"Although most of my white, middle-class, Wisconsin-born students had had little contact with other races and cultures, I felt there had to be a way to weave their lives into the lives of the Finches, the Radleys, and the Robinsons. I wasn't sure if many of my students had thought seriously about the issue of racial prejudice, so I decided on an idea which would be enjoyable in itself, help students get to know each other, and prompt discussion of the novel and the theme of prejudice."
Introduce the idea of the paper bag collage. Ask your students to search through newspapers, magazines, or even photo albums at home to find pictures that symbolize aspects of their personalities. For example, a student can cut out a picture of a tennis shoe from a catalog to represent participation on the track team. Students may include small objects as well. Have them sort their pictures and objects into two piles: those that represent aspects of their personalities that they often share with others and those that symbolize aspects that they may not share often or at all with others. Reassure them that they need not disclose their deepest, darkest secrets - only as much as they feel comfortable disclosing in this setting.
Once students have sorted their pictures and objects, hand out paper grocery bags. They are to secure the items representing their outward personality traits on the outside of the bag; items representing their inner personality traits go inside the bag. Students can, if they wish, use other containers, such as shoe boxes, etc. The paper bag seems to work best, as it is easiest to carry and put in a locker.
Give students about a week to think about and assemble their bag collages. Make one of your own, too. Students love to find out things they didn't suspect about a teacher's interests, hobbies, or background. Then spend a day or two discussing the bags with each other as a class. Encourage - but don't require - all students to discuss their collages.
As students reveal hidden, previously unknown aspects of themselves, they realize that not all facets of their personalities or lifestyles are readily apparent. They often find that their classmates are more complex than they appear on the surface, that they have been wrong in their assumptions about their classmates' interests, talents, and knowledge, and that they have unsuspected things in common.
After we finish sharing the paper bag collages, ask students to comment on this activity, and write their remarks on the board. This readily leads to discussion about prejudice - about drawing conclusions about people based on outward appearances, about the inaccuracy of these conclusions, about prejudice within the school community, and about depictions of prejudice in literature and film.
Students begin to discover each other and themselves in this short activity, and, though it's just a start, it also makes us more aware of our tendency to prejudge others based only on outward appearances. The insights are a backdrop for thoughtful study of To Kill A Mockingbird .