted time to building background knowledge about the book and author, which is especially relevant since so much of the story is autobiographical.
Next, I focused on finding a way to make it feasible for students to independently complete assignments that require them to respond to comprehension questions. I incorporated a scaffold to make finding relevant text evidence manageable. For every assignment, I made a copy of the chapter, drew a box around the passages with the relevant text evidence and provided a number next to each box that corresponded to the respective comprehension question. In addition, I created a concrete plan to support the development of deeper understanding by identifying, recording, and reviewing literary elements such as setting, initiating events, plot points, protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, conflict, consequences, and resolution.
I plan to integrate our work on literary elements with the writing process by assigning a culminating essay about the relative importance of supporting characters in the story. By recording relevant details about these characters throughout the semester, students will have the information readily available for reference when it comes time to write the paper. They can incorporate it into an outline that they will then convert into a multi-paragraph essay.
In February, my students and I will attend the Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Bartlett Sher, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jeff Daniels. This exciting privilege will provide a wonderful multi-sensory complement to watching the Academy Award-winning film, which students will also watch when they finish reading the book.
Thank you to the MMFS PA for supporting the development of this differentiated curriculum and for helping my students understand and enjoy this profoundly important story.