A School District Removed To Kill a Mockingbird From Its Lesson Plan & Replaced it with… What?

Last week, a public school district in Mississippi pulled Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum.

To Kill a Mockingbird, which addresses racial inequality in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Nevertheless, in 2017, the Biloxi School District found its content inappropriate for its 8th grade students. The Sun Herald, based in South Mississippi, said it “received a email from a concerned reader who said the [school district’s] decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.'”

Does that mean students started reading it for class and then were told to stop (possibly in violation of the district’s policy)? How strange. This can’t be the first time the school district has learned that the novel contains the N-word. By my count, via the Kindle search function, the term appears in the novel 47 times, and Atticus Finch discourages his daughter from using it. He doesn’t call it racist, as we would today. Instead, when Scout asks him if he “defends [n-words],” he replies: “Of course I do. Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common,” which is about as good as we can expect from a realistic portrayal of a man in Atticus’s position in that place and time.

The school district’s sudden decision is certainly perplexing, but is it also illegal as a violation of their students’ constitutional right to receive information?

Without more facts, I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it (despite the suspicious timing and explanation for the removal).

Generally speaking, courts in the United States tend to defer to the decisions school districts make concerning the curriculum. As I wrote in a previous post, On Parenting Other People’s Children (& Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere):

First Amendment law is notoriously vague and internally inconsistent, but we can draw a few principles from it. In Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), a plurality of the Justices held that a school board could not remove books from a library for the purpose of denying students access to unpopular ideas — but those same Justices noted the board “might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values.”

Six years later, in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed the power of schools to determine the content of their own speech, and held that a public high school was permitted to delete two stories from the school newspaper (one about teenage pregnancy, another about divorce) because the paper “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school” and the school’s actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” See Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].”).

So, school districts have broad latitude over the lessons they teach our children, and Biloxi has made a decision that To Kill a Mockingbird will not be a school-sponsored vehicle for inculcating those lessons. The book remains in the school library for students to read on their own.

Based on the negative reaction the school district’s decision has received, it seems that many people believe that To Kill a Mockingbird should be required reading. There was a time I thought so too, but why did I feel that way? I read it for school, and loved it, but my husband, who grew up in a town next to Biloxi, can’t remember if he read it. It’s a good book, but it can’t be the only book capable of teaching us about compassion and racial justice.

Rather than insist that school districts keep the same reading list for decades, I encourage them to branch out and find new books that will resonate with their students (as I mentioned last week in my Annie Spence-like letter to the book).

On that note, I’ll ask a question I’ve asked on this blog before: What books should students read *instead* of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m particularly interested in novels that are something To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

So far, I haven’t seen any reference to what book Biloxi’s 8th grade students are reading instead of Harper Lee’s classic novel. I wonder if it’s an adequate replacement.

19 comments

  1. It would take a bit more reflection to come up with a good substitute list. Part of the reasoning is that copies of TKAM abound and there are plenty of vocabulary lists, quizzes, lesson plans, and discussion questions available for each chapter of the book. Therefore it is a somewhat cheap and easy book to include for many teachers – especially if they have to buy their own used copies.

    Speaking to my own experiences of seeing Huckleberry Finn withdrawn from schools, what tends to happen is the void is filled by other, less objectionable (aka less diverse or thought-provoking) novels by dead white men. The only newer diverse book I’ve seen gain a lot of traction as a popular class/school read in the past decade is Wonder, which is all-white but has a disabled main character. Of course there are always teachers who are intentionally trying to include diverse voices, and as a librarian I can help by pointing them to resources, but with a sudden swap like that, teachers are likely going to be looking for an easy and established novel study.

    1. It’s disheartening to hear that books by dead white men tend to fill the void! But I’m not surprised. I realize that it’s hard to use new books because they don’t have the lesson plans and other materials to go along with them yet, but it would be so worthwhile for school districts to make the commitment to diversify their reading lists. Thank you for being a librarian who points teachers to diverse resources.

  2. Yeah, I think we’re about at the same place with this: I don’t mind TKAM losing its place as a mainstay of syllabi, and I am not entirely sure what book I think should replace it. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Hate U Give taking its place, frankly, or some time spent on rhetoric and essayists and reporters like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    1. I think Mockingbird is a good book, but I would love to see kids reading other novels that focus on diverse experiences. I haven’t read The Hate U Give yet, but it’s on my list!

  3. I have read a few classics by POC authors (The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt; American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings by Zitkala-Ša; etc.), but I’m not sure about how to incorporate those into a lesson plan.

      1. I read them in a college classroom, but I’m not sure how to turn around teach them for another class.

  4. I really don’t like how they took out the book because it makes people uncomfortable. Why can’t they read it and then TALK about why that word is heinous, what it represents?

    As for replacement options, how about Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming?

  5. I think autobiographies are really important, such as Malcolm X’s and Anne Moody’s, but those would never be taught in public school. What about all the new YA novels about race? I haven’t read any, but I keep reading about them. This would also require the school to have money to purchase new books…

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m not sure if I’ve read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. If I did, it was a very long time ago, and it’s time to add it to my TBR list.

  6. Some classics have to go to make room for other books. I’m not saying TKaMB should be the one to go, but it isn’t irreplaceable. I don’t know what to read instead. I don’t know enough about modern children’s books.

  7. I really don’t want to see TKAM removed from reading lists, so I’m reluctant to answer yout last question. I’d much rather add something by a POC and about POC characters to be read in a unit alongside a book like TKAM?

    1. If it were up to me, I would keep To Kill a Mockingbird (in part because I don’t know what I’d replace it with), as long as Harper Lee’s estate stops trying to make the novel too expensive for school districts to purchase (I wrote about that here: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2016/03/12/what-should-kids-read-in-school-instead-of-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird/). Ideally, we would add something by a person of color about a person of color to the reading list and lesson plans. That’s the problem, though. There are only a certain number of days in a school year and hours of class time. So, something needs to go to make room for newer books that add diverse perspectives. I may disagree with the reasons a district would pull To Kill a Mockingbird, but I can’t ignore the fact that its removal provides an opportunity to replace that novel with something else. I hope they don’t waste it.

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