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When to Teach Mockingbird?

Written by Jennifer Hanno

What’s the Best Grade Level for Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird?

Harper Lee’s classic novel has been a mainstay of education for years. In many ways, it is the perfect novel to teach; it offers high level ideas but also a fun and engaging story line. In 32 years of teaching, I cannot remember any student “hating” this book. Perhaps that’s because it offers something for everyone: humor, social injustice, tension and a slew of other things that drive students to keep reading.

In my school, we teach Mockingbird in grade 11. Many other schools teach it in middle school, usually grade 8. This is understandable when you consider the literal reading level which is generally considered around grade 6-7 with a lexile of 870.

And though I have known many middle school students who have read and loved Mockingbird, I still believe there is a strong case to be made for teaching it at the high school level. One of the biggest challenges I face is illiteracy at the upper high school level and there are precious few novels that offer a reading level that is accessible to many while still driving intellectual and critical thought discussion. This one succeeds at that and in many more levels.

I firmly believe education can play a critical role in fighting intolerance and racism and there is a case to be made that the sooner we tackle this, the better. But I also feel that some life experience is critical to getting as much out of literature as we can. In this case, I have seen students from all levels of the social strata moved by the loss of innocence that drives this masterful piece of fiction.  I think that by the time they reach grade 11, they have seen injustice at work and so the events of this novel speak to them at a deeper level.

Does this mean they are not moved by it in grade 8? Not exactly. Some students will be mature enough to get out of the novel and all that if has to offer. It is highly dependent on the maturity level of the individual. I just feel that more students will be moved if we hold off a little and save it for a later grade.

As a teacher (or parent), what are your thoughts on this? And what other works of literature are powerful in bringing a message of tolerance to our students?

When to Teach Mockingbird?

Jennifer Hanno is a short story writer whose work is influenced by her experiences as a high school teacher, as well as her experiences living in northern New York.

She is currently working on combining several of her short stories into a linked story collection.

Additionally, she is in the beginning stages of crafting her first novel.