Thanks, Harper Lee: How Atticus Taught Dumbledore the Facts of Life

Monday, February 22, 20161:28 PM

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book I’ve ever taught and probably the novel I know best. It’s characters, writing, and themes are always present in my reading and teaching. While the text has important messages about society, race, and coming of age, the real power for me its intertextuality and accessibility in that my students and I could always connect Atticus and Lee’s work to any other text, unit, or conversation to add meaning. 

I could write the article about how teaching the novel over a dozen times has influenced me as an educator. Or I could write about how staging the trial of Tom Robinson like a play always incited my students with gasps and grumbles of surprise, emotion, and frustration like nothing else we ever read. Then I could write about my nostalgia for the text, as it was moved down to the middle school a few years ago, how I miss it dearly, and how it makes me long for the pre-Core days of teaching the dense novel. But this is not that piece. If you’re looking for that, I encourage you to check out the New York Times’ article by William Grimes, Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89. Also, I wrote about Lee and the evolution of Atticus and Scout in Go Set a Watchman in my article, Rewriting History: A Grown Up Maycomb in Go Set a Watchman.

Instead, I want to to share one particular story--a lesson I always taught--that helped students begin to evaluate and question great literature. Through To Kill a Mockingbird , we studied story and structure, themes and the cannon, and the concept of “capital L” Literature.

A Lens For Great Literature

Mockingbird is more than great literature; it is a timeless piece through which other stories can be understood and analyzed. In a sense, it serves as more mythology than fiction for me and my students: it’s coming of age story in the face of injustice represents a story that is told again and again in our mythology, fiction, history, and religion. Harper Lee imprints a timeless struggle into a specific historical context and understanding, but it’s a story of our collective unconscious, not of one particular event.

In the end, Atticus can’t beat racism because society is only on the brink of change. Like so many injustices, conflicts, and turning points before and after, this story is only the beginning.

Why is Mockingbird Great? The Lesson

After we concluded our study of Mockingbird, I would always end the unit by evaluating its themes and the concept of Literature and the cannon. What makes this text worthy of being read and studied by young people across the world for so long?

Do Now:

Respond to the following statements in writing and then discussion:

To Kill a Mockingbird is good Literature. It belongs in the literary canon and should be taught in all schools. A book like Harry Potter is just popular fiction and is not as good. These books have nothing in common.

Most of my students have read texts like Harry Potter and Twilight, so they served as important points of connection and comparison. From here, we evaluated what makes Literature “great,” the differences between the classics or cannon and popular fiction, and more. We listed the themes of both Mockingbird and Harry Potter as a focus for comparison.

Although my students always argued for an appreciation of Harry Potter, they usually agreed with the Do Now statement, writing about the timeless nature, dynamic characters, and universal themes of Mockingbird. Then we began to apply and analyze their theories, and that’s where the fun began. Why wasn’t Harry Potter great?

Image courtesy of

Atticus vs. Dumbledore

Next, I shared the Stephen King quote above to steer the discussion towards the value of a text like Harry Potter. I asked students to compare and contrast the stories plots, themes, and characters. Is Atticus a better mentor than Dumbledore? Why or why not? We kept going back to King’s argument about the central idea of Rowling’s series: “confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity.” Wait a minute...doesn’t that sound familiar? Soon students start to reassess their ideas and arguments--isn’t King really describing Mockingbird here, too?

This might seem like an overly simplistic connection at first because it’s simply describing most stories. Characters face adversity and grow and change with the help of mentors and allies. They face challenges along the way that cause them to suffer loss and learn, usually leading to some sort of triumph or growth. It’s the hero’s journey at it’s core, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth which deconstructs storytelling and mythology to analyze its structure, archetypes, and role in society. Through this lens, we come to realize that these stories--one a canonical classic and the other modern popular literature have much more in common that most realize. Some of my notes from the lessons are below, and the list always grew after every class.

Still not convinced? Check out the quotes and images below from Harper Lee’s Mockingbird and Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Great Literature

Great stories, like history and mythology, repeat themselves. By no means do I think JK Rowling or any other author stole their ideas but that great stories permeate in our collective unconscious--the story of heroes are cultural and societal tropes that influence our characters and people.

And To Kill a Mockingbird is a great story. The novel and its characters were a touchstone for Ossining High School English students, who would refer back to Atticus’ closing argument or Scout’s coming of age for years after my class. Like all great stories, it became a lens through which to view the world, analyze, and grow. So many years later, it’s messages about people, society, and growing up are as relevant as ever, reminding us all that we still have work to do.

And for all of that and more, thank you Harper Lee.

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  1. Love this, Adam! I thought we were going to fight after I read the Do Now, but the lesson comes full circle. Well done. What a tribute to Harper Lee!