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Shmoop: Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird Review by Hillary Harm

PO Box 70186
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

When my oldest child entered high school, it wasn't the thought of teaching math or science that made me nervous. It was teaching literature. I'd read most of the material I would be asking him to read, but I knew that in order to have intelligent, in-depth discussions over the material I would need to re-read the book along with him. The idea of keeping up with the reading assignments for three students, not to mention planning literature discussions and essays, made me dread this subject.

I had the opportunity to review Shmoop's guide to teaching Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and found it to be a huge help for the teaching parent.

Shmoop is an extensive website created by educators and designed to be used by both students and teachers. The study aids and teaching assistance cover many subjects. For the purpose of this review, I only looked at the Teacher's Guide for To Kill A Mockingbird.

There are two sides to the To Kill A Mockingbird materials: a free side, and a subscription side for teachers. The cost for the subscription is $7 for a year.

The free side contains a wealth of material for both teachers and students. Most helpful for parents who wish to refresh themselves on the content of the book are the summary pages. Extensive summaries cover the overall story, the history of the publication, and the overall themes, as well as a thorough chapter-by-chapter synopsis. Key points of each chapter are covered in the summaries.

For each chapter, discussion questions are available that address the major themes of the book: race, family, justice, childhood innocence, etc. Ideas for discussions or debate to assist students in thinking through these themes are also available.

  • The "Quotes" section includes key quotes that relate to the themes of the book, and breaks them down for the students.
  • The "Character" tab holds summaries and timelines for key characters, each one containing exhaustive information about the characters and their evolution through the book.
  • The "Analysis" tab looks at the author's use of symbolism, setting, point-of-view, genre, tone, and style, as well as brief analysis of the title, epigraph, and the book's ending.
  • The "Questions" section primarily contains questions that relate to the themes of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Some questions are a bit silly, asking students to speculate on what might happen in a sequel, or to describe how the book would be different if a different character were to narrate. Others seem more worthy of a robust discussion: "Many lawyers credit Atticus as their inspiration for entering the law profession, but others criticize that he's portrayed in the novel as the lone protector of powerless African-Americans who can't do anything for themselves. To what extent can Atticus be taken as a role model?"
  • The "Photos" tab contains links to pictures from the movie, or of a mockingbird. This may be helpful for other books, but wasn't especially necessary or helpful for To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • The "Resources on the Web" section is self-explanatory. This page had many links to pictures, video, and essays about the book and its author.

The subscription side of the site contained quizzes over the book, more discussion questions and end-of-book essay questions, activities, and resource links that help the teacher to tie the themes in the book to current and historical events.

As a teacher, the free side of the website provided everything that I needed to discuss this with my high school student and great material for essay questions. For the average homeschooling family, there is more than enough content on Shmoop to guide you through your literature studies, no matter your homeschooling style. For those families who wish to simply read the book, discuss it, and write a couple of essays, you'll have everything you need. For a family who wishes to use the book as a springboard for a unit study, the free side will have plenty of information, and the content on the subscription side will help extend the material to other areas of the curriculum. Some of the activities are geared for classroom use, but can be adapted for use in the home.

I most appreciated the "Chew On This" activities under the "Themes" tab. These are primarily designed to start debate in a classroom. A couple of statements are offered for each theme, and the teacher is to encourage students to argue for or against the statement.   We made great use of these in our home, because high school students (well, all people, really) are very competent when explaining their own point of view, but often struggle coming up with reasons for an opposing view. There are many issues in life, however, that have good people who see things differently. It is a useful exercise for students to learn to see things from a different point of view, and to understand that simply holding a different opinion from you doesn't make the other person automatically wrong. (Seeing things from other peoples' eyes is also a notion very central to the book.)

For most families, the free side of the website will provide ample material.   For families who wish to dive deeper into a particular book, or create a unit around the book, the subscription side of the site will prove very helpful.   The $7/year price makes it an excellent deal!

Product Review by Hillary Harm, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, January, 2012