Empathic Response Assignments Introduced by Discussion Questions Specifically Designed for Use With To Kill a Mockingbird
In order to fully engage students in “To Kill a Mockingbird” teachers may find it necessary to show how stories about even dated behavior and attitudes can still be relevant to the lives of young people today. The following discussion questions are accompanied by suggested assignments that will engage students in an empathic reaction to the material in the film as well as provide an opportunity to exercise the skills required by ELA curriculum standards.
Teachers can select assignments that best fit their intentions in showing the film and in the standards upon which the students are working. The questions are chronological. The film can be chunked to allow the assignments to be given as students watch the film or the film can be shown in its entirety with work assigned after viewing has been completed.
For these questions, there are generally no single correct answers. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response.
For each assignment, specify the length of the writing and the rubric that will be used to evaluate the submissions.
1. [As the film opens, the credits roll as the camera focuses on a box of objects. Refer to this box and ask:] The objects in this box have importance to both Jem and Scout. The timepiece, for example, illuminates not only the point that one day a father will pass this object on to his son but the idea that childhood is a quick and soon lost period in a person’s life. What is suggested when the crayon drawing in this opening is torn and the film then moves into its story?
Strong responses will refer to the separation between innocence and maturity or to the end of innocence caused by experience.
Assignment: Write a descriptive essay showing what would be included in a box containing items significant in terms of your own life. Be sure to explain anything necessary to make the value of the items understood. For example, a ticket stub in the box should be identified by what event it represented and why the event was important.
2. The voiceover that begins the film belongs to Scout, as an adult, looking back into a particularly important time in her life. It was 1932 and she was 6 years old. She declares that days seemed longer back when there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and nothing to buy it with. What else does she see that indicates hard times felt during the Great Depression?
Here is one instance; there may be others. Scout sees how collards and hickory nuts are used by Mr. Cunningham to pay her father for work he has done. Her father says, by way of explanation, that the 1929 stock market crash hit the farmers the hardest and that Mr. Cunningham is embarrassed by a “thank you” since he is paying off debt rather than acting with generosity.
Assignment: Write a brief account of how you would fill a summer day without access to cable television, the Internet, video games, or anything that would cost money. Assume you could not ride in a car or take public transportation anywhere.
3. Boo Radley’s house is spooky to the children and Miss deBoise is someone to be avoided altogether. How does Atticus address both of these issues in the hopes that the children will learn from him?
He tells his children to leave “those poor people” who live in the Radley house alone. Atticus is also nice to the old woman. When she is ranting against the children, he distracts her by complimenting her garden.
Assignment: Write a narrative about a scary neighborhood threat, real or imagined, that caused you to shift your behavior. If none occurred in your neighborhood, write about some national circumstance, such as kidnapping, a school shooting or 9/11, that may have engendered fear and altered your way of going about your life. Be sure to describe the circumstances fully, including how you felt, not just what you thought. Describe what you did, if anything, to protect yourself against the scary neighborhood threat.
4. Atticus shows courage in his willingness to defend Tom Robinson against the rape charges. Even the implied threats of Robert Ewell did not deter him. What values are shown in Atticus’ stance?
Atticus shows a firm sense of justice and as a lawyer, he shows deep respect for the legal process. He shows self-confidence in having the kind of personal power required to stand up against bigotry. He shows courage in being willing to stand against most of his community, risking his standing in the town and his personal safety.
Assignment: Using the Internet, write a one-page short essay about each of three people in history and how they have taken stands on principle in spite of great odds and great difficulties. For each person include some biographical information and a brief description of their principled stand. One of your subjects can be taken from an incident in the life of the following: Alice Paul (suffragist leader); Emile Zola (the Dreyfus Affair); George Washington (and any other patriot of the American Revolution who risked their lives fighting the most powerful empire on Earth); and Mahatma Gandhi. The people that you find can be from different cultures and from any time period. You will receive extra credit by finding people who are not known to your classmates.
5. When Jem runs back to the collard patch to get his pants, he says that his father had never whipped him since he could remember and he planned to keep it that way. Atticus does not seem like the kind of father who would ever whip his child and what Jem really fears is Atticus’ disapproval. What could be the reason that Jem fears his father’s disapproval?
Atticus carries himself with such authority that he seems to have a great deal of power.
Assignment: Think of someone you know who seems to have a great deal of authority that has nothing to do with his or her physical strength or official position. Or, think of someone who is given considerable respect from those around him or her. Write a brief characterization of this person that will explain the reasons for the esteem in which he or she is held. Use details about personal appearance, actions and what is said either by or about this person of authority or respect.
6. When Walter is invited to the house to share a meal, Jem expresses for the second time his interest in guns. At this point, Atticus tells Jem about the rule that one must never shoot a mockingbird. The mockingbird is a symbol that appears at other points in the movie as well. What relationship does the statement “It’s wrong to kill a mockingbird” have to do with Boo Radley and Tom Robinson?
The mockingbird represents something or someone who does not try to hurt anyone and who provides the world with a little beauty or goodness. The bird is like Tom Robinson in that the man simply wanted to help a woman in need who seemed overwhelmed and lonely. The mockingbird is like Boo Radley in that he left tokens in the tree to share with the children and protected them when they were attacked. Neither person meant any harm in the world. Both of them were injured by others who didn’t understand their goodness, Tom by the racist jury, and Boo by his family. Good people in the movie tried to protect them. Atticus tried to protect Tom from being convicted for a crime that he did not commit and that never actually occurred. Atticus was not successful. However, the Sheriff and Atticus protected Boo from the publicity of an inquest concerning the circumstances of Mr. Ewell’s death.
Assignment: Think of someone in your life or in mass media who seems to be like a mockingbird as Atticus sees it. Characterize this person in a brief paragraph. Give examples of the kindnesses he or she has shown others and explain the motivation.
7. Atticus defends the teacher who makes a mistake in trying to give money to Walter Cunningham. He says that you can never understand others until you see things from their points of view. How would it be possible for the teacher to understand Walter Cunningham or for Scout to understand the teacher?
Answers will vary. The class should consider the possibility that neither the teacher nor Scout will ever be able to understand Walter. They will never know what it is like to grow up in abject poverty. Coming from an upbringing such as the one provided by Atticus, Scout may be able to empathize with the teacher because she has learned tolerance of opposing points of view.
Assignment: There are people either in mass media or in your personal life who have behaved in ways that you cannot comprehend. Write about that person making clear the nature of the disagreement you have with him or her. Then play devil’s advocate and come up with a justification for actions with which you find a complaint from the point of view held by the perpetrator.
8. When Atticus kills the mad dog, the children are told that their father is the best marksman in town. Jem is impressed, yet Atticus has made it clear that he believes ownership of guns is not an attribute of manhood. What might be the reason Jem is so enamored of guns?
Children love to pretend that they are shooting guns. In addition, in the general society, many people who have been entranced by the myth of the cowboy or the advertising of the gun lobby believe that owning a gun is a mark of being a person of power. Atticus disagrees with this view of manhood.
Assignment: Write a persuasive essay which seeks to convince your reader to share your opinion about the value of guns in society today. Should they be regulated, outlawed, or left to the demands of the marketplace and the desires of the individual? Be sure to include in your essay at least one counterargument to a position put forward by persons on the other side of the issue.
9. When Atticus takes his children to see Helen Robinson, the wife of the man he is defending, Robert Ewell shows up and calls him a “nigger lover.” Atticus does not comment and later tells Jem not to fear Ewell who is “all bluff.” Comment on the connection between the use of the term “nigger lover” and the prospect that Ewell is more than bluffing.
Answers will vary. Students may suggest that anyone willing to use verbal violence such as “nigger lover” may well be capable of using physical violence. Others may feel that verbal violence is a substitute for physical violence. Some may simply suggest that Atticus is wrong; Ewell is not bluffing.
Assignment: Try to recall a time when you heard the use of verbal violence or hate speech. Write a narration about the time you witnessed its use. Show what led up to the verbal violence and detail the consequences. Narratives are like stories; be sure to describe the setting and the characters and make the circumstances clear.
10. As open-minded as Atticus seems to be, Calpurnia still sits in the back seat of the car when he drives her home. Why isn’t Calpurnia sitting in the front? Is it merely racism or are there additional factors operating here?
There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps, Calpurnia sits in the back to hide from the community Atticus’ feelings about racism. Another is that both Calpurnia and Atticus desire to demonstrate to their respective communities that their relationship is only an employer/employee relationship and that it is not an equal relationship. A third possibility is classism. Atticus will not allow Calpurnia to sit in the front seat because Calpurnia is a poor working domestic and Atticus is an attorney from a distinguished Maycomb family. Differences in class, as well as differences in race, motivate this arrangement. See that the students engage in discussion about the vague distinction between classism and racism.
Assignment: Classism, like racism, is based upon pre-conceived notions of status in society. Take a survey of the different kinds of classism you see in your classroom, school, neighborhood or in the mass media. From your survey, list examples of classism based upon economics, age, talent, beauty, intelligence and employment. Share your examples with the class.
11. Tension builds prior to the trial. Atticus takes a lamp and a book and sits in front of the jail in case trouble arises from vigilantism. The children show up and refuse to obey when he demands that they go home. In what sense is the children’s defiance a principled and caring action?
By disobeying Atticus, the children are saying that their safety is secondary to the support they can offer Atticus in the stand he is taking for justice. They are willing to risk punishment in defense of Atticus, for both his cause and because he is their father.
Assignment: Narrate an experience you have had either with peers or with any authorities when you took a stand in defense of principle. Be sure to specify exactly who the authorities were, what point you were defending and the outcome of the situation. If you have not experienced any such incident, draw upon those shown in novels or in films to complete the assignment.
12. When the vigilantes show up to take Tom Robinson from jail most certainly lynch him, the presence and behavior of the children defuse the situation. How are the children at least partially responsible for saving Tom Robinson from being lynched that night?
Some may assert that when the men see the children, they are reluctant to continue behaving in a way that they themselves see as dishonorable. Children often bring out the best in adults who are ashamed to act badly in front of them. See e.g., TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan The Child Savior Myth and Literary Archetypes– An Introduction Using Man on Fire. In addition, the presence of witnesses often cause reconsideration of action. Others may note that Scout brings out the sense of community and a degree of compassion when she recognizes Mr. Cunningham and tells the crowd that she goes to school with his son and her father has done legal work for him. Another possibility is that the men remember that Atticus had helped many of them keep their land. Scout mentions this in the scene.
Assignment: Mr. Cunningham is living under what is referred to as an “entailment.” Using Internet research, define the term and explain its historical context.
13. In the trial scene, the courtroom is segregated. What ironies can be found in this scene?
The courts are places where justice is supposed to be meted out fairly, without regard to race. Segregated seating, along with the fact of an all-white jury makes clear that in Maycomb racial justice is not a part of the equation. Another irony is that Jem and Scout sit in the “colored section” of the courtroom with complete safety while a black man before the jury is in mortal danger.
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, find the information and write a summary of the account told by Howard Zinn about how the girls from Spellman College were able to integrate a courtroom in Atlanta Georgia.
14. What irony can be found in the revelation that Tom Robinson says he felt sorry for Mayella, a white woman who has unjustly accused him of rape?
Tom’s sympathy for Mayella seems to be the insult that pushes the jurors toward conviction. What should have been seen as kindness is considered by the white racists to be an insult, a suggestion that Tom felt himself to be above Mayella. His kindness, pitted against the racism, gets him convicted.
Assignment: The white people do not think Mayella needs the sympathy of a black man and Mr. Cunningham does not want sympathy for his economic plight. In a brief ruminative essay, try to explain what characteristics in an individual would cause him or her to reject sympathy even when deserved. Share your ideas with your classmates when the assignment is completed.
15. In his closing arguments, Atticus says that Mayella, a victim of ignorance and poverty, has put a man’s life at stake because she broke a code. What is the code and why did it exist?
The code is the taboo that once prohibited interracial sexual contact. It is based not only on the notion that blacks are inferior to whites but that blacks are “not to be trusted around our women.” Atticus says that there exists an evil assumption that all African Americans lie and are “basically immoral beings.”
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, write an expository essay on the miscegenation laws through which state governments tried to keep people of different races from marrying. Find details about when the laws were written and when they were subsequently invalidated. You may write in general terms or focus on one particular state or area of the nation. Find the numbers of interracial marriages today and note the changes over the past half-century.
16. To which part of his final argument is Atticus referring when he says to the jurors, “In the name of God, do your duty”?
Atticus has asserted that the courts are “great levelers” and that in their jurisdiction all men are created equal. He has claimed that the racist reasoning used in the trial is contrary to the principles of “a living, working reality” of justice. He believes jurors have an obligation to put aside passion and weigh the evidence against Tom Robinson with the objectivity the law demands.
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, find a case since 1900 in which some people have accused jurors of making decisions based on racial prejudice. Support your opinion with reference to the cases.
17. After the trial is over, the black people remain in the segregated section of the courtroom and stand when Atticus leaves the building. Scout is told: “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” What is it that Scout failed to grasp in this scene?
Scout did not understand the attitude of the black people who witnessed the trial. She thought her father lost the case; the black people deeply respected his work on behalf of Tom Robinson.
Assignment: Jem and Scout are too young to fully appreciate the risks Atticus took to defend Tom Robinson. When lawyers take on the defense of unpopular defendants, they risk livelihood and reputation. Write an opinion piece that would appear in a local newspaper in support of a lawyer who has taken on the case of someone who is accused of being a terrorist or a child molester.
18. After Tom Robinson is dead, the story continues and the focus moves to Boo Radley and the death of Mr. Ewell. The children have been attacked and it is clear from the bruises on the left side of Jem’s face that Ewell assaulted the boy. In the encounter, the children were protected by Boo Radley and Bob Ewell is killed. What ironies lie in this incident?
The children had been living in fear of Boo Radley and he is the one who saves them from Ewell. Further irony lies in the fact that Ewell has attacked the persons in society who have the least amount of power – Tom Robinson, a black man, and the children – and he is killed by Boo Radley, a man of even less power and lower standing in the community.
Assignment: The racist Bob Ewell bullies his daughter, spits in the face of Atticus, lies in the courtroom and attacks the children. He is clearly a bad man. Write an essay in which you do what Atticus instructed his children to do: walk around in Bob Ewell’s shoes. In your essay, speculate as to why Ewell is so hateful. Try to take Ewell seriously as a person and to shed some light on his character.
19. In the conversation between Atticus and Sheriff Tate after the children were attacked and Ewell has been found dead, the issue of “situation ethics” is raised. Both men have been shown to be honorable and moral yet in the situation involving Ewell, they are now willing to cover up a set of circumstances that would normally call for a formal investigation. This is obstruction of justice, something Atticus would ordinarily oppose. They are lying and taking the law into their own hands. Compare their actions to what the lynch mob wanted to do or to what the Ewells did by lying at the trial.
Strong answers will mention that one of the basic themes of the story is that people should follow the rule of law but the rule of law must be tempered with mercy in extraordinary circumstances. Sheriff Tate’s decision to claim that Mr. Ewell fell on his own knife and to hide the role of Boo in the incident, before he did any investigation and when it looked as if Mr. Ewell was killed by Boo, is the example showing that justice must at times be tempered with mercy and that the justice system should not be strictly applied in all situations.
Assignment: The Great Divide is an informal setting for debate. First, the class should work together to create a firm definition of situation ethics. Then the class can be divided into two groups, those that believe in situation ethics and those that believe ethics to be absolute. They sit across from each other in the classroom thus creating a visual image of the amount of support each side has amassed. For the sake of order, a chair can be placed in the front of each group facing the opposition. A student must make his or her argument sitting in the chair. Rebuttal must come from someone who sits in the chair of the opposing side. This method of debate encourages cooperation since there may be several people at any time who want to sit in the speaker’s seat. Students can then engage in debate, referring to their definitions, actions in the film, historical or hypothetical incidents, and pure argumentation to support their side of the Divide. Any student who changes his or her mind can move to the other side of the classroom. The “winner” of the debate is the side with the most students in support of either situation or absolute ethics. If it is necessary to get the discussion going, the class should focus on the situation ethics employed by the Sheriff and Atticus when they lied to keep Boo’s involvement in the death of Mr. Ewell a secret.
20. In the end, Atticus introduces Boo Radley to Jem as Mr. Arthur Radley. What final lesson do we learn about the character of Atticus Finch in this scene?
Atticus is unrelenting in his humanism and respect for people even if they are different.
Assignment: Write a characterization of the strangest person you know either in your own life or in mass media. You may even consider writing about Michael Jackson. Present details about the nature of the “strange” qualities of this person and note how he or she has been treated by others over the years. Then consider how this individual’s life would improve were people to treat him or her with kindness and respect. Suggest a code to be followed when one comes into contact, especially consistently, of a strange person. Share the code you have created with the class.
21. Who is the character in this story that made the strongest impression on you?
There are only strong or weak responses to this question, depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response.
Assignment: The characters of Jem, Scout and Atticus have evoked strong reactions in millions of people who have seen the film or read the book. Write an essay about what one of these characters meant to you.
Generic Assignments Useful with Most Films