Deconstructing the Constructed: Critical Literacy, Direct Instruction, and To Kill a Mockingbird

“Sit down, shut up, and listen!”

must be what people think of when they hear direct instruction. Or, (possibly worse) they see a room with students, heads emptied, and a black river flowing from the teacher’s mouth to their heads. My classroom is nothing like this. 

In this lesson on critical literacy, I’m showing teaching students to see that through subtle rhetoric, Lee’s notions of morality are geared toward a white audience. I do this using explicit instruction in vocabulary and analysis using the I-do-we-do-you-do framework , while students follow along in their packet (which includes my exemplar). 


Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

I teach a short  vocab lesson at the beginning of the class, focusing on key terms that are going to be central to discuss and analyze the passage for the day. The lesson is broken into two parts: defining terms and active practice. Active practice looks like students using the think (write) pair share technique to respond to questions like “can someone who experiences racism still have privilege?” while using the vocabulary terms. Meanwhile, I use the T.A.P.P.L.E. strategy to assess understanding.

Reading and Reading Better

I believe that we should teach students not just to read, but to read better. I do this through modeling and guided practice so students can see my metacognitive processes as I think aloud. The bulk of the class is spent on modeling and guided practice as it’s the first time doing this work.

Here’s how I model reading the passage (taken directly from my lesson plan):

  1. Teacher will read the passage once for general understanding.
  2. teacher will read the passage again and model “talk to the text” to activate background knowledge
  3. Teacher will do a line-by-line read, focusing on sections and modeling metacognitive thinking aloud:
    • who is “all kinds of folks? referring to?
    • why is it a “trick?” does it not have to be genuine understanding or more like tolerance?
    • “consider things from their point of view”
      • since we’re talking about racism in the novel, focus on how this assumes that the other point of view is just as valid.
  4. teacher will comment, “As we keep reading, think about how the author is positioning the Ewells and their actions. Think about what this says about how society should see character”

In guided practice, I do less of the heavy lifting. We follow the same format, but I choose a student to read the passage. After reading, I key them in to certain lines while they respond to me and each other. Guided practice looks more like a directed discourse where the teacher is guiding the conversation through questioning as opposed to modeling.

During independent practice, I use control the game to read the passage, and students practice analyzing  the next passage using the critical literacy framework.

Power of Questioning

Atticus finch says, “You never understand a person until you consider things from their point of view”. This sounds like a fine point to make–Empathy is always good, right?. Not necessarily. This claim was likely meant for a white person because we would never ask an enslaved person to put themselves in the shoes of their master to understand them, nor would we ask the family of someone who was lynched to understand the mob. Critical literacy, and students deeper conceptual understanding, lie in the questions you ask.

Things to consider

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the time period, a perennial classic. To have a novel that advocated fairness to Black people only 5 years after the horrific murder of 14 year old Emmit Till was to say the least, a bombshell. It’s a canonical text for a good reason.

In another light, this novel also perpetuates white saviorism though Atticus finch, degrades poor white people, and centers whiteness in a book about racism against Black people. The message of “racism is bad” it is a starting point, but does not go far enough to actionable items.

These conflicting ideas do not mean that we shouldn’t teach it; in fact, they mean the opposite.  

Critical literacy scholar Hillary Janks, author of “ Domination, Access, Diversity and Design: A Synthesis for Critical Literacy education”  writes about the dilemma of access to dominant forms of writing (usually canonical texts). This is what I see as the central  dilemma for teachers of critical, anti-colonial pedagogy: if we provide students with access to the dominant texts, we perpetuate the texts’ standing as important and powerful, but if we don’t provide the texts, then we marginalize students because the world around them values the texts. This is where critical literacy is key because simply reading the text as-is is the issue, not reading of the text in general. We have to teach students to read critically, and this is done best through explicit instruction in analysis. 

And we always have to remember that every text is a product of its time, and good readers consider context when analyzing their texts.


(i) Critical literacy, in its most basic sense, is viewing the text with an analytical lens looking for relationship of power, injustice, inequality with specific regard to race, gender, class and other markers (e.g. using marxist, feminist, historical, psychoanalytical lens etc).

(ii) I use Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction to plan my reading and vocabulary instruction.

(iii) I’m still learning. Please feel free to DM, comment, or email any thought or suggestions you may have. I came up with this lesson from nothing.



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