Using Wikipedia To Kill A Mockingbird

UPDATED from 11/20/07

As a follow-up to my post on using wikis, I came across a short post from with 4 suggestions on how students should use Wikipedia in research.

The preface is something students have already figured out for most classes: Never cite Wikipedia in an academic paper. But that's just for the benefit of your teacher (and your grade) because you should use Wikipedia.

Here's my take on those suggestions in a classroom scenario of my own where I'm teaching To Kill A Mockingbird.

Okay class, now I know some teachers here have you told you that you can't use Wikipedia for your research, but I know that you are using it. So, I actually will require you to use it for this paper we're going to be doing on the novel. I've got some suggestions for right now while we are formulating topics. Look up at the Wikipedia page I have on the projector and let's use Wikipedia to get background information.

For example, I would be happy to see one of you decide to learn something about Harper Lee's hometown which served as a model for the book's setting. Not a bad topic, though I caution you that it might be tough to find out very much. Then again, these papers are short, so do you really want to find five whole books on your topic?

What else do we see here?

Yes, one of you future lawyers might want to write something on the impact of the fictional Atticus Finch on the real legal profession.

We won't have time in class to talk much about the Great Depression, but I assume that the class has studied it at least once in some history class. Just in case, before we get into a discussion tomorrow, I put two questions on the side board for homework. Take a look at this on Wikipedia in order to answer them and if you can add something from your study of history or find any errors, let us know tomorrow.

Melissa, as our lovable class radical, perhaps you'd like to look at the controversial nature of this book for your paper? Think about it.

Did everyone notice the LINKS at the bottom of the article? These are EXTERNAL links (unlike the ones we just looked at that are internal and go to other Wikipedia entries). TIP: the sources cited in these links are more likely to be accepted on a final paper by the other teachers in this school.

I thought that someone might want to read some or all of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a book about the author.  Drew, you seemed intrigued that Harper Lee never wrote another novel, and remembered her as a character in the movie Capote. Want to take this book as your topic?

If you are going to the library or a search engine to find interesting topics for your TKAM paper for me, consider the KEYWORDS hyperlinked in the articles.

Linda, a legal eagle in my other class, read this section online this morning:

When Lee was 10 years old, a white woman near Monroeville accused a black man named Walter Lett of raping her. The story and the trial were covered by her father's newspaper. Lett was convicted and sentenced to death, but a series of letters claiming Lett had been falsely accused caused his sentence to be commuted to life in prison where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.[9]Scottsboro Boys incident occurred when she was six years old and would also be covered by her father's paper, Lee has stated that she had in mind something less sensational than that, although the case served the same purpose in displaying Southern attitudes about prejudice.[1] -

Linda decided to do her paper on the actual cases of that time to see how realistic the legal portrayal is in the novel. She decided to focus on the Scottsboro Boys incident to start even though it's not the incident that really inspired Lee. She'll see if she can come up with more on the case in Monroeville. I look forward to that paper.

Oh, Drew - if you come across anything in that biography you're reading on Lee about this, please share it with Linda. No, that's not cheating. It's collaboration. It's good, and, No, I didn't say it was for extra credit - but maybe I'll make collaboration a requirement of the grade. OK, stop groaning.

I would like to point out to the class those little superscript numbers in that passage. Look familiar? Yes, that's right, much of what is on Wikipedia has footnotes. Those REFERENCES at the bottom are to books and articles that were used to put this article together. I'm hoping that this year I can get you guys to read some of those original sources. Yes Jason, you can cite those if you actually use them.

So what we're trying to do here is have you use Wikipedia to get started.

You need to really focus your research, get some background and context for the topic, so that you won't waste time looking up stuff and reading things you don't need.

Yes, this will save you time. You don't want to write a long paper for this, and I don't really want to read a pile of them for the next week. I want 2 or 3 pages of brilliance on something neither one of us ever thought about before this assignment.

No one will be able to do their paper by just using Wikipedia, but all of us can get started there.

And don't cite Wikpedia as a source - cite the source that was used to create the Wikipedia entry. Got it?

So, have a nice Thanksgiving weekend, give this some thought and we'll hit the road with it on Monday.


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