By: Jamie M. Gregory
Is To Kill a Mockingbird the most divisive American novel? The incongruity speaks for itself: To Kill a Mockingbird is voted the 2018 Best Loved Book in the PBS program “The Great American Read” and also takes the number seven slot on the 2017 Top Ten banned books list compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom based on formal complaints.
In a more recent example of this novel’s controversial nature, To Kill a Mockingbird along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were removed a year ago from the high school English curriculum in Minnesota’s Duluth Public Schools district’s two high schools (read more here).
It is important to understand the distinction between book challenges and book banning. Sometimes educators decide that books perpetuate unfair and inaccurate stereotypes that we don’t want to teach our children, and so the “book banning” in this case serves an educational purpose. It also does not remove access to the book from the school or public library, but rather solely as required reading in a classroom. However, there are established gatekeepers in the education system who control access to books, which can be another form of book censorship. My last post discussed the importance of knowing the groups who influence the wording of learning standards. What about who chooses required reading in schools?
In February 2018, Duluth Public School’s then-district director of curriculum and instruction, Michael Cary, removed To Kill a Mockingbird from instruction in English classrooms. Susan van Druten, English teacher at Duluth East High School, states that Cary then left that district to become superintendent at another district which does include To Kill a Mockingbird on a required reading list.
Van Druten states that there had been no formal complaints about the book in her school nor in the district’s other high school: “No complaints were made about our teaching at my high school until a parent and district employee asked me in an email exchange about how I was dealing with Twain’s use of ‘injun’ in Huck in December of 2017.” After that, the first she heard of the controversy was February 2, 2018, when the English department chair informed the English teachers that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be removed from the curriculum (English teachers were eventually sent a picture copy of the memo indicating this change). The reasons given for removing To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum are pretty vague: “over the years, there has been much discussion regarding the racial language used in these books and their cultural appropriateness in today’s society.” The memo regarding the proposed timeline for replacing the books does not specifically mention that they are being replaced because of complaints.
In addition to being shocked by this sudden news (those 2 novels have been taught for at least 40 years), the memo indicates that the new novels and curriculum would be purchased between March and June 2018, giving teachers only a few months to choose new novels. Van Druten says this was frustrating also because for years they had been told there was no money for new novels or curriculum.
As it turned out, the novel which would replace To Kill a Mockingbird, Spirit Car by Diane Wilson (winner of the 2007 Minnesota Book Award for Autobiography, Memoir, and Creative Nonfiction), was not selected until November 15, 2018 (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has not been replaced because it was not a required read). Over the summer, teachers (as well as college professors and community members) were invited (without pay) to add recommended titles to a spreadsheet. In October 2018, 9th and 11th grade teachers were asked to select 3 titles from the list. The finalists were Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan, and The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Homegoing was replaced with Spirit Car, which was ultimately chosen.
Some teachers appreciate the attempt to reach into Minnesota’s Native American past (Diane Wilson recounts her family’s Dakota Indian history going back six generations in Spirit Car). The 11th grade English Language Arts standards also specifically require teachers to cover this topic: 184.108.40.206 “Evaluate authors’ differing points of view, including differing points of view about Minnesota American Indian history, on the same historical event or issue by assessing the author’s claims, reasoning, and evidence.” However, van Druten states that many were hopeful to teach To Kill a Mockingbird alongside Spirit Car as both relate to local history. She says that “My 9th grade colleagues used To Kill a Mockingbird to talk about our city’s horrific lynching in 1920 of three black circus workers because a white teenager said she had been raped.”
The English department is not the only group of educators concerned about this process. Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, Past President NCTE, Harvard Graduate School, who has worked to support Duluth English teachers, points out that “Some texts from the past have remained as curricular essentials because of their significance and import in message, characters, language, historical moment(s), even geographical region and socio-political implications.” Therefore, banning texts “means that our children will miss out on hearing, reading, and experiencing so many different voices, perspectives, peoples, and cultures.” In our 21st century society, which may make it difficult for students to understand how institutions such as slavery or Jim Crow laws could have existed, texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird help students step into the shoes of a person who did have that mindset. Reading historical fiction texts might help students prevent such discrimination from happening in the future.
There is also concern that the teachers do not have enough time to adequately prepare for teaching a new novel. Van Druten states that during a day in February for teachers to plan the new curriculum, “they heard from a white, male guest speaker who was a very nice college professor, but he was not helpful in addressing the Native American perspective [in Spirit Car].” It seems that the new curriculum director, Gail Netland, decided the focus of teaching the novel will become “about Identity, which each child exploring their own identity. The 9th grade teachers feel this is leading the discussion away from the Native perspective.”
On the other hand, some teachers argue that texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird take away agency and perspective from those who suffered by only showing life through the lens of a white person. As the PBS website for “The Great American Read” reminds us, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a young, white, Southern female. English teacher Jena Smith at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC, agrees that the white, Southern perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird allows other white people to feel redeemed about the Jim Crow south because Atticus Finch is the white savior. It also limits the perspective of black characters. However, she states that she would never tell another educator not to teach it.
Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle, authors of Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, write on their blog that educators can turn To Kill a Mockingbird into a more complex text by incorporating important informational texts to show the complexity of the issues presented. Suggestions include Chief Justice Earl Warren’s decision in Loving vs. Virginia and an interview with Dorothy Bolden among many others
They ultimately conclude, though, that “To Kill a Mockingbird is not a novel written from an African-American perspective. And surely we can agree that our students deserve to see many different perspectives, written by a range of different writers, in the texts they read.” Furthermore, as the Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, Chenelle focuses book selection on “asking ourselves what our purpose is in teaching a particular text in relation to our students.”
As I discussed in my last post, learning accurate history is imperative to understanding what’s going on today. It’s important to see Tom Robinson be wrongfully accused and suffer injustice through society and the law. However, the problem is that this representation may be the only one students are required to encounter. Some of us love Atticus Finch, but who else would students love if schools required their voices to be heard as well?
Yes, the novel can provide a wealth of other information already mentioned, but it should not be the sole text used to represent an African-American perspective. The common thread of concern over teaching antiquated works of literature is that they do not provide students with contemporary, diverse portrayals of varied perspectives. Students could read selections written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston (among many other stellar possibilities) alongside To Kill a Mockingbird. Pairing texts with differing perspectives is an effective, often-used teaching technique, which is what some Duluth teachers proposed for To Kill a Mockingbird and Spirit Car. But the ban remains.
The bottom line is that school librarians and teachers want their professional judgment to be trusted by administrators. Chenelle believes “teachers should always play a primary role in the process because they are the experts on their students and their discipline.” Districts should adopt book challenge processes which are transparent, and then follow them. Teachers deserve to know about specific complaints before decisions are made, especially if the complaints originate from personal bias without a sound pedagogical basis. They should be shown respect by having enough time to gather reading suggestions by experts, read the suggested titles, and form opinions about literary merit in the public school classroom. Then the classroom teachers should be the decision-makers. If we silence the mockingbird, it should be because the individual classroom teacher has made the professional decision to do so, not because of veiled complaints and one person in charge who holds the power to remove the book.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.