When I taught 10th grade honors, I started the year by teaching 12 Angry Men. It’s accessible to kids who are trying to jump from a grade level class to an advanced class, but it’s got enough meat and substance to start introducing kids to the AP level thinking they will need to do over the course of the year.
Like every well-written drama, it’s hard to pick exactly what to focus on when trying to teach this book. 12 Angry Men lends itself to conversations about the legal system and argumentation, but I like to focus on bias. Below I have included a link to my 12 Angry Men unit, and the rest of this blog is a general overview of how I taught the unit with links to different handouts.
A while back, I found this great article on Mental Floss and modified that for the classroom. Once we’ve laid the “bias groundwork” for through memorization, journaling, and conversation, we get into the play. Since I am usually reading this with kids the first week of school and they are still figuring each other out, I let them sit in big circles and read the play aloud instead of having them get up in front of the room. After each day of reading, I have the kids stop and talk about the different types of bias in the section and track their ideas on a bias chart.
Why we need to teach 12 Angry Menbecomes clear just a few minutes into discussing the anticipation guide, but if you really want to blow your kids away, ask them the race of the defendant. I do this by giving everyone a sheet of scrap paper at the beginning of class and pretending we are having a one question reading quiz, and I ask them the race of the defendant. The book never states the race of the defendant, even though kids swear up and down that the author does. But if you ask the kids to point out the page where the defendant’s race is mentioned, they can’t find it and it’s not there. The author discusses the defendant’s neighborhood and economic status and students make assumptions. This moment is a starting point for a discussion about race in America. I recently read White Fragility by Robin D’Angelo, which helped me to understand how and why people assume the race of someone based on the description of their wealth or where they live, but overall the moment is an eye-opener. I do not collect the “quiz” from the students. We then talk a little bit about our personal biases and how they affect what we think we know.
At the end of the play, we have a conversation about bias and do a little extension activity, but since it is the beginning of the year, I also give the students a menu of essays tochoose from and have them respond to one. I use the essay as a diagnostic to see where everyone is at the beginning of the year, and it gives students a chance to explore a topic or idea we did not touch upon in class.
There are a million different great ways to teach this book, and I offer you one path below. Enjoy!