This unit is taught with the purpose of creating a parallel (interdisciplinary) instruction project with the history class where the teacher covers reconstruction and segregation in America at the beginning of the school year. The chosen literary works, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest G. Gaines, incorporate issues and ideas connected to these historical times in America, but while the first one is written from a white author’s point of view, the second is from a black author’s perspective and experience. Both works bring much insight and awareness to our international students who know by personal experience stories and issues related to their own countries, but know very little about American society’s complexity, inequality system, and injustice perpetrated against the people of African descent from the time of slavery to the Civil Right Movement, and even after that.
The understanding of the past can allow our students to see the American people of different ethnic groups as people who are still in the process of overcoming a tremendous amount of conflicts, and who deserve much respect for all the good that they have done, or that they are still trying to achieve. In addition, both novels include the death penalty matter which is also taught as part of the Constitutional Law Unit in the history class.
The challenges of this course include: historical and cultural background information, languages (standard English versus dialects from the South), vocabulary words (especially in To Kill A Mockingbird), literary techniques, literary view point, etc.
Students use both books and Internet sources to provide historical evidence that connect the novel’s ideas and themes to historical events that they learned in 11th grade history class, and those they are presently learning in their 12th grade history class, such as Reconstruction, racism in the South, segregation, bias, discrimination, death penalty, injustice…
To prepare for the comparative literature essay in which they will have to include both novels, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, students write an in-class essay in which they compare the first novel we study in class (To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee), with the movie by the same title by Robert Mulligan. The following is the assignment:
You are using the book To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and the movie based on the same story, directed by Robert Mulligan.
Choose one major difference and one major similarity between the book and the movie to show their focus. The two deal with different time capacity, artistic devices, and different means of communication to narrate the story in the most effective ways. So, throughout your essay, show your understanding of the uncontested qualities of these two award-winning works.
Students write an autobiographical essay in order to practice peer critiquing/editing/self correcting focusing on grammatical features (one or two at a time). The fact that they use relevant materials (to them) facilitates this work and produces intrinsic motivation and engagement while working on specific writing skills.
For the purpose of understanding how history affects people’s lives and destiny, students work on an assignment which includes either an interview or a research.
a. Students interview their parents or grandparents to learn about some important historical events in their country or region of origin (about the last 40-50 years) to see how their families were affected by them.
b. The students whose parents choose not to participate do internet research to evidence of historical events that parallel their families' lives and draw some conclusions to understand how their own families were affected by history.