Friday, May 22, 2020

Using informational text (and technology!) to help our students make sense of this strange time

Many of us are feeling fairly Zoomed out these days, but there are still those worthwhile virtual meet-ups that rejuvenate our spirits and spark new ideas. Our conversation this week about using informational texts to help our students and ourselves make sense of this strange time was definitely one of those worthy gatherings.

Our conversation focused on four primary themes/takeaways: 1) focusing on purpose and relevance; 2) fostering student engagement; 3) keeping things simple; and 4) being mindful about the difference between online and offline reading.

We started our conversation by talking about a documentary, “Most Dangerous Ways to School: Nicaragua,” that one of our participants was using with her 9th grade English students. Susan asked the teacher how she planned to assess student engagement while they watched the documentary. She said she had already received some informal responses from students about the video, but she was still thinking about what kind of writing to ask the students to produce after viewing. Susan asked what she wanted students to come away with after watching the video. The teacher responded that she wanted them to gain a greater perspective about the kinds of hardships some students around the world face in just getting to school everyday and possibly to compare those conditions to their own, either during the coronavirus quarantine or in general. Susan agreed that a comparative personal narrative, perhaps drawing upon 2-3 specific details from the video made sense. She stressed that during this time it is especially important to focus on purpose and relevance and to streamline assignments and assessments based on what is most essential as we close out this strange school year.

Susan also asked the teacher if she planned to use any tools like edPuzzle or Flipgrid that would facilitate student responses to and engagement with the video. This is where we were especially grateful that our friend Michele Haiken had joined us. She explained the different uses of the two tools: edPuzzle works well with short videos and embeds questions during the videos, while FlipGrid gives students the opportunity to respond via video.

Susan shared an edPuzzle Audrey had created for their unit on consent connected to Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak. The edPuzzle featured several multiple-choice questions embedded in the short, animated video about understanding consent.

Michele then shared her screen to show us how she recently used Flipgrid to get students to respond to a multimedia unit she had built around The Diary of Anne Frank , which included 1) reading book, 2) reading or seeing the play, 3), taking a virtual tour of the Secret Annex (through the Anne Frank Museum), and possibly perusing related material on Google Arts and Culture. Her prompt for all this was quite simple: How can we take inspiration from Anne Frank during this time of isolation?

Michele also talked about using a weekly video to lay out instructions and goals for the week. And she is using Anchor to record herself reading aloud for students in a private podcast, a nice tool that brings her presence into her students’ worlds while also ensuring all students at least auditory access to the text.

Audrey then shared how she has used Perusall, a social annotation tool, to foster engagement among her college students as they navigate reading in isolation without as much classroom support. With Perusall, the instructor can add specific questions for response or the students can simply annotate on their own. The nice aspect of this tool is that it allows students to participate in a community conversation as they are reading. They can indicate questions (and upvote questions they share) and they can respond to or upvote responses they find useful. Responses can also include images and links. There’s even a computer-generated grading tool, so that instructors can assign a score to the annotation work, and easy analytics to note who is responding frequently and substantively.

Despite our excitement about the many tools available, especially right now, we all agreed that keeping things simple is the best course of action for both our students and ourselves. For Michele, this means using the same four tools. For Susan, this meant going back to GoogleDocs to create a guided reading template for a recent New York Times editorial about leadership in a crisis (which you are welcome to copy and use!) that could be shared with students so that they could add responses to the reading prompts and/or annotations via comment, which their classmates could also see and add to (similar to what Audrey did with Perusall).

Susan also mentioned a conversation she had recently with a teacher about a Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby unit. She explained that she encouraged the teacher to think about her purpose, given the rapidly approaching end of the school year, and streamline the unit according to her instructional goals. For instance, instead of having the whole class read both articles in the unit, she could assign one to half the class and have them read and discuss it in a breakout room on Zoom or GoogleMeet and then have them present their article to the class.

Michele, however, cautioned that we need to be mindful about the difference between reading in print and online and that we need to tailor our expectations for reading during remote learning. She advocated presenting smaller chunks of reading and streamlining reading assignments overall.

In response, Audrey echoed Michele (and the Anne Frank unit) in noting the importance of giving students a variety of choices and not (inadvertently or otherwise) shutting down options students might want to pursue about a topic, whether it be producing a creative response or following up on a particular aspect of a subject, through links or multimedia.

As should be evident from the above, we had a great time during this inspiring and energizing conversation. Our only regret is that we didn’t quite have enough people to do our beloved vocab skits, which we think would be easy and fun to do using the breakout rooms in Zoom. If you and a few of your colleagues and/or teacher friends would like to schedule such a conversation with us either before the end of the school year, or over the summer, please feel free to reach out to us at usinginfotext at gmail.com.

Stay well, everyone!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Let's Chat About Using Informational Text During Remote Learning and Beyond!

We hope this finds you and your students as well as can be during this strange time. As educators, the set of dynamics and concerns that we are normally in the midst of, especially as we near the finish of a school year, has shifted dramatically. As always we want to care for and support our students while also challenging them to expand their knowledge and develop their skills; however, this global pause brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us all to question what that means and what it looks like, or should look like, both now and whenever we might return to our non-virtual classrooms and school buildings.

As you likely have over the last several weeks, we have been trying out new tools that enable us to keep doing what we’ve done in the past, and some that have enabled new forms of interaction and learning. It’s great that so many tools and platforms are being offered for free to educators and students right now, but it also creates option anxiety, and who needs anything else to be anxious about right now?

What has grounded us professionally, as well as personally, in the last several weeks has been the virtual conversations we’ve had with colleagues near and far, to share strategies and common concerns, and of course, to offer moral support. So, we’d like to do the same with our Using Informational Text friends.

Informational text certainly has an important place in making sense of this time, and especially when used to help students make connections with literature that depicts other times, places, and peoples experiencing their own cataclysms and everyday lives. So, let’s get together and talk about how to do this work at this time and in whatever the future may hold for teaching and learning.

Please join us on one of the following dates/times (click on the link to register):


Click on the link(s) above to RSVP for your preferred date/time; you will receive the Zoom invitation upon approval of your registration.

Our approach to using informational text has always been about building relevance and engagement. So, the underlying question of our discussion will be: What makes sense now? What is our purpose? We will share ideas about text pairings in our current climate, including strategies for leading a whole-class or small group discussion of a reading via videoconference and ideas for how to use informational text, including media links, to foster engagement and community.

We’d also be happy to join you and your students via whatever remote platform works for you to read and discuss an informational text with you. This moment is particularly conducive to remote guest appearances! Let us know what and when might work for you. Reach out to us via Twitter @usinginfotext or email.

Friday, October 18, 2019

What You Said About Using YA Fiction in the ELA Classroom

Back in August, we asked English teachers in our personal learning and social media networks for their thoughts on how, when, and why they use young adult fiction in their curriculum, particularly novels that feature or focus on sensitive topics. We were excited about the opportunities that these texts provide for students to think about sensitive issues. But we also were wondering about how we help students wrestle with the depictions of challenging experiences, particularly if these texts are assigned as summer reading, leaving students to read and digest these texts on their own. Below, we share the responses to our blog posts and online survey.

For us, this inquiry was sparked by discussions Susan had with a few parents of students new to her school about the sexual content in a couple of the summer reading choices (Looking for Alaska by John Green and Tyrell by Coe Booth). And the challenges involved in incorporating such valuable but complex texts into our curriculum were particularly underscored for us while we were collaborating this summer on an informational text set on Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. One anonymous response made us feel like we were not alone in our concerns: “Thank you for addressing this! I wrestle with the same issue, and have been working with my colleagues to figure out how to create space for students to process what they have read over the summer in a meaningful and collaborative way once they are back in school.”

According to the responses we received to our survey, 60 percent of the teachers who responded said they teach two or more YA books per year. Most respondents (80%) said they assign YA fiction as choice reading, but whole-class reading was a close second (70%), followed by summer reading (60%). In terms of which YA novels respondents teach, responses ranged from a list of 10 titles to “waiting on approval to incorporate Long Way Downby Jason Reynolds next year.” The full list of titles was surprisingly wide-ranging, with only All American BoysSpeak, Looking for Alaska, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appearing more than once.

Among the benefits of incorporating YA novels into the ELA curriculum cited by survey respondents were that YA novels are “engaging,” “more relatable,” have “easier language,” and are “written to appeal to students’ age group.” One teacher said that the connections students make with YA plots and characters “open the door not only to excitement about reading (and writing about literature), but also to innovative thinking about the texts,” while another argued that students can become engaged with writing that addresses topics that interest and challenge them, and that they themselves and their issues reflected in the novels.

The difficulties respondents cited included the perception that YA novels “lack literary merit,” and the desire to “balance entertainment with providing works that challenge students’ thinking.” Teachers also noted concerns about profanity and the desire of many school administrators and parents to “shield their children from the explicit nature of many of the [YA] books.”

One respondent wrote: “while I don't have a ‘fear’ of discussing difficult/sensitive topics in the classroom, the difficulty can be facilitating an appropriate and respectful conversation among students when addressing the topics in a YA novel.” Another said, “They are a springboard for discussions of deeper themes and issues. They allow students to experience risky situations vicariously, critically analyzing choices and effects. Students get to see themselves in literature which is validating.”

Overall, teachers encouraged others to take the YA leap and “do it.” A couple suggested pairing the YA novel with a classic text, short stories, or informational text. Others stressed preparation: reading the entire book first and being ready to answer questions from both students and concerned adults. One urged teachers to “let students dictate the direction of the conversation. Teachers anticipate the issues students want to discuss, and even get anxious over things the novel might bring up for students. Every class is different and will focus on different things.”

In terms of the specific issue of assigning YA novels that focus or touch on sensitive topics (i.e., sex, suicide, violence, etc.) as summer reading, teachers emphasized the importance of knowing your audience, including both parents and students. A couple suggested introducing the topics before the end of the school year, if possible, or providing a packet of readings and resources to support both students and parents in discussing the books together. Several cautioned teachers to assign such books only as a choice. Some advocated providing descriptive blurbs about the books to parents without “redflagging” potentially sensitive content. Others said providing an explicit warning about particular content was a good idea.

Several stressed the importance, however, of creating space and time in the classroom for discussing any sensitive topics that appear in summer reading books to help students contextualize them in terms of their own lives, their communities, and society as a whole. As @MissNikkiIn5th wrote: “I teach fifth graders but feel that we need to give kids enough support to fully digest a text with a sensitive topic. They need to be able to ask questions, discuss, etc.” 

Sixty percent of the respondents to our survey said they had been challenged about assigning YA novels, by parents, administrators, etc. Topics cited as the basis for those challenges ranged from sex and violence to cigarette smoking.

We were impressed, though not surprised, by teachers’ principled and courageous responses to such challenges. For example, one teacher wrote: “We have a district policy modeled after NCTE's guidelines. All challenges were handled between me and the parent - the kids all read the books. Why? 1. I pre-teach many important issues. 2. I explain my rationale for teaching the book and the merits of exposing students to the topics/ideas in spite of the objectionable scenes/content.”

Another respondent cited the ALA policy on book challenges: “The whole text needs to be looked at instead of objecting based on something taken out of context, and parents can weigh in on what is appropriate for their individual child, but not necessarily for a whole class. The only time this didn't work was with Thirteen Reasons Why. When the Netflix series came out, it was pulled from our school library even though students had been reading it for a decade. The show is problematic, but I thought we would have done a better job of helping students process [the issues surrounding the show] if we had kept the lines of dialogue about the book and show open.”

One teacher offered some interesting reflections on being personally challenged by parents: “I have personally been challenged by 2 parents. My administration has also been challenged. One setting was a back to school night and the parents actually broke out into discussion as to why the books (Tyrelland Kendra) were good for discussion with their kids. Another time a parent said her daughter was a very young 13 and was mortified by the content. She suggested a note be added to the summer reading packet indicating explicit sexual situations. I thought that was a great idea and I complied.” (Note: Teachers considering such a red-flag might want to review NCTE guidelines.)

According to the majority of responses, conversations between teachers and parents, sometime proactively initiated by the teacher, usually resolved any concerns, and sometimes even led to students and parents reading a book together. Sometimes principals supported their teachers, while others changed the book; and sometimes teachers themselves opted to provide an alternate text.

So, for now, here are our takeaways:

1. Many of our colleagues agree that YA literature is compelling and engaging. Teachers worried about the literary merit concern (one we don’t particularly share) can pair YA literature with more canonical texts.

2. Using YA literature effectively requires context and opportunities for conversation. Again, pairings, including short fiction, poetry, or informational texts, can be useful in providing that context and helping to shape those conversations. (Please share your ideas for doing so in the comments below.) Set your students up for success with summer reading by bookending that independent reading with classroom conversations.

3. Work with parents, colleagues, and administrators to develop and utilize a thoughtful and consistent strategy to justify and explain your choices of YA literature. And employ the resources of NCTE and ALA as critical backup!

Our biggest takeaway is this: Our gratitude to be part of a thoughtful and brave community of ELA teachers determined to use YA literature to help their students become better readers, writers, and thinkers in a complex and challenging world!



All American Boys
Code Orange
Crossing Ebeneezer
Flush
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
How It Went Down
In Sight of Stars
Inside Out and Back Again
Jumped In
Kendra
Looking for Alaska
Maniac Magee
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Monster
My Brother Sam Is Dead
Oliver
Persepolis
Piecing Me Together
Speak
Still Life With Tornado
Tangerine
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Afterlife of Holly Chase
The Book Thief
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Cay
The Chocolate War
The Hate U Give
The Outsiders
The Usual Rules
They Both Die at the End
Tuck Everlasting
Tyrell

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Seeking Input and Sharing Resources

We hope you've enjoyed some well-earned time to relax and recharge this summer that's sparked new ideas for the upcoming school year. We are enjoying working on some new projects, one of which we'd like your input on. More on that in a moment, but first, some resources to help your planning for the new year:

  • Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby features classroom-ready text sets that support critical, timely conversations around race, immigration, and inequality in connection with Fitzgerald's novel. These readings, accompanied by vocabulary activities and reading and writing/discussion prompts, support student inquiry into questions like "Why Should We Care About Economic Inequality?" and "What Is Tom Worried About--Is Civilization 'Going to Pieces'?" Check out our blog for ideas on how to put present-day issues in dialogue with Gatsby.
  • If you are teaching A Raisin in the Sunour second volume will help you underscore the enduring relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play with ready-to-use text sets on housing discrimination past and present, the violence surrounding housing desegregation, and more.
  • Looking for ways to collaborate with your content-area colleagues around literacy? Check out Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. This volume offers practical strategies for initiating cross-disciplinary collaboration and developing students’ disciplinary literacy skills, as well as a sample unit based on a science article and an excerpt from Lord of the Flies.

While we love finding engaging connections with the canonical works we teach, we are also huge fans of a lot of the young adult fiction that teachers are increasingly incorporating into their curricula. So, we've been working on a new text set centered around one of the most beloved YA novels -- more on that soon! In the meantime, we've been thinking about how/when/why we do assign YA novels in our ELA classes -- especially those that touch upon some of the challenging and sensitive issues that students often face. And we'd love to get your input, so please check out our previous post  and/or complete this short survey.
Finally, if you’d like hands-on training in our approach to using informational text, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer half-day and full-day workshops for both English and/or content-area teachers. If you are in NJ, we hope to see you at NJCTE in September and please join us at NJEA in NovemberOtherwise, we hope to see you at NCTE in Baltimore!
We hope our resources help you create rewarding learning experiences for you and your students. If you use any of our materials, please send us your feedback. We would also greatly appreciate it if you would post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Thank you again for your interest -- and everything you do for your students!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Why and How Do You YA?

While summer reading for us often includes tackling at least one or two pedagogically oriented texts (Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain for Susan; Teaching Naked for Audrey), it also means inhaling several young adult novels that we’ve been itching to read since a colleague or student suggested it weeks or months earlier. (Consumed by us so far: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, Odd One Out by Nic Stone, Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (finally!).)

Though we dive into these YA novels for our own pleasure without apology, of course we also do so with at least part of our brains considering how/where/whether we might incorporate any of them into our own instruction, add them to our classroom libraries, or just keep them in mind for the right student or colleague to recommend them to. 

At the same time, Susan, in her role as curriculum and instruction supervisor at her school, has been engaging in her annual round of conversations with parents who raise concerns about some of the YA novels (Looking for Alaska by John Green and Tyrell by Coe Booth, in particular) that have been assigned as choices for summer reading. And while she fully supports her English teachers in their choices and believes that these novels give students the opportunity to think about challenging and sensitive issues and experiences that they may soon encounter, she has also been wondering about the fact that teachers often assign these books for summer reading, leaving students on their own to read them and wrestle with depictions of experiences and issues they may not be prepared for, sometimes with no follow-up discussion when the school year starts.

So we’re torn: We think it’s important to expose students to books that give them the opportunity to engage with and think about experiences and issues they might not have encountered themselves in a fictional space. But assigning these engaging and relevant YA books as independent summer reading might be just as problematic, although in a different way, than sending students off on their own to read The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, we also are acutely aware – as we are currently working on an informational text set focused on Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson -- of how challenging it can be to teach and discuss these books in class.

And so we’d love to hear your thoughts – please feel free to add your comments below and/or complete this brief survey about your experiences with YA literature. We’ll report back on all the great wisdom you’ve shared in an upcoming post!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Guest blog: The Merging of Media in the English Classroom -- A Summertime Reflection

Today, we welcome a guest blog from New Jersey English and journalism teacher Stacy Gerst:

Admittedly, the curriculum for the British literature course I teach follows an incredibly scripted framework: a chronological, historical approach to the traditional literary works that serve as the building blocks of the traditional literary canon. The problem? I’m not working with the “traditional” students that my predecessors had in mind when crafting this curriculum. And the department is not ready to update it yet. Consequently, the struggle is “more-than-real” as my colleagues and I try to overcome the roadblocks that exist in our relentless pursuit of the profession’s elusive Holy Grail: student engagement. 

From its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, works from historic gems such as The Exeter Book lack appeal to the average student who struggles to connect to literature in meaningful ways. The lamentations of the poem speakers, often mourning their cold, difficult existence at sea and the daunting conditions that threaten survival, often fall on deaf ears. Put off by the external trappings of Anglo-Saxon life, many students close themselves off to engagement and stop short of exploring some of the broader concepts that transcend time or space, such as the impact that exile has on the human condition. 

Back in 2015, I came across a story on my USA Today app that caught my attention with the following headline: “More than a decade after release, they all come back.The multi-chapter story, written by Kevin Johnson, follows the plight of Silvestre Sergovia and the impact that solitary confinement has on him and other prisoners. Since 2015, political attitudes toward this practice has shifted greatly, especially when the Obama administration took a firm stance against its use with juveniles. Awareness has served as a catalyst for positive change. This was obviously an issue that mattered, but how could I integrate this into my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way?

It is at this juncture of pedagogical dilemma and innovative thinking that I could apply the theory and work that Fisch and Chenelle laid out in Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (2016). During a session led by the pair at the NJCTE Fall 2018 conference, they challenged attendees to rethink their approach to the canon and revitalize it for contemporary audiences by linking them to relevant informational texts. The key to this lies in the use of non-fiction, an element that advocates of practical learning as well as the Common Core hold in highest regard (and rightly so!). 

After studying “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament” from our textbook, I assigned the Johnson article to students along with several straightforward reading comprehension questions. The article lent itself well to this because 1.) it was long enough to challenge their stamina and 2.) was complex enough that they had to do more than just skim. This is increasingly an issue with my students; very few, if any, fully read a text when they can take a shortcut. I attribute this in part to the efficiency of search engines to “cache” information in articles for them or using Ctrl + F (Windows) or ⌘ Command + F (Mac). (Of course, the impact of technology, media, and screen stimuli on attention spans play a role, but that’s a blog post for another day.) 

But how could I lead students to make the thematic connection between the two? I posed the following to students for a more extended written reflection:

In the conclusion to the piece, Kevin Johnson writes, “Segovia, meanwhile, believes he has the strength to defeat the demons of isolation and make it to the other side, where he intends to remain this time.”

Explain how “the demons of isolation” affect both Segovia and the speakers of the Anglo-Saxon exile poetry. Use textual evidence from the article and the poems to back up your claims.

I needed the comprehension questions to get my students to this point. The class discussion that followed revealed the dilemma that many students felt regarding crime, punishment, the criminal justice system, and the conditions inside US prisons. Several acknowledged that it was not as clear-cut as they once thought it was. 

One student response offered a personal anecdote: his uncle spent several years in prison, and his personality had changed profoundly as a result. “He isn’t the same person.”  Regrettably, the change was not in the vein of “He realized his issues, worked on them, and came out better.” Instead, his uncle was incredibly distant, struggled to connect to family, and didn’t function very well in his community. As the rest of the class listened to this, I could observe a greater sense of empathy in their responses to this raw (and rare) moment of exposure. Here was their friend, who trusted the group enough to share this intimate story about a person he cared about, who was impacted by this issue, who was impacted by exile, the same feeling explored by the Anglo-Saxon poets many years before. 

Lessons such as these are the ones that leave a lasting impact on students when they leave our classrooms. 

Based on the success I experienced with Chenelle and Fisch’s approach, I was inspired to integrate another literary work, Les Miserables, to expand upon this theme and social issue. Although the work was French, I felt confident that no one would argue with exposing students to another established canonical work. For the sake of time and student engagement, I used the 1998 film, directed by Billie August, and, on the whole, my classes found the story riveting, emotional, and captivating (just as readers and audiences have for years). But again: how could I integrate informational text and content to engage students and connect them to relevant social issues? 

One of the pivotal questions explored in Hugo’s story is whether or not “reform is a discredited fantasy” as Javert claims in the film. Here again, my news media consumption worked to my advantage when a 2017 news article about Shaka Senghor came to mind.  Sengor (whose 2017 memoir Writing My Wrongs: Live and Redemption in an American Prison I have since read and recommend) explores prison life and the parole system in a way that parallels Valjean’s experience in Les Miserables. I created comprehension questions for students to answer in response to the news article as well as Sengor’s 2014 TED Talk titled, “Why your worst deeds don’t define you.” The integration of both informational text and video media was especially effective for instruction. 

Just as before, the goal was to have students make connections between multiple works. I include a few examples below:

  • One similarity between Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean and Shaka Senghor is that both experienced a “transformative” moment. Discuss what it was for each of them and what impact it had on them.


  • While Valjean was able to redeem himself for his past misdeeds, Fantine was not. Hugo uses this to highlight another social issue: the treatment of women at this time. In what ways was she “held hostage to her past”? 

  • According to Senghor, in the article, how do laws regarding parole make it challenging for released prisoners to start over? How was this true for Valjean in Les Miserables?

I will continue on this journey to create a more engaging curriculum that connects those in my classroom to contemporary issues while getting exposure to the classics. This, perhaps, is the most practical approach I’ve encountered so far and thank Susan and Audrey for sharing their findings and ideas with others in our profession.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

How Stevenson's Just Mercy illuminates injustice and Mockingbird

There’s a blurb on the cover of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption that compares Stevenson to Atticus Finch: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those without hope.”

As readers invested in thinking critically about the character of Atticus in TKAM and wary of the idea of Atticus as someone who “made such a difference in the American South,” this blurb strikes us as misleading, to say the least. Atticus, remember, did not strive to defend Tom Robinson, nor did he do so successfully. The idea that we celebrate this lawyer as some kind of hero of civil rights is a bit odd, no? (Stevenson himself notes this irony.)

But Stevenson’s book, his tale of his own work as a lawyer defending Walter McMillian, a native of Harper Lee’s Monroe County, forces the comparison in a way that is intriguing for readers of TKAM

First off, Walter, like Tom Robinson, grew up in one of the black neighborhoods outside Monroeville. While this community may have celebrated Lee’s novel, transforming an old, local courthouse into a “Mockingbird” museum and producing a local stage version of the novel, Walter’s story suggests that Lee’s ideas may not have been fully embraced. 

As Stevenson tells the story, when Ronda Morrison, the 18-year-old daughter of a white, wealthy family was found dead in 1986, Walter McMillian was arrested.

Walter had a few things going against him. He was poor and black. And he had engaged in an interracial, adulterous affair with a white woman.

Ultimately, all those factors play a role in this horrifying tale of injustice. There’s police misconduct, corruption, and incompetence. Unbelievable elements include the fact that Walter is placed on death row while he is a pretrial detainee. As Stevenson notes, this is “almost never done.”

The piece of Walter’s story that most resonates with TKAM is his conviction for this murder (no spoiler: this happens quite early in the otherwise quite suspenseful book). The connection with TKAM is the craziness of that conviction. Just as Atticus and everyone in Maycomb knows that Tom Robinson couldn’t possibly have choked Mayella with his damaged left arm, everyone in Monroeville knows (or should know) that Walter couldn’t have killed Ronda. On the day of the murder, he was at a fish fry at his house, with members of his family and at least a dozen church parishioners.

The ways in which law enforcement manufactures evidence, primarily through manipulating people to testify against Walter, is a fascinating piece of the story. And readers will be engrossed in Stevenson’s discussion of his own journey as a young lawyer and his broader fight to serve death-row inmates and address what he identifies as the injustice of poverty. 

But Stevenson draws one scene in his book that drives home the horror of Walter’s and Tom’s conviction – and in a way that Harper Lee does not capture. Stevenson, as part of his defense of Walter, goes to meet two dozen of his family members. We quote the passage at length, with some excerpting:

“It would have been so much easier if he had been out in the woods hunting by himself when that girl was killed.” Armelia Hand, Walter McMillian’s older sister, paused while the crowd in the small trailer called out in affirmation. . . . 

“At least then we could understand how it might be possible for him to have done this.” . . .

“But because we were standing next to him that whole morning . . . We knowwhere he was. . . . We know what he was doing!” People hummed in agreement as her voice grew louder and more distraught. It was the kind of wordless testimony of struggle and anguish I heard all the time growing up in a small rural black church. . . .

“We were with him all day! What are we supposed to do, Mr. Stevenson? Tell us, what are we supposed to do with that?”

Her face twisted in pain. “I feel like I’ve been convicted, too.”

The small crowd responded to each statement with shots of “Yes!” and “That’s right!”

“I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?” (92-93)

This passage about injustice in relation to a 1986 murder is so full of possibilities for readers of TKAM trying to think critically about Harper Lee’s meditation on injustice in relation to a rape in the 30s. Why doesn’t Lee include a scene between Atticus and the members of Robinson’s family and the broader black community in Maycomb after the conviction? What would that scene look like? What would Tom’s wife have said? How would Tom’s children have responded? How would their lives have been disfigured by the brutal injustice that not only took their father’s life but instilled in them the idea that they were also convicted?

What Stevenson does here, in a way that Lee does not, is to highlight how one miscarriage of justice is an act of terrorism enacted on an entire community. That’s the work that lynching was designed to do. A lynching wasn’t simply intended to punish one individual but to terrify a community. That’s why lynchings were such public, publicized spectacles: so the message of terror would spread far and wide. Tom escapes lynching in TKAM, thanks to Scout’s disarming interaction with her schoolmate’s father, Mr. Cunningham, but Tom’s death by seventeen bullets while in government custody surely has a similar chilling effect on the African-American community in Maycomb. 

Reading Just Mercy alongside TKAM underscores, one more time, the ways in which Scout’s blinkered perspective can’t or doesn’t expose the ugliest elements of Lee’s story. But with our students, by juxtaposing TKAM with an excerpt from Just Mercy, we can help our students do that work and see what Scout does not.