“Blues Ain’t No Mockingbird” by Toni Cade Bambara is a short story about the narrator and her family's life in the deep south. The family must deal with many changes that arise after two men with cameras invade their privacy to make a documentary. This story uses rich language and themes to help the reader imagine what life was truly like for the narrator and Cathy during this difficult time.
By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!
The elements of the short story is set in the deep south, in an African American home, during the twentieth century. It centers around an unnamed narrator and her cousin Cathy as they experience the invasion of a camera crew on their property. As the girls are outside playing with their two twin boy neighbors, their grandmother “Granny” is inside finishing some Rum Cakes, when two strange men with cameras approach. The narrator gives these men the names “smilin and camera man”. They come up and explain that they are filming for the ‘country’s food stamp program’ and would like to use Granny’s home for footage. However, she stoically refuses.
The approach of the camera men prompts Cathy to tell a story about a man who tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, and how it attracted onlookers and a camera crew like the ones at the house. When the twins and the narrator become eager to hear the ending of the story, Granny’s countenance changes and it prompts Cathy to change the story to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This story makes a connection to the narrator who describes how Granny becomes frustrated with her surroundings every few years, and forces the family to move.
When the cameramen refuse to leave, Granny becomes upset. Just then Granddaddy Cain returns from the fields with a large chicken hawk, a hammer, and his hunting gear. Mumbling under her breath, Granny comments that the men are standing in her flower bed. The cameramen rush up to film Granddaddy, but he elegantly forces them away. The narrator describes him as being king-like. When the men refuse to leave, Grandaddy holds out his hand for the camera. Intimidated by his presence and his hammer, they hand him the camera. He removes the top off of the camera and their film is ruined.
Granddaddy Cain also points out that they are standing in the flower bed. He gives the camera back, the men pick up the pieces and they leave.
Cathy then says that one day, she will write a story about the day's events, and that the story will be “[a]bout the proper use of the hammer.”
Essential Questions for “Blues Ain’t No Mockingbird” by Toni Cade Bambara
How does the media affect the way we view events, people, or places?
What are some different ways that people are exploited throughout history?
How do good authors use dialect and local color to make their story realistic?
Blues Ain't No Mockingbird Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers
[ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/3] Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
[ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/6] Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature
[ELA-Literacy/W/9-10/6] Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically
Literary conflicts are often taught during ELA units. Building on prior knowledge to achieve mastery level with our students is important. An excellent way to focus on the various types of literary conflict is through storyboarding. Having students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict it using the storyboard creator is a great way to reinforce your lesson!
In “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird”, conflict is not only present, but is also an important recurring element. Much of the conflict stems from the exploitation and refusal of the cameramen to respect the rights of the Cain family.
Examples of Conflict from "Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird"
Granny is upset with the cameramen who refuse to leave her property.
MAN vs. SOCIETY
The cameramen are judging and exploiting the family because they are poor. They make a comment that it is for the country’s food stamps program. Granny gets annoyed because she is hardworking and humble and doesn't want to be stereotyped.
MAN vs. NATURE
Granddaddy is able to kill a hawk in the air by throwing his hammer at it.
When teaching a work of literature, it is often helpful to refresh or introduce students with technical words. Terms like “metaphor", "alliteration", "personification", "imagery", "apostrophe", and "assonance" are a few important terms.
After you have read the story, ask your students to do a scavenger hunt using the storyboard creator. Give them the list again and have them create a storyboard that depicts and explains the use of each literary element from “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird”. They will have an absolute blast and gain mastery of the words. Check out this example below:
Examples of Literary Elements Bambara Uses
A comparison using 'like' or 'as'
"Then Granddaddy’s other hand flies up like a sudden and gentle bird, slaps down fast on top of the camera and lifts off half like it was a calabash cut for sharing."
A very brief account of an incident or incident, typically a story or account of a past event
“I was on this bridge one time,’ she started off. ‘Was a crowd cause this man was goin to jump, you understand. And a minister was there and the police and some other folks. His woman was there, too.”
The use of descriptive or figurative language to create vivid mental imagery that appeals to the senses
“The old ladle dripping rum into the Christmas tins, like it used to drip maple syrup into the pails when we lived in the Judson’s woods, like it poured cider into the vats when we were on the Cooper place, like it used to scoop buttermilk and soft cheese when we lived at the dairy.”
[ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/2] Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
[ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/5] Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
[ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/10] By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently
Valuable aspects of any literary work are its themes, symbols, and motifs. Part of the Common Core ELA standards is to introduce and explain these complex concepts. However, abstract ideas are often difficult for students to anatomize without assistance. Using a storyboard, students can visually demonstrate their understanding of these concepts, and master analysis of literary elements. For best practices, see our article with specific lesson plan steps on setting up your classroom and activities to teach themes, symbols, and motifs.
In this particular story the author uses the story itself along with the two anecdotes to reveal the theme to her readers. In the classroom, students can track the theme in this story and show how each use brings deeper meaning to the audience.
Blues Ain't No Mocking Bird Theme Example
In the story the privacy of others is mentioned on three occasions: through the plot of the story itself, the story of the man on the bridge, and the anecdote about Goldilocks. Each story represents the invasion of privacy and the disrespect that people have for others. From the title of the story, the reader can infer that “blues” or misfortunes of others, unlike the mockingbird, do not suggest self-pity or death, more clearly the misfortunes of others should not be exploited or mocked. Looking at the story of the man attempting suicide, it is evident that Granny has contempt and disgust for people who try to take advantage of situations for their own benefit. This tale is followed by the story of Goldilocks, who goes into another person's home with blatant disrespect for the property and privacy of the owners. This last anecdote circles back to the invasion of personal space and privacy that Granny experiences with the cameramen.
This activity allows for a more in depth look at one or more characters with a focus on character traits. Students should provide textual evidence to support the character trait they choose. Students can support their ideas with dialogue, thoughts, or actions of the character they are portraying.
Here is an example of a character trait storyboard using the grid layout. This example features two character traits for Granny and Granddaddy, but students can analyze the character traits for any or all of the characters in the story.
Example Traits for Blues Ain’t No Mockin' Bird Characters
Strict, proud, and intelligent
“Good mornin,” Granny cut him off. And smiled that smile...“I don’t know about the thing, the it, and the stuff,” said Granny, still talkin with her eyebrows. “Just people here is what I tend to consider.”...“I do indeed,” said Granny with no smile.
Stoic, respected, and strong
“They didn’t know what to do. But like Cathy say, folks can’t stand Grandaddy tall and silent and like a king. They can’t neither. The smile the men smilin is pullin the mouth back and showin the teeth. Lookin like the wolf man, both of them. Then Granddaddy holds his hand out—this huge hand I used to sit in when I was a baby and he’d carry me through the house to my mother like I was a gift on a tray. Like he used to on the trains. They called the other men just waiters. But they spoke of Granddaddy separate and said, The Waiter. And said he had engines in his feet and motors in his hands and couldn’t no train throw him off and couldn’t nobody turn him around. They were big enough for motors, his hands were. He held that one hand out all still and it gettin to be not at all a hand but a person in itself.”
A common literary style many American authors focus on in there works is the use of local color and dialect. By using these elements they paint a realistic setting of everyday life and ordinary people from different regions of the country, while also seeking to explain human behavior.
Dialect is the specific language used by people of a certain area, class, or cultural group. The term denotes the particular use of spelling, sounds, grammar and pronunciation which is uncommon to other groups. It is a very powerful tool for enhancing characterization.
Local color includes distinctive characteristics of a place or time period. Vivid images as represented in literature or as observed in reality create specific characteristic traits for a region.
In the story, Bambara uses significant elements of speech to give an authentic and true feeling to her story. As the reader engrosses themselves in the text, speech patterns become clear. The narrator often drops her ‘g’s’ - examples include: mockin, mornin, nuthin. The narrator also chooses to use less grammatically correct expressions like “ain’t” and “me and Cathy went”. The major significance that dialect and local color have is that they enhance the work as a whole, by bringing liveliness and depth to the writing.
Have students create a grid in which they find and track elements of dialect or local color. Good starting questions to ask include: What sayings or words used give inference into the south or southern life? What patterns of dialect or speech does the narrator use that sound particularly southern?
Lesson Extension: Want a fun activity to really drive home these concepts with your students? Try having them create their own ‘Local Color and Dialect’ storyboard using speech patterns and word reference from where they live or where they are from! Storyboard That’s world headquarters is located in the heart of Downtown Boston, Massachusetts, USA - Check out our example storyboard to get your students creative juices flowing!