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Showing video clips from Hollywood movies that take place in the 1930s is a relatively quick and engaging way to help students build background knowledge on Harper Lee’s frequently taught historical novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This sort of activity can be paired with a KWL activity, web quest, anticipation guide, author presentation, or thematic interview assignment. The recent recession can provide a good jumping off point for discussion.

Students should divide a piece of paper into four boxes and label each box with the selected movie titles. Guide visual students with an example. See below for scene suggestions from appropriate movies. The amount of footage shown should be between 20-40 minutes. Longer clips will give students more time to practice careful observation.

Put up a reference list of the types of observations the students should record: historical facts, clothing styles, hair styles, transportation, survival methods, speech mannerisms, music, migrant work, prices.

Resist giving them a set number of items to record. I just tell them it’s better to have boxes that are mostly filled with details. They should work alone as each clip plays. As you cue up the next video, they can then collaborate with others in their seating area to add to their lists. It’s amazing just how difficult many students will find this as too many are used to being passive rather than active viewers.

While some movie clips can be found on YouTube, their quality varies widely and it’s next to impossible to find clips that begin in just the right spot. Here are time markers for excellent movie scenes that will help build historical background information before reading Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

  •  Seabiscuit: Scenes #4 and # 5 10:53-19:00 (8 min.) Stop at “You win!”
  • Cinderella Man: Scene #5 start at 32:00-46:45 (14 min.) Dec 1933 until James is teaching his daughter to throw jabs. This can be shortened if needed.
  • Of Mice and Men: Scene #11 1:11:00-1:21:30 (11 min.) Stop after Lenny kills puppy.
  • The Grapes of Wrath: Scene  #12 41:10-46:30 (5 ½ min.)

Students will now have a strong visual point of reference to the struggles that the American population faced in the 1930s. They could hand in their observation notes for 10 easy points or they could be required to take their notes home and write a short summary of what the decade was like.

In addition, this can also become part of a comprehensive creative writing assignment where students write their own historical fiction short story that takes place in the 1930s. Time for historical research, gaining inspiration, and brainstorming on plot, character, and setting possibilities would need to be set aside in order to guide students to the finished product.


What activities have you used to incorporate historical background information when reading literature in the classroom?


The DVD cover image used in this post are for educational purposes only and comply with fair use guidelines.


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