“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (3.85-87)
In an effort to engage my students in the analysis and understanding of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, this week we walked around in their skin. We combined literature and drama by staging a production of the Tom Robinson trial in my classroom.
I’ve done this activity for the past six semesters, each time with a little more fanfare than the semester before. What initially began as nothing more than a table reading has evolved into a staged production, complete with props (a tie for Atticus, a graduation robe for the Judge), thoughtful casting choices, and much excitement on the part of my students.
It really all began a few years ago when I came across a trial script on the Internet. I was looking for a way to humanize the characters in the trial for my students, and bringing the words to life through a dramatic reading seemed to be a good place to start. Over the semesters, I’ve amended the original script I’ve found to include additional characters and narration from the text.
We set up the classroom in the closest approximation to a courtroom that we can manage. This isn’t exactly easy, given that our jury numbers roughly 22 kids, and my desks have the chairs attached, which makes them difficult to rearrange. So, each character gets his/her own colorful sign attached to the desk to indicate who is speaking.
I ask my students to volunteer themselves for roles, and to tell me whether they want a big or small part. Some of the volunteers, of course, are the chatty hams of the class who will take any opportunity to be in front of an audience. The budding actors also enjoy the chance to show off their acting chops. Often, though, what I find is that many of my lower-level students who otherwise struggle with reading the text are excited and motivated to play a role in the drama.
Some of my students who volunteered for roles this time are ones who struggle with reading fluency. Despite their difficulties, they requested small roles and were eager to join in. It was gratifying to see their classmates stage-whispering the correct pronunciation of difficult words, patiently giving encouraging smiles, even applauding when they were each done with their parts.
Those students who don’t have one of the 15 speaking roles take on the persona of a juror. The jurors are not identified in the text, so I took some artistic license and created bios for twelve different characters, all with different backgrounds and different views on race. Some, for example, secretly support Atticus and Tom, but fear that publicly announcing it will negatively brand them and their families. Some believe everything they have ever been taught about race. Some are in between. Jurors are asked to watch the drama unfold with their juror’s persona in mind.
The drama focuses on the testimonies of Sheriff Heck Tate, Bob and Mayella Ewell, and Tom Robinson and allows them to come to life. As each testifies, I record the details of the testimony in a chart on the board so that students also have a visual for comparison. In this way, it’s easy to follow not only the information that unfolds, but to follow Atticus’s plan of attack and line of questioning.
Acting also humanizes the characters, especially when students really dig into their roles, which is what they did this semester. They see Bob’s anger and inappropriateness (as one student put it, “he’s got too much swagger!”) Mayella’s fear and defiance, and Tom’s empathy and humanity.
Our drama concludes with Atticus’s moving closing argument, during which he emphasizes the idea that the one place where “a pauper is the equal of a Rockefeller, a genius the equivalent of an Einstein,” is the courtroom. He ends by pleading with the all-white jury, “in the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe him.”
As a class, we deconstruct the closing argument paragraph by paragraph, paying close attention to rhetorical devices and to Atticus’s tactics and word choices (calling out Bob Ewell and throwing in some veiled barbs about his character).
Then I ask my students to “walk around in the skin” of their character by writing a reaction to Atticus’s closing argument from that character’s point-of-view. We are able to discuss and come up with some examples by exploring the general feelings that different characters might have as a reaction to Atticus’s words. Then I turn them loose on the writing.
Our drama is a bit of a cliffhanger in that it stops just short of the verdict. Students have to read that part for homework. And they are curious to read it, because they want to know what happens. Often, they come in the next day with exclamations of, “Mrs B, it’s so unfair!” or “I’m so upset, how could they do that?” The jury’s verdict seems so much more unjust after the drama has played out before them. They have a visual reminder of Tom’s innocence.
To discuss the verdict, we are able to tie in to the “data dig” I have them complete on the first day of our unit, in which they examine photographs from 1930s Alabama to look for patterns and clues to social structure. Since many of the photographs depict life in the segregated South (signs, water fountains, buses), we are able to draw some conclusions about how everyday life permeated the mindsets of many, including the jurors, and how Atticus’s argument addresses the need to overcome racism and segregation.
I love this activity, not only because it gets my students up and moving, but because it engages their literacy in a different way, and engages students who might not otherwise participate.
The best part? Yesterday at the end of class, they asked if we could do this again. When I mentioned that our next text is Romeo & Juliet, the announcement was met with excitement rather than groans. They can’t wait to act again.