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'Mockingbird' decision: Did Duluth school district follow policy in removing books from curriculum?

Copies of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for sale at the Duluth Barnes & Noble store. (2015 file / News Tribune)

A local literacy group is asking the Duluth school district to prove it followed established policies in its decision to pull "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from high school instruction.

The Arrowhead Reading Council, a professional organization that counts several current and former Duluth district teachers as members, sent a letter to School Board members and administration asking for evidence that three different policies were followed.

"There is a process by which materials that are challenged are examined at building level and that always includes teachers," said Deborah Sauer, a council member and former Congdon Park Elementary teacher who retired in 2015. "If there had been complaints across the years, then those people complaining should have been directed to the procedure."

Last week the district said it would stop teaching Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," a 1960 novel, and Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" from 1884 — both widely considered American classics but no strangers to debate — because of the racial slurs contained in each. The move put the district under a national spotlight with reaction from across the country, and has sparked discourse about the modern-day usefulness of the books in teaching about racism. District administration has said that as it continues to work on issues of equity for its students, it wants to teach literature that is considerate of all of them. The decision is not a district ban on the books; they'll still be available in school media centers.

The teachers union last week voiced concern that teachers weren't part of the decision, and the reading council echoes that concern.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said this week that he thinks the district was compliant with the three policies in question.

A process to challenge books

The council is most concerned with a policy that deals with "challenged instructional resources." It says that if a resident of the district requests the removal or restriction of a resource for anyone other than the child in his or her care, a form must be filled out through the school the child attends and a process begins. That includes the formation of a three-teacher committee by the school's principal, who reviews the material and makes a decision. The policy also allows for an appeal to the district curriculum director. The reading council says it doesn't appear that was followed in this case.

Gronseth said none of the people who have complained about the books over time cited that specific policy or went through that process. He said members of the district's education equity group have brought up the language in the books, and so have members of the local chapter of the NAACP, noting that neither group took an official position on removing the books from the curriculum.

District curriculum director Mike Cary said he's heard complaints about "very specific things" in the books each year that he's worked for the district, and longer-serving curriculum staff have said concerns go back several years. Because of that, the idea of replacing the books has been an ongoing conversation, he said.

A complaint from an East High School family this year — who did not go through the policy process — brought the issue once again to the forefront, Cary said, and meetings with the high school principals, curriculum staff and other administrators helped form the decision. It did not involve the School Board, which would not typically vote on such an issue.

Studying and choosing other works of literature that might be better suited for all kids is important, the reading council's Sauer said, as "there isn't a teacher in the world who wants students to feel marginalized in their classroom."

But the discussion to make that change in the first place shouldn't exclude teachers and students, she said.

Kristin Warmanen, a ninth-grade English teacher at East, said most English teachers at both high schools were "blindsided" by what they perceive as a "rushed" decision, as complaints made to them were rare. She said the decision was disrespectful of teachers, who are doing the work of teaching the books and interacting with kids.

"I've never taught a novel that engages students more," she said of "Mockingbird," noting President Barack Obama has cited passages of it in speeches. "We really would have liked to have the chance to work out a compromise with administration that would protect students' dignity."

She said teachers prepare students for the language and describe the historical context of the novels. Those uncomfortable with the books are offered other options, she said.

Susan van Druten, who teaches 11th-grade English at East, said most English teachers accept the decision on "Huckleberry Finn," but believe strongly in continuing to teach "Mockingbird."

The book has the power "to transform kids," she said. "We polled students last Friday (on their thoughts of both books). To hear what they said was heartwarming, wonderful, and just so thoughtful."

If complaints are rare, it could be because telling a teacher a book is offensive might be intimidating for some students in light of today's racially charged climate, Denfeld English teacher Brian Jungman wrote in an editorial for the News Tribune earlier this week.

"I find it extremely telling that right now those who are debating this discussion are primarily white, myself included, and writing in defense of white authors — all the while ignoring the voices of those we proclaim to be having this debate for in the first place," he said.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, told the News Tribune last week that the novels contain "hurtful language" that has oppressed people of color for two centuries.

Teaching controversial issues

The other policies the reading council is concerned with involve including teachers in the selection of materials, which Gronseth said applies to choosing new materials and will be followed; and the teaching of controversial issues, which allows for the freedom to teach and learn without fear of censorship.

That policy says district staff shall "select curriculum, teaching methods, resources, and materials appropriate to the educational objectives." Gronseth contended that if the objective is teaching about racism, the district believes the books aren't "working for all of our students as a required text."

The policy meant to guide the process of challenging a book has been used in the past for Amy Tan's 1989 "The Joy Luck Club," a novel about Chinese-American immigrants; and James Lincoln Collier's "War Comes to Willy Freeman," a 1987 novel about a black girl who fought in the Revolutionary War. That book also contains a racial slur, and has been challenged in schools elsewhere. The reading council was involved in those discussions, Sauer said, and in those cases, the students whose families challenged the books studied an alternative.

The district plans to include teachers in the selection of replacement material for "Mockingbird" and "Huckleberry Finn." A question among teachers, van Druten said, is whether they will have the option to offer either book as a choice, and how to instruct if so, along with whether other resources that contain racial slurs, such as a speech by human rights activist Malcolm X, will continue to be taught.

Cary said those conversations with teachers still need to be had.

"This whole thing took on a life of its own before having the chance to talk about it," he said.

While he's "hopeful" the book decision isn't final, East English teacher Greg Jones said there should be continued staff training in talking about race and language with students, as society and its demographics evolve.