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To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a staple of our 8th grade English curriculum. In an effort to breathe new life into teaching this classic of modern American literature, our English team designed a character study using Wikispaces and the concept of expression styles. The goal of this project was to provide students an opportunity to “step inside the skin” of a character other than Scout in the novel. We wanted them to imagine themselves as their character of choice in a particular situation that moved them and was especially effective at revealing inner conflict or motivation.

To ensure that students went beyond merely reporting the information given in the novel, the exercise was guided by three essential questions:

  • Why did you focus on the particular character? What was your personal connection?
  • How does your project inform us about any of these key themes: prejudice, ignorance, fear, meanness, tradition/history (a reluctance to change from the way things are), dignity, pride, selflessness, justice, empathy, hope, love, or courage?
  • How did your understanding change or grow as you worked on the project?

In addition, students were to use these questions to move them to deeper understanding:

  • Does the historical setting affect your understanding?
  • Which character traits stay the same and which change?
  • What is the evidence from the text that supports your idea?

Although writing is integral to any English curriculum, it is not the only way to demonstrate understanding. To that end, students were given the option of crafting a final product using one of three expression styles: music, visual arts, and written language. Because technology can support all three forms of expression, students were also given digital options for each product.

Music

Approximately 5% of our students choose to express themselves musically. In addition to singing or playing an instrument, there are a number of technologies that support musical expression:

  • Aviary Roc: Create music and beats completely from scratch and right in a web browser.
  • Audacity: Free audio recording and editing software.
  • GarageBand: Compose music on your Mac.
  • Mixcraft Multi-track recording studio with free trial.
  • TrakAxPC: Create music and video mixes on your PC.
  • WolframTones: Combines Wolfram’s computational universe, music theory and Mathematica algorithms to render music.

Sample Project: Dying in the Dark


Visual Art

Approximately 45% of our students opted for the arts. In addition to the traditional plastic arts, there are a number of technologies that support artistic expression:

  • Adobe Premiere: Video editing software similar to iMovie.
  • ArtRage Draw and paint using your stylus as a brush.
  • Glogster Interactive posters made from images, text, music and video.
  • Pencil Create traditional hand-drawn animation (cartoon) using both bitmap and vector graphics
  • Photoshop Elements Powerful image editing software that integrates with Adobe Premiere.
  • Prezi Create zooming presentations live and on the web.
  • Storybird Storybirds are short, visual stories that you make to share.

Sample Project: Raymond’s Mask


Written Language

Approximately 50% of our students elected to create a written final product. For this project, students had the option of writing poetry, a short story, or a one-act play. In addition to word processing, there are a number of other technologies that support written expression:

  • Blogs A blog is a type of website with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video.
  • Publisher Create, personalize, and share a range of professional-quality publications.
  • Myebook Online book creator that lets you design, publish, and share your work.
  • ReadWriteThink Printing Press Create a brochure, booklet, or newspaper online.
  • Wikispaces: Wikis are simple web pages that groups, friends, and families can edit together.

Sample Project: Boo Radley: Behind the Glass

That little Scout so young so sweet
So innocent prancing across the street
The things she goes through while she’s young
The ignorant talk from a person’s tongue
She can’t pick what her papa does
Only understand what was

She wants to play and be a kid
Oh how I wish I did what she did
Living her life without any fear
Only showing courage
I wish I were able to get out of here
Behind this window I hide my face
From the sunlight and the space

I try to be friendly by leaving little gifts
But in the end people just throw fits
They all have this idea
Of me as a killer
When I did nothing
Making my life like a story book thriller

Words don’t just hurt a person’s soul
Then leave you behind windows
Not wanting to go out for a stroll

My papa has this idea
Of a perfect kind of man
Well I’m sorry I’m not perfect
So to make you happy I ran

Everyone makes mistakes
Too bad mine are bigger than most
Now my reputation has left me washed up on the coast
I am swimming through my regrets
Drowning me in sorrows I wish I could forget
I’m stuck like the glue holding my rickety old chair together
I don’t want to be sitting here forever

People don’t understand
There is nothing to be scared of
I just wish I could be as strong as Scout
And take away all the doubt
I want to be able to break out from behind this glass
Feel free and alive
Facing the world at full blast

Why a Wiki?

Three teachers managing nearly 150 unique projects can be an overwhelming task, so the team created a To Kill a Mockingbird Wiki to frame the learning experience. Each student was given his/her own page for sharing their work, including a digital representation of the final product. Because wikis are typically viewed as collaborative tools, however, and this was an individual project, one may question why we elected to use a wiki. The short answer: organization, transparency, and feedback.

Organization is an issue for many (perhaps most) middle school students, particularly with respect to long-term assignments. By having an online template of the project guidelines, essential questions and deadlines, there were no materials to misplace or important elements to overlook. Students, parents, tutors, and teachers were all able to reference the project at any and every point in the process.

With a web-based tool, students could work on the exercise from any computer with Internet access, and being able to easily monitor their progress made the learning experience more transparent. Their reflections and revisions, all of which could be monitored by their teacher, provided a window into their thinking and reinforced our belief that process is just as important as product.

The wiki’s Discussion Tab provided an ideal place to provide formative feedback and help students make course corrections as necessary. Students crave feedback and such an approach is far superior to the all-too-familiar “assign it now, grade it later” model of assessment. Collectively, these benefits extended the learning beyond the classroom (and the school day itself) and ultimately led to more meaningful work.

Presentation and Assessment

As a culminating activity, each student presented his/her project to the class and was assessed using the following rubric:
TKAM Rubric
Creating one rubric to assess a wide variety of final products did present some challenges; it can be difficult to evaluate music, art, and verse by the same criteria. By focusing on the essential questions, oral presentation, and effectiveness of the final product, however, we were able to construct a set of criteria that could be applied to all students.

Although this project was specifically designed for To Kill a Mockingbird, is could easily be applied to any number of novels. If you would like to adapt our efforts to meet your needs, I would invite you to visit the To Kill a Mockingbird Wiki and discover first-hand how a simple wiki and student choice can facilitate creative, higher-order thinking.