Friday, May 31, 2013

Small Victories with To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a required text for ninth grade at my school, but I have never had much success with it.  My students like the movie, but the text is much more subtle and sophisticated than its lexile score would indicate (more on that later).  Despite all my assignments, my lessons, our class discussions, our maps of Maycomb, too many of my students weren't really reading the book--a famous problem.  So this year I have ended up reading nearly the whole thing to them--out loud, in class, a chapter or two a day.  They have been doing writing and textual analysis at home, we've been talking about it in class--and I have been doing a lot of reading aloud.

I have played around a bit with how to manage the reading. After we'd done the beginning of the book aloud, the students seemed to be following it pretty well, so I assigned a couple of chapters as homework. When I gave reading quizzes on those chapters, over a third of the students failed, pretty much in line with my experience in past years.

So I went back to doing the reading in class. I did some more aloud, then tried having them read the book to themselves in class.  This, too, was a struggle.  A few students read it easily and quickly; many struggled to understand it.  I tried having students read it to each other.  This worked okay, but it was slow-going, the kids complained, and their comprehension wasn't great. Another thing I tried was allowing students who had done well on the previous reading quizzes to read the book on their own in the hallway while I read it aloud.  This worked fairly well, although there were a few students who used the time not to read, but to go get a drink or chat with their friends. These kids then failed the quick quiz I gave, and weren't allowed to read in the hallway the next time.

I wouldn't say that the book has been a great success this year, and some of the reading-aloud time has been plagued by students commenting loudly and distractingly on the book (A typical comment is the ever-popular "THAT'S SO RACIST!"), or whispering to each other about other things, or whatever.  Nevertheless, there have been some small victories.

  1. I have a student in one of my classes who asks me nearly every day if we can "just do something chill today."  I always say, "I'm reading aloud to you.  We're having storytime; it doesn't get any more chill than that!"  She says, No, I mean play a game or something.  I say, Reading is fun!  This has happened three times; finally today some other students in the class backed me up and said they were enjoying listening to the book.
  2. In that same class I have a student with some unique learning difficulties who finds it very difficult to understand the novel.  She is the only student in either class who has found it difficult to understand when I read it aloud. I let her read in the hallway, which sometimes allowed her to (barely) pass the reading quizzes, but when we got to the trial section of the novel I asked her to stay in the room and listen to it.  She was so anxious about failing the quizzes (until I knew this girl, I thought beating your breast in anguish was just an expression) that I let her skip the quizzes for a few days.  Then yesterday I handed her a quiz and she took it, saying "I think I understood it today!" As it turned out, she barely passed the quiz, but at least she passed, and at least--for the first time--she felt like she'd understood it. I was worried that the reading aloud was going to be a a terrible experience overall for her, but it doesn't seem to be so bad.  Maybe she's even learning!
  3. Today a student in my other 9th grade class, a girl who has proclaimed many times that she hates reading but whom I have sometimes caught reading her independent reading book when she was supposed to be doing something else, announced, unprovoked, at the end of class: "I hate to admit it, but I think this book is really good!" When I said I thought so too, even if I had some misgivings, she said, "Well, I think I would hate it if I had to read it myself."  Then three other kids jumped in and said that they too only liked the book when I read it to them--but that they were liking it.

So I'm still not convinced that it's worth spending six weeks on To Kill a Mockingbird, and if I were to do it again, I would do things differently, but I do think what I'm doing this year is better than what I've done in the past.


  1. Sounds like you have some nice things going on.

    Then again, I remember the day a ninth grader walked into our English dept. workroom to ask if any of us had a copy of "How to Kill A Mockingbird." Hard to even imagine what he was getting out of the book.