Despite ‘Discomfort,’ Many Teachers Still Teach ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Here’s Why

By Madeline Will — October 17, 2017 3 min read
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The Biloxi, Miss., school district has removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum because some of the language “makes people uncomfortable.” The decision has renewed a national debate about censorship in schools and the book’s enduring value in 2017.

The classroom staple, which focuses on a young girl coming to grips with racial injustice in her Southern hometown in the 1930s, was first published in 1960. Its author, Harper Lee, did not censor usage of the n-word—the Washington Post estimates that the slur appears nearly 50 times throughout the novel, almost always in dialogue.

Still, educators say students can handle reading about the country’s racist past. Education Week Teacher opinion blogger Christina Torres penned a defense of continuing to teach the award-winning novel:

I understand the discomfort; as someone who reads the book aloud to students, I feel uncomfortable every time I say the N-word while reading. And I should feel uncomfortable. The word is heinous and designed to cause discomfort. The thing is, if I don't name that struggle with my students, they lose the opportunity to learn about the gravity of that word, where it comes from, and why it shouldn't be used. Here's the thing: Education isn't here to make you feel comfortable. A good education should, inherently, cause us discomfort. Part of the 'enlightening experience' built into the definition of the word 'education' itself is shining light into the darkness of our own ignorance. When has that ever felt good?"

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned the Mississippi district’s decision on Twitter, and then retweeted a crowdfunding project from a middle school teacher in Chicago who wanted 80 copies of the book to “make students think and engage in discussions of issues that are relevant and worthwhile.”

The problem was fully funded within an hour. That got us thinking: How many other teachers are requesting Mockingbird on DonorsChoose?

It turns out that 57 teachers from across the country are currently asking for copies of the book on the crowdfunding website. Their reasons for teaching this book vary, and provide an interesting snapshot of the benefits these teachers believe the book will bring to children.

An 8th grade teacher in rural Saint Pauls, N.C., is asking for a classroom set of the novel, saying that it is a coming-of-age story her students need to read when they are coming of age. “It is a time in which they are starting to question and consider the perspectives of others,” the teacher wrote. “As Atticus says, ‘to climb in someone’s skin and walk around in it.’ To Kill a Mockingbird offers them an awareness of the nature of humankind, and as such, allows each and every student to connect across generations with those who have also been changed by this read.”

A middle school teacher from Anthony, N.M., who teaches mostly English-language learners wrote that she wants her students to have copies of both Mockingbird and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer so they can “understand the modern conversations they hear on the news and how our country has—or has not—evolved.”

A 6th grade teacher in Chicago wrote that she showed her students excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird, and now they want to read the entire book. She thinks it will help “introduce them to new vocabulary, colloquialism and an understanding of what it was like to grow up in the South during the 1930s.”

A 9th grade teacher in Kodak, Tenn., is looking for a class set of To Kill a Mockingbird for her low-income students. She said she plans to engage students in lively discussions by asking this question: “Is Atticus Finch a hero, or is he simply doing his job?” The book, she wrote, “has ample opportunity to access themes such as gender dynamics, classism and class differentials, racism, duty vs. obligation, and growing up.”

A 9th grade honors teacher in Plant City, Fla., who is trying to provide a copy of the novel to every student, wrote that fall semester is one of her favorite times of the year because it’s when she teaches Mockingbird. “This is the time when students who ‘don’t read’ begin to not miss a page,” she wrote. “This is the time when students start to question why others have not read this book. This is the time when students make connections to today’s society and how little things have changed. This is the time for developing one’s opinions and perspectives about life.”

Do you teach To Kill a Mockingbird? What benefits does it have for your students? Share your thoughts in the comments.

See also: So Do You Teach Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman or What?

Image: A screenshot from the film “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) with Gregory Peck (Atticus) and Mary Badham (Scout) -- Flickr

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.