A high school English class’ study of “To Kill a Mockingbird” brought a group of 35 Chattanooga students to the University of Tennessee College of Law this week.
As second-year East Hamilton High School English teacher Whitney Luckhart began guiding her 10th-grade honor students through the lessons of the novel, she wanted to find a way to connect the 57-year-old literature to the present.
“Bringing them here has made the events of the novel more real and tangible to the students,” she said. “Students will always benefit whenever you can do that.”
The novel, set in 1930s Alabama, follows the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. When his attorney, Atticus Finch, determines that two of the witnesses against Robinson are lying and attempts to discredit them, Finch faces persecution from residents of his small town. Robinson is eventually convicted of a crime he did not commit and is later shot and killed trying to escape from the jail.
The themes of the novel that tie to racial injustice, gender roles and class disparity remain relevant years after the novel’s release, Luckhart said.
A conversation with students and faculty at the College of Law helped Luckhart’s students better “understand that social justice is still a real challenge in our country,” she said.
College of Law Professor Penny White, who hosted the group, asked the high school students to submit in advance of the visit the questions that were raised by the novel. White and a panel of second-year law students, including Jasmyn McCalla, Ashley Zepeda, Brook Heavener and Troy Bryant then tackled those questions.
For more than an hour, the 10th grade class from East Hamilton High School received an introductory lesson on circumstantial evidence, trial and appeals process, wrongful convictions and jury selection.
“Being a juror is an important responsibility,” White said. “When you sit there in the jury box and you watch the witnesses, you evaluate what they’re saying and you decide their fate using your common sense about who to believe.”
The visit, that began with a tour of the college, was a particularly enlightening experience for 15-year-old Abby Nunley who said she plans to pursue a law degree.
“It’s been great to see this environment, and learn about what law school is like,” she said. “The giant classrooms that feel like real courtrooms, I wasn’t expecting that.”
Luckhart said her students were curious, and a bit overwhelmed and excited by their visit, but they weren’t disappointed.
“It’s been great to have the students here,” she said. “When they began asking questions about the legal system in class, I thought what a better opportunity to get their questions answered than to have them visit here.”