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Duluth schools remove 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Huckleberry Finn' from curriculum

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

The novels "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" will no longer be required reading in the Duluth school district due to the books' use of a racial slur, a curriculum change supported by the local NAACP chapter.

The two books will continue to be available in school libraries and can be optional reading for students, but beginning next school year, they'll be replaced as required reading by other literature that addresses the same topics in ninth- and 11th-grade English classes, said Michael Cary, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.

The district's intent is to be considerate of all of its students, Cary said. The district owes it to its students to not subject them to a racial slur that marginalizes them in their required learning, he said. He added that district leaders felt that there are many other options in literature that can teach the same lessons as the two novels without containing a racial slur.

"We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn't require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs," Cary said.

There wasn't a specific complaint that triggered the decision, but it was a response to complaints about the books' use of a racial slur that the district has faced for a number of years, Cary said. Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the Duluth school district was hearing from students that the book's use of a racial slur created an uncomfortable atmosphere for them in the classroom.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the NAACP's local chapter, applauded the school district's decision to stop requiring students to read the books. Some people think the novels are educational literature for students, he said, but the novels are "just hurtful" and use "hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years." The district's use of the books as required reading has been an ongoing discussion between elders in the local NAACP and district leaders for years, Witherspoon said.

"It's wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I'm glad that they're making the decision and it's long overdue, like 20 years overdue," Witherspoon said. "Let's move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them."

Gronseth said the district's focus is on teaching the lessons contained in those books, and it's a matter of finding another literary source that is "more universally appropriate" to teach those lessons.

"It fits really well into the equity work that we're doing, making sure that what we're using as core curriculum is a good experience for all of our students. When curriculum materials are making some students feel uncomfortable, then we need to make a better choice," he said.

The decision has been a long time coming in Duluth — and Gronseth said other districts are starting to move away from requiring the two books in their curriculum because the racial slurs aren't appropriate for the classroom.

The most notable recent removal of "To Kill a Mockingbird" from a school's curriculum due to the racial slur occurred in October in Biloxi, Miss. That move drew criticism from national free-speech groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, which in a letter to the Biloxi superintendent wrote: "While the use of historically accurate language in conversations about racism is deeply discomforting to many readers, it is a necessary aspect of any realistic account of our nation's history. A pedagogically sound approach to curricular selection requires educational professionals to ask whether a book has educational value, not whether it is comfortable."

After an outcry, the Biloxi school district announced that interested eighth-graders would be given the chance to take part in an in-depth study of the novel with parental permission, the Biloxi Sun Herald reported.

The American Library Association listed the book as the 21st most banned or challenged book from 2000 to 2009, with "Huckleberry Finn" topping it as the 14th most banned or challenged book in that decade. Many of the challenges of "To Kill a Mockingbird" over the decades have come from black parents concerned about a book containing a racial slur being used in the classroom, according to the ALA.

Duluth district administration and school principals reached the decision in January after discussing for several months the potential implications of the decision, Cary said.

Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, said the district's English teachers are concerned that they weren't consulted before the decision was finalized. However, the teachers understand the need to be sensitive to their students, she said.

"I don't think anybody is averse to change — there's obviously lots of great literature there that we can use with our students and are there reasons to walk away from that book? Probably — but we just want to be included in conversation about it," Burnham said.

Cary said the decision was kept between district and school administration because it was about "protecting the dignity of our students." They'll use the remainder of this school year to find suitable replacements in the English classes and teachers will be included in choosing different books that teach the same standards and skills, he said. They've also set aside money to purchase new novels for the classes.

"The decision to protect the dignity of our students seemed like a reasonable and easy one to make that didn't require teacher input. But in terms of making sure that we select excellent novels that serve the same purpose, that definitely needs teacher feedback and their help in making that decision," Cary said.

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