Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird": Profiles in Courage


The Lesson


To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee and Mary Badham

Author Harper lee holding large tire swing with Mary Badham (“Scout”) reclining inside, during a break in filming “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Hollywood.

Credit: Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

In an August 1960 book review, The Atlantic Monthly’s Phoebe Adams described To Kill a Mockingbird as “sugar-water served with humor. ...”

Sugar-water? Far from it.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird highlights instances of heroism and courage in a small Alabama town riddled with the poverty and racial tensions characteristic of the south in 1935. The novel focuses on the Finch family over the course of two years—lawyer and father Atticus Finch; his ten-year-old son, Jem; and his six-year-old daughter, Jean Louise, “aka” Scout. Scout serves as the narrator of the book; her narration is based on her memories of the events leading up to, during, and after her father’s defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Through Scout’s inexperienced eyes (she is only eight at the conclusion of the novel), the reader encounters a world where people are judged by their race, inherited ideas of right and wrong dominate, and justice does not always prevail. Through the novel, Lee strives to illustrate the racial climate of the South in the 1930s, a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land, racial segregation was entrenched, and mob rule could chew up and spit out the individual.

By observing Atticus Finch’s responses to the threats and gibes of the anti-Tom Robinson faction and his sensitive treatment towards Tom Robinson and his family and friends, the reader—again through Scout’s eyes—discovers what it means to behave morally—to do the right thing—in the face of tremendous social pressure. By observing her father, Scout gradually discovers that moral courage is both more complicated and more difficult to enact than the physical courage most familiar and understandable to children.

In short, To Kill A Mockingbird reveals the heroic nature of acting with moral courage when adhering to social mores would be far less dangerous. At a time in the South when it was outrageous and practically unthinkable for a white person to look at the world from a minority’s perspective, Harper Lee has Atticus explain to Scout: "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" (36); for Atticus Finch, climbing into someone’s skin and walking around in it represents true courage.

This lesson plan asks students to read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully with an eye for all instances and manifestations of courage, but particularly those of moral courage. Lesson Two, To Kill A Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys Trial of 1933: Profiles in Courage, requires students to study select court transcripts and other primary source material from the second Scottsboro Boys Trial of 1933, a continuation of the first trial in which two young white women wrongfully accused nine African-American youths of rape.

Guiding Questions

  • How does To Kill A Mockingbird frame issues of courage and cowardice against the backdrop of the American South in the 1930s?

Learning Objectives

  • To expose the students to the history and cultural milieu of the deep South in 1935 America
  • To demonstrate close textual reading
  • To gain an awareness of how one’s society might force its citizens to take unpopular, but moral, stances in order to promote change.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • In preparation for student activities, download the chart worksheet on Mockingbird characters, available here as a PDF, or as an interactive chartwhich will help students frame the attributes and development of characters in the novel. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • This lesson is intended for students as they prepare to read and then as they do read To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Note: This lesson plan has a companion lesson—To Kill A Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys Trial of 1933: Profiles in Courage. It is recommended that teachers complete the current lesson first.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. History and cultural milieu of the deep South in 1930s America—an Introduction

Use of the Internet, an LCD player, and speakers will be useful.

Before beginning the novel, the students should read in class The Need for Change section of the EDSITEment-recommended We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement for general background information on what life was like for an African American living in the south under Jim Crow laws.

In addition to this site, the class should also examine Remembering Jim Crow from the Edsitement approved History Matters website History Matters. Particularly good sections from this site include those entitled "Bitter Times," "Danger Violence and Exploitation," "Whites Remember Jim Crow," and "Jim Crow Laws." Each of these sections is a link that leads to vivid descriptions of the south during the time of Jim Crow. Each site makes use of audio clip interviews as well as slide shows featuring people who remember and experienced life in the South when segregation was the norm and the color barrier seemed insurmountable. Of especial interest is the link to "Jim Crow Laws" which lists and describes by state and topic (education, housing, entertainment, etc.) the ways in which blacks and whites were to be separated. When browsing this site, students should consider what the slide pictures and the audio clips tell them about life for African Americans under Jim Crow laws—what do they learn from looking at the slides and hearing the voices?

Both Remembering Jim Crow and We Shall Overcome will help students get a sense of the world Harper Lee describes in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Questions to Consider During Class Discussion:

  • Define Jim Crow. What is a Jim Crow law?
  • Describe the economic, social, and legal status of African Americans during the time of Jim Crow.
  • How were African Americans attacked during this time? Did African Americans have any legal recourse against acts of violence waged against them?
  • How do whites now regard their treatment of African Americans during this time?
Activity 2. The Concept of Courage—Types of Courage

Students should use dictionary.com, a resource available through EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, to look up both "moral" and “courage.” Class discussion should focus on both words: on the meaning of morality and courage and the ways in which courage may be demonstrated. The students could discuss examples of courageous behavior they have observed in their lives or in history or in other works of literature.

Activity 3. Reading the Novel: Character/Courage/Cowardice


See the PDF chart. As the students read To Kill A Mockingbird, they should use the chart to keep account of each listed character’s distinguishing or identifying traits; e.g., the significance of Scout’s name—what is a scout and what does a scout do? What is his or her purpose? The students might think of their Boy or Girl Scouts’ code of behavior, or they may think of the more adventurous possibility of a scout as one who faces and navigates “uncharted territory” in the novel. For example, how does Scout respond to society’s efforts to make her into a “lady”? In what ways does she break codes of behavior? Does her behavior represent a type of courage?

What does Atticus’ name refer to? It resonates with Greek tradition and history of the Attic period, a time noted for civility and a push towards democracy, particularly by one of its most prominent statesmen, Solon. Solon advocated more democracy in the court systems of Greece—more equality and justice, concepts Atticus himself finds sorely lacking in the Southern courtroom.

The chart also contains space for students to list the instances of courage and/or cowardice that these characters manifest along with the page numbers on which these acts may be found. The students should also feel free to write down any quotation that might reveal a character’s courage or cowardice. Characters on the chart include: Jem, Scout, Mrs. Dubose, Atticus, Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, Mayella Ewell, and Boo Radley.

This activity may be done as in-class group work with each group focusing on a single character on the chart. The groups should find passages revealing not only of their character’s personality traits, but also of their character’s courage and cowardice. Each group can then present their findings to the class as a whole and may then fill out the rest of their chart with their classmates’ findings.

Activity 4. Reading the Novel: The Journal

Students should trace Scout and Jem’s evolving views on the nature of courage and show how this evolution is directly tied to their changing perception of their father, Atticus, as well as their changing perceptions of Boo Radley. Specific chapters on which to focus in regard to Atticus include Chapter 1, wherein the children view courage as something physical; chapter 9, in which town attitudes towards race are revealed; chapter 10, in which Atticus shoots and kills a rabid dog; chapter 11, in which Atticus talks openly about real courage and the death of Mrs. Dubose; chapter 15, in which Atticus risks his own life to protect Tom Robinson from a lynch mob; and, of course, chapter 20, Atticus’s speech in defense of Tom Robinson. Specific chapters to examine in regard to Boo Radley include: Chapter 1, introduction to Boo and the Radley family; Chapter 4-6, the children discover Boo’s gifts to them; chapter 26, Scout reflects on her early views of Boo Radley; chapters 28-30, Boo Radley saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell; Scout likens Boo to a mockingbird.

As the students read each of these chapters, they should ask the questions: how do Scout and Jem initially define and understand courage? How, when and why does their understanding change? Is this change a sudden or gradual process? Does any other character help them with their understanding? Students should write down their responses to these questions for each of the above chapters they read, and they should also highlight or otherwise note specific examples or quotations throughout the novel. Total number of journal entries should be 10.

The journals may be used as starting points for class discussion on these chapters.

Activity 5. Reading the Novel: Enactment

Enactment of Atticus Finch’s famous speech to the jury at Tom Robinson’s trial wherein he begs his fellowmen to take a chance and do the right thing. Chapter 20 of the novel. Students can perform and then examine Atticus’ speech for its rhetorical effectiveness. A useful web site, reviewed by EDSITEment, is Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric. Use this site to find the definitions and examples of the various rhetorical appeals—emotional, ethical, logical—Atticus makes in the courtroom. Which appeal does Atticus make the greatest use of? Give specific textual examples. Which appeals seem most persuasive to the students? Give specific textual examples. Why does the jury refuse to be persuaded?


Research Assignment

Research another fictional or historical account of courage in relation to the Civil Rights movement (examples: Emmett Till’s mother’s insistence that his lynched body be displayed to the world; Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus). What actions taken were courageous? What were the circumstances that shaped the courageous act? Students might write a report about the event, or for a creative writing exercise, they might write a fictional account based on the research.

Essay Assignment:

Choose one of the following essay topics [best if used in conjunction with or at completion of Lesson Two].

Topic 1. Discuss the various types of courage manifested in To Kill A Mockingbird and (if students have completed Lesson Two) in the Scottsboro Trials


Topic 2. Based on your readings of an actual court case (The Scottsboro Trials), does Atticus Finch’s courageous defense of Tom Robinson seem realistic or overly idealistic? Explain.

Extending The Lesson

Watch the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird! Tell the students that the American Film Institute polled Americans for whom they considered the top 50 heroes in American film, and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch won!

  • Does the To Kill A Mockingbird movie make the theme of moral courage more clear?
  • What do the students think of Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus? Do they concur with the AFI poll?
  • Does the film capture the content and mood of the novel? How so?


Selected EDSITEment Websites

History Matters

Internet Public Library

Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric

We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement

Related Print Resources
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
  • Childress, Mark. “Looking for Harper Lee.” Southern Living (May 1997): 148-50.
  • Erisman, Fred. “The Romantic Regionalism of Harper Lee.” Alabama Review 26 (April 1973): 122-136.
  • Going, William T. “Truman Capote: Harper Lee's Fictional Portrait of the Artist as an Alabama Child.” Alabama Review 42.2: 136-149.
  • Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook. New York:Greenwood, 1994.
  • Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
  • Murphy, Mary McDonagh. Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
  • Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

5-8 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Online research
  • Problem-solving
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources