Thursday, January 16, 2014

Using Informational Text in the Classroom: Atticus and the 'Case for Unpopular Clients'

In late December, we used some of our material with a 9th grade class at Secaucus High School. The students had read through chapter 24 (when Scout, during Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle, learns that Tom Robinson has been killed in prison). We decided to work with them using our unit based on Stephen Jones’ 2010 piece from the Wall Street Journal: “The Case for Unpopular Clients,” which appears in our forthcoming book, Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird, available from Rowman & Littlefield Education in March. (This unit isn’t available online, but you can see and download two other Mockingbird-based units at

Jones defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and his editorial is a heartfelt defense of the lawyers working with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The piece is ripe with connections to Mockingbird, but it’s challenging because it articulates a complex argument, uses advanced vocabulary, and assumes a relatively large amount of background knowledge.

The Secaucus 9th graders, however, showed how much they could do in a fifty-minute period!

We opened the period with a quick video clip from YouTube. The students, after all, had no idea what Guantanamo Bay is, so they had no way of thinking about the issue of defending the accused terrorists there. The one-minute clip about the trial of the driver for Bin Laden (whom they had heard of) gave them some context. In a quick discussion after the clip, the students asserted that really guilty people shouldn’t necessarily get a lawyer because this might allow them to get off. We talked a bit about how you would know whether someone was really guilty without a trial and that shook their confidence, but we didn’t yet raise the issue of the importance of a trial for all defendants.

Next, we moved to some vocabulary exercises. Although we suggest you begin the vocabulary work with context clue activities, we started with vocabulary skits in part because we were visiting the class and wanted to build in some immediate fun and goodwill. The students responded well although they struggled, as can be expected, with parts of speech, confusing, for example, adversarial and adversary. (This unit is not available online, but other sample units showing the range of our vocabulary materials from our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird can be found at

We did a few more vocabulary exercises, using only those that involved context clues since we didn’t want to spend the time focusing on dictionary skills and use. The work was painless and engaging and allowed us to begin to set the stage for some of the issues in Jones’s piece.

After about 20 minutes of prep work, we got to the meat of our work: reading through and discussing Jones. We read together, using the sidebar discussion questions we had placed alongside the excerpt to chunk the text, probe understanding, and draw connections with Mockingbird. The first paragraph of the article references Timothy McVeigh, whom the students hadn’t heard of, but that same paragraph lays out pretty simply how brutal his bombing of the Federal Building was. As Jones sketched out his reasons for defending McVeigh, students were able to deepen their understanding of the American justice system, appreciating Jones’s willingness to defend a guilty and unpopular client, noting the similarities to (and difference from) Atticus and Tom Robinson, and rethinking the importance of a zealous defense for all accused (and refining their earlier opinions about Bin Laden’s driver). A particularly great moment was when the students considered how comparatively well Atticus had been treated by his community given his unpopular defense work. Jones notes death threats and armed guards at his home; when the students continue on and read to the end of Mockingbird and the attack on the children, they will be able to reflect back on their preliminary assertions.

In all, the fifty minutes of class was wonderfully successful in getting them to think about the continued relevance of the issue of a fair defense for all. The students read difficult text, learned some new words, and thought carefully about some tough issues. We didn’t get through everything (and perhaps could have cut the text into a smaller chunk that served the singular purpose of our one class period), but reading Stephen Jones’s informational text allowed the students to flex their reading and critical thinking muscles while also delving deeply into Mockingbird.

1 comment:

  1. See what happened when Elizabeth, N.J. high school teacher Margueya Poupko whet her struggling readers' interest with New York Times articles: