Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for the Zora Neale Hurston novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which tells the story of a white lawyer’s defense of a Black man who was falsely accused of raping a white woman, is considered a classic of modern American literature.
It’s also among the books most frequently challenged and banned from middle and high school curricula.
Profanity; racially charged epithets, including the n-word; and a rape scene top the reasons critics want it out of classrooms. Others, like recently retired teacher Ann Freemon, who taught high school English for most of her 34 years as a teacher and To Kill a Mockingbird for just as long, staunchly defend teaching the book.
Freemon retired at the end of the 2022-23 school year from Mariner High School in Washington state, a majority-minority high school where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. She never expected that Mukilteo, the progressive school district of about 15,000 students on the Puget Sound just north of Seattle where she taught, would challenge the book that she long considered one of her favorites to teach, and certainly the most impactful. She definitely did not expect fellow high school English teachers to be the ones to challenge it.
But two years ago, teachers from a neighboring high school in her district did just that, arguing that the novel is polarizing, centers on whiteness, and fails to celebrate an “authentic Black point of view.” Some of the districts’ Black students reported that the book misrepresented them, as African Americans. Ultimately, the book wasn’t banned, but the district granted teachers permission not to assign the novel that previously had been part of the district’s literature curriculum for several years. In 2022-23, Freemon’s last year as a high school English teacher, she was, to her knowledge, the only teacher in her district to assign the book.
Freemon’s name surfaced in an in-depth Washington Post article on the controversy published in early November. In a more recent interview with Education Week, she explains, in her own words, why she feels strongly that To Kill a Mockingbird should remain a part of the high school English literature curriculum, especially when taught in a trusting environment that starts with thoughtful preparation, omits reading of offensive language, and ends with open dialogue.
The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird in school as a teen. After you go through this many pages with characters, you develop something for them; you just want to see them do well. I recall everyone in my class being overwhelmingly upset with the injustice of it all. That prompted—just like it did with my students—conversations about that injustice.
It also inspired conversations about compassion and empathy—specifically, feeling compassion and not being afraid of those who are different than us, including those with mental disabilities or those who have a different skin color. Those are all fears, and through reading this book, we can have those conversations and maybe try to work on being better human beings. That’s what we talked about when I was a student, and that’s what I tried to do when I’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird over the years.
When I taught the book, I’d hit what students are required to know, in terms of literary devices and techniques, all of which this book has in it. But I also lay the groundwork on preparing students for what they’d find. You have to give them history on it first and start working on it. Then they start to trust you. This is not the book I begin the year with.
First, we would talk about the book cover, what they see, what they anticipate, whether anyone has heard anything about the book. We’d talk about their background knowledge. And I would say to them: We’re going to be going to a pretty dark place.
The next day, when students came in—and this is before we ever crack the book open—I would hang pictures around the room taken from the Jim Crow law era, with the writing cut out, so it’s just the pictures. I’d hang eight to 10 of them on the walls. The kids would go in groups of two to look at them. I gave them three minutes, with their partner, to take in the details, decide what they thought was going on in the photos, what details tell you that. And I’d ask them to justify their reasons.
Then they would get a homework assignment on Jim Crow laws. They would come back to class very, very somber. Then we’d talk about the pictures they had looked at. Some of them are really tough. I would say to them, What do you think is happening? That would generate conversation. And I would tell them: This picture represents the segregation of the racially segregated water fountains, etcetera. We’d talk about that. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards granted a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy [who was arrested for refusing to leave a train compartment designated for whites in 1892] while we were learning about Plessy v. Ferguson. The students were like, ‘No way!’ It made it super relevant.
Some of the teachers in the district who challenged the book claimed they were protecting students from trauma that might result from hearing the n-word, as well as white saviorism. When they heard I planned to continue teaching the book after it was challenged, I think my colleagues were looking at me like, ‘Are you really [going to keep teaching it]?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I really am.’ Because it’s still a choice.
Before we would start reading the book, I would set it up very carefully, letting students know that we were going to be respectful of everybody in the room at all times and that we were looking for the bigger messages in it. I would tell my students: There are going to be some very offensive lines in it. We will never say the n-word. When we see it, we will change it to “person.” Not one student has ever read the word out loud in my class. If I showed a video clip from the book, I screamed over the top when the word was used. I told them in advance that’s what I’d be doing. Then nobody had to take that on and hear it. I told them that the word is offensive, even to me, and it’s not even directed to my translucent skin.
The last time I taught the book, my students were able to make connections to George Floyd and other things going on in the news. Additionally, I told them the book had been banned in some districts and challenged in ours. At the end, I asked them: What did you think? They said: This is tough, but this is so valuable. Every one of them.
I would never send a kid home with a book like this without classroom conversations. As uncomfortable as these conversations are, they’re necessary to move us forward, I think. And I think my students thought so, too.
I disagree with critics who say this book is not relevant to their students; it is [relevant]. Some of my favorite books weren’t written about someone like me. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, the main character happens to be Black. It takes place in a very poor area in Florida. It wasn’t written for me, but it’s a beautiful piece of literature. Not all the best lessons come from someone who looks just like us.
I think we need to think about others’ perspectives, just like To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates for us. That’s where we gain compassion, tolerance. We gain understanding. We see ourselves maybe a little bit closer to each other than as far apart as I think we’re starting to get. I think sometimes we don’t always give high school students enough credit. I think we need to push them out of their boundaries of comfort. We shouldn’t always be comfortable. It’s through these uncomfortable situations that we should be learning.