'Mockingbird' substitute irks Duluth faculty

Nearly a year after announcing it would remove "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Huckleberry Finn" from its English curriculum, the Duluth school district's efforts to select replacement texts for the books has prompted recent faculty backlash.


Nearly a year after announcing it would remove "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Huckleberry Finn" from its English curriculum, the Duluth school district's efforts to select replacement texts for the books has prompted recent faculty backlash.

Penned by Harper Lee and Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, respectively, the classic books had been required reading for Duluth's high school students until last year. The district announced in February plans to drop the titles, citing the works' repeated use of a racial slur.

No replacement has yet been named for "Huckleberry Finn," previously taught to juniors.

But "Spirit Car" by Diane Wilson will replace "To Kill a Mockingbird" as required reading in freshman English.

A Minnesota Book Award winner, "Spirit Car" was Minneapolis' choice for a "Citywide Read" program in 2012. The memoir, published in 2006, recounts the Minnesota author's quest to trace her Native American ancestry - a journey that takes her back to the Dakota Uprising and her family's struggles as it drifted across South Dakota and Nebraska.


Stephanie Mickle, who has taught English at Denfeld for 22 years, said there was little warning of the school's decision to remove "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the curriculum.

"We felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us," she said.

Kirsten Peterson, an English teacher at East, said that in her 26 years as an educator she has seen no other book elicit "so many "'aha' moments" from students.

Kristin Warmanen, another English teacher at East, said the book continues to inspire young readers.

"It's certainly a challenge to compete with the screens they have in their faces. It's tough to get kids to read, and that has been our best tool to engage students. But at the same time, it's also a very edifying piece of literature because of how it talks about integrity, about doing the right thing and about empathy, which is so needed," she said.

Racially insensitive?

But critics of the pulled books, including Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP, said their repeated use of the N-word is "just hurtful" and "wrong."

Last year, he hailed the district's announcement that it would drop "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the curriculum, calling the decision "20 years overdue" and saying at the time: "There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people."


The NAACP issued a subsequent statement clarifying that while individuals held strong views, the organization itself did not request the removal of the books from the curriculum, although it urged the school district to treat the issue of racism with care.

But Mickle has taught "Mockingbird" 60 times and said she was never told of a single classroom complaint, so she had no opportunity to address any concerns.

Warmanen, too, laments a lost opportunity.

"I would like to have worked with administration to see how we could approach things differently. Maybe we teachers could get some training about how to handle sensitive content more effectively with our increasingly diverse students, and that would ultimately make us more effective as teachers across the board," she said.

Without question, Warmanen acknowledged: "The use of the N-word in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' makes all of my students uncomfortable, no matter what their race, to varying degrees obviously."

Yet Warmanen views the book as "overtly anti-racist."

"The characters who use the N-word in that novel are the most despicable people, and Atticus, the father, tells his daughter: 'Don't say that word, Scout. Only trash uses that word,'" she said.

Granted, the book presents the world through the eyes of a white character, fashioned by a white author, but Warmanen said: "I wish we could bring in a strong African-American voice to read alongside it, instead of in place of it."


Delayed decision

Originally, replacement texts for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Huckleberry Finn" were to have been selected before the start of the current school year, but that timeline slipped when the district's previous director of curriculum and instruction, Michael Cary, left to take another job.

His successor, Gail Netland, came aboard in July, and she said: "Basically what had been done is people had had meetings talking about the decision that had been made. There was some processing that went along with that. And then they had started developing a list of possible texts to consider."

More than 100 books were put forward as candidates.

Netland said staff decided they wanted a book written by a woman to replace "Mockingbird," which had been the only required reading by a woman author in the freshman English curriculum. Other factors that were used to narrow the list included reading level, length and whether the work would help to diversify the curriculum.

Netland said community members - including parents, students and representatives of minority groups - were invited to evaluate the books.

One of those individuals was Audrey Devine Eller, a member of the NAACP Duluth Chapter's executive committee and chairwoman of the organization's education committee.

"Basically the decision got really really delayed," said Devine Eller, an assistant professor of sociology at the College of St. Scholastica.


Three finalist books were identified by November - "Spirit Car," "Children of Blood and Bone" by Tomi Adeyemi and "Mean Spirit" by Linda Hogan - and Devine Eller said she was given until mid-December to offer her feedback.

While she enjoyed the books, Devine Eller said: "To ask busy people to read three books and provide meaningful feedback in six weeks is a pretty big ask. I know why the timeline was as it was, because they had to move on this. But the fact that they didn't ask until November, instead of say last May, created this kind of crisis, where: OK we've read all the books and all of a sudden maybe nobody's happy and maybe there's no consensus around one work."

Devine Eller welcomes the diversity "Spirit Car" will bring to the freshman curriculum but noted it comes with a trade-off.

"This shouldn't be a zero-sum game, where we're having to choose Native American over African-American history," she cautioned. "These things both need to be taught."

But choices had to be made, Netland said.

"One of the challenges in this process is that we are choosing one text for each of these courses. By choosing one text that means we're not choosing something else. One text cannot meet all needs, nor should we expect it. However, we can look at what possibilities a text has to offer. This text provides an opportunity to explore identity and the unit will empower students to reflect on their own," she said.

Little time

The late timing of the decision poses yet another challenge.


"One concern that I, and I know many teachers have, is the last-minuteness of the choice. Your teachers need to be able to teach these texts that they've never even read before to these students this semester," Devine Elller said.

Netland acknowledged it will take time to develop class plans and said she intends to offer teachers "a day focused on unit development and with that, how to have those those difficult conversations. We're building support right into the unit for them."

Nevertheless, Devine Eller expressed concern, saying: "With this really really short timeline for these new texts, that becomes problematic, because there's no guarantee that the teachers are going to be able to teach the new texts better," she said, especially without further professional development.

Devine Eller noted that the NAACP did not ask for the removal "Mockingbird and "Huck Finn." Rather, she said: "The NAACP asked for the professional development of teachers to be able to have conversations about race without students in the classroom feeling marginalized or harassed."

"And again, all of the replacement texts the district came up with are texts that have difficult things about race and colonization in them. So, yes, the NAACP wants those conversations to happen in the classroom, but no matter what text it's going to be, teachers need professional development so they feel supported in having those conversations with students. So swapping out 'Spirit Car' for 'Mockingbird' doesn't fix that problem," Devine Eller said.

At the end of the school year, Netland said teachers will gather to talk about what worked well and what didn't with the roll-out of 'Spirit Car,' as they work to improve the unit for the following year.

Hard to follow

But some faculty members remain skeptical of the district's decision to add "Spirit Car" to the freshman curriculum. A letter signed by 17 teachers and recently sent to school board members criticized the choice.


"Despite the lack of an engaging book with literary merit, the decision was pushed forward ... due to time constraints. We believe this is a colossal waste of curriculum monies, and this forced book will continue to be a blight on our ninth grade curriculum for decades," the letter said.

The district placed an order for more than 500 copies of "Spirit Car" last week at a cost of about $5,800.

Netland defended the book, saying: "This text provides an opportunity to explore identity and the unit will empower students to reflect on their own."

Warmanen declined to disparage "Spirit Car" but suggested it cannot fill the gap created by the loss of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"'Spirit Car' is important, and it needs to be read. Students should learn about Minnesota's history of the Dakota uprising and the role of boarding schools in Native American history. They should think about their own identity and maybe their family history, although that's problematic for some of our students," Warmanen said.

"We'll teach these things when we teach 'Spirit Car' this spring. Nevertheless, I have concerns about the appeal of this book for young teenagers who are required to read it," she said.

Netland acknowledged the removal of "Mockingbird" from this year's curriculum has caused some hard feelings.

"Change can be really hard, especially when it involves something we care deeply about," she said. "The chosen text involves a shift in genre. One of the ways we are working to support each other in this is through developing some core unit elements and compile important resources together."

Like it or not, Mickle said staff will need to make the best of the situation.

"We're going forward with 'Spirit Car,' and I hope that it works. I hope that kids love it. I told our curriculum director I feel like I'm very good at what I do, and I'll do everything I can within my abilities to make the kids love this book," she said.

"But I will never stop believing that the decision to remove 'Mockingbird' was wrong, and I hope that someday it comes back."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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