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Classic novel helps students develop perspective, empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

A novel, set in a sleepy southern town in the 1930s and written by a young white woman in the late 1950s, is remarkably relevant to students at Smoky Hill High School in 2016.

The themes explored in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – racial and social stereotypes, discrimination, inequity and injustice – seem just as common in the world today as they were when Scout Finch was growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb nearly 90 years ago.

“Even though we like to think that inequality has been resolved, there’s a lot of lasting effects that are still here, especially in the court system, the judicial system,” said freshman Mia Damato. “There’s still that underlying prejudice.”

“There’s still a problem with racism,” added Samuel Nigussie, also a freshman. “It’s not as common, but it’s still something certain people encounter on a daily basis.”

499 Class 3.jpgDamato and Nigussie are students in Alisa Wills-Keely’s International Baccalaureate (IB) ninth-grade English class, a diverse group that is studying Lee’s iconic novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film. The inquiry unit is set against the real-world backdrop of various “lives matter” movements and an unprecedented presidential election, all amplified by social media communications. It’s no wonder Wills-Keely’s goals for the unit are broad and purposeful.

“First and foremost, I’m teaching students to be readers, writers, speakers and thinkers, and with all of those pieces combined, there is empathy that needs to be wrapped around all of that. Sometimes that’s difficult to teach authentically,” Wills-Keely said.

Dr. Floyd Cobb at SHHS IB 9th grade English classThat is part of the reason she invited Dr. Floyd Cobb, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction for Cherry Creek Schools, to work with the students after they finished the book.

 “The kids had a lot of questions about the world and trying to understand the story of “Mockingbird” and how it related to bigger themes in terms of racial injustice and lynchings and how some of those patterns play themselves out today,” Cobb said.

His presentation included videos and news coverage of current events, including recent police shootings of unarmed black men and ambushes of police officers at work. It also included simple activities that helped students see things from a different perspective.


“Life is about perspective… the importance of showing the videos, the images that were very hard for their brains to recognize at first, were symbolic of our problems in society and how we continue to evolve and grow,” Cobb said. “Where years ago people might not have seen the obvious inhumanity of how people were treated, certainly today we can look at things through a much different lens and understand how unjust some of those treatments were.”

Cobb and the students also discussed how important it is for all people to feel like they have a voice and an opportunity for their voice to be heard in our society.

“When you think about all the trauma we experienced as a nation over the summer, independent of the perspective we viewed it from, it all came down to wanting to be seen and wanting to be heard, in an authentic way,” Cobb said.

499 Class 2.jpgCobb and Wills-Keely agree that powerful literature can have a powerful impact, helping students develop knowledge, perspective and empathy that may help them change the world for the better.

“We’re all trying to work harder to be better human beings. That’s what these novels can help us do,” Cobb said. “What we did with today’s lesson was to give them an opportunity to think more deeply and make those connections as they go about their daily lives.”

Posted 11/30/2016 9:28 AM
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