Unpacking Race in To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun in Response to Ferguson and Baltimore

This week I presented at the annual Critical Questions in Education Conference in Baltimore, MD. I presented with my esteemed colleagues, Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle, authors of Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (2013) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (2015). 

Texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun are widely taught in language arts classrooms throughout the United States.

But how are these texts being taught? What kinds of questions are students being asked to think about in relation to these texts? How can we use these seminal literary works to unpack and uncover the difficult “hidden history” of race in the United States? How, using text pairings with informational and other literary texts, can we support our students in engaging in difficult but informed conversations about race in our classrooms? This panel will offer specific strategies and assignments developed in relation to best practices, research, and classroom experience.

With Raisin, for example, we offer strategies to incorporate readings on the violence associated with housing desegregation and on restrictive covenants and duplicitous housing practices like redlining and contract selling to underscore the kinds of obstacles families like the Youngers faced. We also offer strategies to incorporate readings about the current state of housing discrimination and research about the inequalities of opportunity in order to underscore for students the ways in which the issues in Raisin continue to resonate and impact society today.

With Mockingbird, we suggest ways to think through the troubled racial politics of Harper Lee’s 1959 novel, allowing students to explore the ways in which Atticus is not a hero and the blindspots in young Scout’s unreliable and incomplete narration of the events in the novel. Working with material about lynching and about African-American maids and nannies, for example, students can unpack Mockingbird’s complex racial politics. Sections from the new Go Set a Watchman can be used to further complicate our understanding of and the continuing relevance of both works.

In addition to these two iconic texts, we will share contemporary titles like The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2010) and Jason Reynold’s When I Was the Greatest (2014) that offer poignant glimpses into urban America. Participants will walk away with a list of more than a dozen contemporary Young Adult texts to expand classrooms libraries and build text sets that support units on race, ethnicity, and identity.

Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere demand critical conversations in our classrooms about race and ethnicity in the United States. Teachers need to expose young people to diverse texts that help them understand the troubled history that produced the segregation, the urban blight, the hopelessness, and the abuses of power that characterize these troubling events. Our students need to have conversations about these issues that are grounded in historical facts and texts. Literary masterpieces, like Mockingbird and Raisin, are the ideal places to begin these difficult conversations, but only when these texts are thoughtfully conjoined with other contemporary and classic, fictional and informational texts and resources that allow our students to be informed thinkers.

Below are the slides for my presentation and a link to the valuable information from Audrey & Susan’s power point.


How are you using these texts or others to engage in critical conversations with your students?

I would love to know. Post your comments below.

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