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To thrill an English class;Secondary

Great fiction always fosters journeys of the imagination, but one school in Hull has added a real-life dimension to its work on Harper Lee's classic novel, 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Kevin Berry reports.

Pupils at Malet Lambert comprehensive in Hull are used to rubbing shoulders with the literary greats. They once met Thomas Hardy's Tess - or as close as you can get in real life.

It happened 10 years ago when a group of Hull sixth-formers were touring Hardy country and met Gertrude Bugler. When she was young, Miss Bugler bore a startling resemblance to the Tess of Hardy's imagination, and Hardy had chosen her to play Tess on the stage. He was quite taken with her. Mrs Hardy was not.

The Tess meeting served as a precedent for another literary link-up which will culminate next summer when Year 10 pupils from Hull will travel to Monroeville, Alabama, home town of Harper Lee and the thinly disguised setting of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the novel, young Scout Finch tells of events leading up to the trial of a black man charged with raping a white woman. Her father, Atticus, defends the man and confronts a town steeped in racial hatred. It was set in the 1930s but was published in the US in 1960 when the civil rights movement was at its height.

The Hull pupils will be lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of Harper Lee, a legendary recluse, but they will certainly meet people who resemble characters in her book and hear of real incidents that found their way into the story. They will see the old courthouse, the school yard and Boo Radley's house.

It was Garry Burnett, head of English at Malet Lambert, who arranged that sixth-form trip to Dorset 10 years ago and has now established the link with Monroeville. There is a sharp contrast: Malet Lambert is an inner-city school and draws from a mix of private and council houses. Monroeville is a prosperous cotton farming community with a number of wealthy professionals.

The link began by chance when Garry was searching the Internet and found a Web site devoted to the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. E-mail enquiries drew responses from people who had grown up with Harper Lee. One message proved particularly fascinating: "The boy 'Dill' was our little friend, Truman Capote, who spent each summer in Monroeville with his aunt, Miss Jennie Faulk (Miss Rachel in the novel) . . . In the summer we played on the school grounds, but we never went near the Radleys' fence . . . My mother recalled a case of a black man being accused of raping a white woman, but she did not remember if Mr Lee (Atticus) was his lawyer."

Garry made more contacts through the Web site for the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce, and this led to a visit to Hull last year by Kathy McCoy, director of Monroeville's museum. Together they made plans for a unique event this September.

Garry reveals: "The Monroeville Players, all friends or relatives of Harper Lee, are coming to Hull for a week. They will perform To Kill a Mockingbird in the school and are planning seminars and workshops on the novel. They will even sing some gospel and one of them will give a workshop on the Delta Blues."

The NEAB exam board wants to make a video of the seminars and extracts from the play for key stage 4 students, and schools will be able to access the events if they have video-conferencing facilities.

Meanwhile, students from Malet Lambert will soon be able to use Internet chat-lines and video-conferencing to strengthen the link. They have already discovered that life in Monroeville is very different from life in Hull. "It is very small," explains 15-year-old Caroline Garmston. "When Kathy McCoy came she saw the picture of the Monroeville Players on our wall and she knew every one. If someone took a picture of a group of people from my neighbourhood I might only know one or two."

Her classmate, Kellie Owston, is struck by the community spirit in Alabama. She says: "My friend (in Monroeville) just goes to the house across the road when she wants something, and she leaves the door unlocked. My Dad locks the car up, even when he dashes back into the house for something."

A three-way conferencing facility will be set up any day now, linking Hull, Monroeville and Andek, an area in Cameroon (see story below). Garry sees an opportunity for children in Cameroon to study To Kill a Mockingbird alongside Hull students, and work towards English GCSE. Hull and Monroeville students will pair off and become "study buddies" on the book and other subjects.

The Hull students' understanding of the novel is impressive. Using first-hand accounts and numerous articles from Monroeville, they can put the story in the context of the time it was written and suggest reasons why Harper Lee has shut herself off from the world, refusing to talk about her book, even to close friends.

When Kathy McCoy came to Hull she told the pupils that newly discovered information suggests the book was based on an actual event and that Harper Lee's father, who was a lawyer, was involved in the subsequent trial. "A year ago we knew nothing," says Garry. "Then all of a sudden we moved very close - and now we seem just one step away."

If anyone deserves to sit with Harper Lee, and drink cool lemonade on her front porch, it must be Garry Burnett and his class.

For details contact Malet Lambert school's Web site at:www.maletlambert.hull.sch.ukTel: 01482 374211The Mockingbird Web site is at:

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