Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one novel that is taught in almost every high school in the country. Its themes of hate, violence, innocence, and injustice permeate the story of Jem, Scout, and Atticus Finch; of Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, and Mayella Ewell; and even the elusive spectre of Boo Radley.
In the novel, Tom Robinson, a Black man, is wrongfully charged with raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, and he intends to do it to his best ability, much to the distaste of his white peers. Tom is ultimately found guilty. In the turmoil of this trial, Atticus’ children Jem and Scout befriend a neighbor boy Dill and make elaborate plans to make their ghost-like neighbor Boo Radley come out of his house.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, the revered white southern lawyer and defender of Tom Robinson, addresses the court in his closing statement by saying, “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the supreme court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts, all men are created equal.”
Yet shortly after, readers find out that the all-white jury finds Tom guilty of rape, despite overwhelming evidence that Tom Robinson is not guilty and Mayella’s injuries were inflicted by her father.
So, if the courts are the great levelers, as Atticus says, how is it possible that Tom Robinson was found guilty in a court of law?
This is the essential question at the heart of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and this One Sheet Dilemma Activity. Not only that, but this question is still all too relevant today.
The study of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great opportunity for students to dig deeper into the relationship between law, equal rights, and justice. Especially now when there is a long history of documentation of how laws, equality, and justice are not equally applied to all citizens.
This one sheet dilemma activity would be perfect to use just after Tom Robinson is killed trying to escape in the prison yard after being found guilty. Students typically are convinced, as Jem is, that based on the evidence (or lack thereof) presented at trial, the jury must acquit Tom. However, they are confused, upset, and frustrated when he is found guilty. It’s difficult for students to understand how logic and truth were not as strong as hate.
Dilemma One Sheets are single-page documents that contain information, events, and discussion questions about a particularly interesting and relevant case, such as whether the justice system can offer closure, that introduces students to philosophy, ethics, law, and justice, and helps them engage in critical reasoning.
Dilemma One Sheets can fit virtually in every curricular area and can be employed in myriad ways. Use them as bell ringers to grab your students’ attention and start the class in a fun and engaging way!
Or, use it to pair with a piece of literature you are reading in English class or a shorter mentor text. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is an excellent pairing with the To Kill a Mockingbird Dilemma One Sheet Activity.
It is no secret that teachers have a significant impact on students’ ability to critically think about the events surrounding them, and it’s even more important now, as protests erupt across the globe and racism is being brought into the light. It is imperative that we, through literature and discussion, help broaden and deepen their perspectives.
I hope you find this resource helpful in your classroom!
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