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I think that you can take many approaches to this. I would point out the Atticus Finch is probably one of the most upstanding characters in all of literature. Harper Lee's work is nearly required reading for so many children in schools across the nation. Part of this is because of Atticus and his ability to be a moral constant in a time of uncertainty. When so many sacrificed their own moral and ethical notion of the good, Atticus stood up for racial equality and justice in a time and setting where these values were quickly abandoned by so many. I think that this is a reason why the book gained and still gains so much popular support and respect. The feeling of admiration for Atticus is an undeniable one. As the reader, we can only hope that we would and do embody Atticus' moral stature and commitment to the democratic ideal he presents. Tolerance and justice for all are values that die out unless there are individuals who are willing to stand and sacrifice for them and Atticus does this. It is in this light that Atticus' character and actions helps to change the way people think.
By the fact that such a liberal attorney as Atticus Finch comes from Maycomb, Alabama, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, provides readers with a perspective of the white male in the Deep South that is considerably different from the stereotypical one such as that of Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, a police official, who ordered the use of police dogs and fire hoses and even a small tank to dispel blacks during a 1963 civil rights' march in Birmingham, Alabama.
Harper Lee not only turns on end the stereotype of the Southern as a racist, but she also goes after others such as the Southern Fundamentalists whom Miss Maudie exposes for their hypocrisy. The genteel Southern lady stereotype is broken, as well, as Miss Merriweather and Miss Caroline are not the typical sweet lady of the South. Likewise, Mr. Cunningham breaks the stereotype of "buckra," the good-for-nothing low class poor sharecropper type. For, he is a proud man who refuses to take government aid; in addition, he displays character as, when greeted by Scout at the jail, he realizes his folly of having followed the crowd and returns home. And, of course, Mr. Raymond Dolphus, a man of gentleman stock, lives on the "wrong side of the tracks" because he finds the blacks more genuine than his own race. He mocks the conventions of the whites who must have a reason for his "crazy" behavior by pretending that he is a drunk. And, finally, Harper Lee demonstrates to her readers that children are often more sensible than adults. These fresh perspectives of Lee's are a literary refreshment to many a reader, changing many of their perspectives.
I believe the answer to this question today remains in the method that a teacher uses to approach the text. Some teachers give students the freedom to read at their own pace and draw their own conclusions. For others, they work to keep the kids together so no one gives away the good parts. When I approach this text, I try to let kids read and talk about it even though I love all of the literary value in it. I do this because sometimes I think we rob students of the joy of reading by picking out every little detail to look for more meaning and literary device cleverness.
When I approach the text in this way that just lets kids read, I often find that they do quickly attach circumstances from real life. The more thematically I approach it, the greater correlations they make to bullying, care for the elderly, learning from our elders, watching how we treat people, noticing that our character shadings get stronger with age so we better build good ones early, gossip, and judgment. There is so much in this book, that I think a semester could be spent in language arts, history, and most importantly, character education.
This book, having been published in 1961, may have very well contributed to the changing of several white folks' hearts throughout the Civil Rights movement making such widespread change possible.
I find To Kill a Mockingbird an inspiring novel, primarily due to the role of Atticus and the epic battle between good and evil. I love it and I teach it with passion, so most of my kids love it, too. I'd like to point out the position of those who don't particularly enjoy the novel. They say it's not current any more; it doesn't reveal anything they didn't already know about prejudice in the South; it's too predictable because the good guys and the bad guys are so clear; and (my favorite) it's just not part of the "real world" we're living in today. These comments are not true for most young people, who don't really understand that once juries were made up only of men and blacks were never innocent in a courtroom. They're also not true for older people--like me--who did live in a time when race was a more divisive and violent issue. I'm glad we're generally so far past all that; however, a look back to see how far we've come is never a bad thing, it seems to me.
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