Duluth teachers, district grapple with how to move on from 'Mockingbird'

Kristin Warmanen, Stu Sorenson and Susan van Druten.
Kristin Warmanen, Stu Sorenson and Susan van Druten, English teachers at Duluth East high school, who have fought to keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the curriculum, and complained about the process to select a replacement.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

A year ago, Duluth Public Schools removed two classic books from its list of required reading for high school students: "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Administrators said they pulled the books because they'd gotten complaints about racist language, and questions about the books' cultural appropriateness.

But since then, the debate over selecting an alternative to "To Kill a Mockingbird" has highlighted just how difficult it can be to teach the iconic book — and how hard it can be to replace it.

It's also sparked a conversation about broadening and freshening the list of required reading to include more contemporary authors, especially more women and diverse writers.

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was published in 1960. And for years, it's been a high school curriculum standard, read alongside books like "The Odyssey," "The Crucible," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." It tells a complicated story of racial and sexual violence and inequality in Depression-era, Jim Crow Alabama.

Until last year, the ninth graders in Duluth Public Schools' two high schools were required to read it in their English classes. "Huck Finn" was on 11th graders' required reading list. The district hasn't yet decided on its replacement.

Many teachers taught "Mockingbird" for well over a decade. They say it teaches important lessons of empathy and integrity. They say students cite it more often than any other novel as the best book they read in high school. And that's why, they say, they're having such a hard time letting it go.

"Just two years ago, I have a kid who drives around with a Confederate flag on his truck who came to me and said, 'This is the first book I've ever read,'" said Stu Sorenson, who teaches ninth grade English at Duluth East High School. "And he said, 'That Tom Robinson, he got screwed over.'"

In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Tom Robinson, a black man, is falsely accused of raping a white woman. The story of Robinson's trial and their Alabama town's reaction to it is told through the eyes of Scout Finch, the young daughter of the white attorney defending Robinson in court. In the end, the town's all-white jury finds Robinson guilty. Not long after, he is shot — 17 times — killing him as he attempted to escape from prison.

Still from To Kill a Mockingbird
Still of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Sorenson said the book's message resonated with that student who came to him saying he'd never enjoyed reading before. "To me, and, I think, to all of us who have taught it," Sorenson said, "those are the moments and those are the kids that we're kind of fighting to keep this for."

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 77 percent of Duluth public school students last year were white. Sorenson's Duluth East English department colleague, Susan van Druten, said the book helps kids understand racism.

"There's this aspect of standing in someone else's shoes," she said.

And while structural racism and injustice lie at the book's core, the teachers said race isn't the only challenging, crucial topic "Mockingbird" helps them teach. The book also tackles themes like mental illness, poverty, gender roles and child abuse.

And, they said, it gets kids excited about reading, because it has an engaging storyline with an accessible character close to their age to lead them through it.

"To find one that parallels it is no easy task," said Duluth East ninth grade English teacher Kristin Warmanen.

But some teachers are excited about updating the curriculum with something new — something that hasn't been taught in high schools for the past half-century.

"My initial reaction was, 'Great!' We get to introduce something that could be fun and exciting for our students," said Brian Jungman, who teaches English at the district's other high school, Denfeld.

That's not to suggest that Jungman doesn't like "To Kill a Mockingbird." On the contrary. He has a poster of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation above his desk. But recently, he said, he's found himself struggling with the book, as a reader and as a teacher.

He said it's been a challenge to teach the book at a time when fatal shootings of African-American men have become all-too-common headlines. "And then, here's a book where that actually happens, and the people who allow it to happen just kind of go about their day," he said.

"[It] is kind of frustrating."

A polarizing, challenging classic

Author Harper Lee
Pulitzer Prize winner and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House Nov. 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird is an iconic book, widely considered a great American novel. Just last year, it was voted "America's best-loved novel" by readers who submitted more than 4 million votes in PBS's Great American Read. President Barack Obama quoted Atticus Finch in his farewell speech at the end of his presidency, calling Finch "one of the great characters in American fiction."

But teachers and scholars are divided when it comes to the question of whether the book is appropriate to teach to high school or middle school students.

"Like so many people, I love Harper Lee," said Alice Randall, a writer and African-American studies professor at Vanderbilt University.

After the Biloxi, Miss., school district removed the book from its eighth grade curriculum in 2017, a decision the district later reversed, Randall wrote an op-ed piece that explores the book's complexity. Students can handle tough conversations, she said. But teaching the novel effectively in the 21st century, she said, is "almost impossibly difficult."

She said she worries the book teaches black students that they can't get justice in a courtroom. And she points out that at the center of the book is a girl who lies about being raped.

"In this #MeToo moment, how do we teach well a book that argues that rape victims are not to be believed?" she asked.

But others say great literature isn't supposed to be comfortable, that it's supposed to elicit tough conversations.

"Works like these give students a chance to talk in a controlled environment with teachers and have those hard conversations without feeling that someone is pointing at them," said Jocelyn Chadwick, an English teacher and Harvard education professor.

Brian Jungman, 9th grade English teacher at Denfeld High School.
Brian Jungman, 9th grade English teacher at Denfeld High School, stands in front of a poster of Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, in the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

But that can be a delicate situation for teachers to manage, especially in a district like Duluth, where most of the faculty, staff and students are white. That's why teachers, administrators and community leaders have all called for more training for teachers to help students navigate these complex and sensitive topics.

"We want professional development for the teachers, so that conversations about race and racism and social history around colonization get taught in the classrooms," said Audrey Devine Eller, a sociology professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth who also chairs the Duluth NAACP's education committee.

The Duluth NAACP did not call for the removal of "Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" last year. But chapter president Stephan Witherspoon told the Duluth News Tribune the move was long overdue, citing the novels' "hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years."

Devine Eller said that, among the NAACP's local leadership, there's a wide variety of opinions on the books. But she said they are all united in the need for more training, particularly when it comes to teaching books that have racial slurs in them.

Students can feel targeted very quickly, she said, "if teachers aren't very confident in how they're teaching it and have the professional development to lead those conversations carefully."

Duluth school administrators say they plan to provide support to teachers that will help them handle difficult conversations in class while making all students feel safe. It's an area, Duluth Public Schools curriculum director Gail Netland said, educators around the country need to improve in.

Replacing 'Mockingbird'

Not only is "Mockingbird" a challenge to teach, it's also not an easy book to replace.

Duluth English teachers brainstormed a list of nearly 100 possible replacements, but no single book stood out from the rest — and there were a lot of requirements they wanted the book to meet.

Administrators wanted a book by an author from a "diverse perspective" — specifically, someone who was African-American, Latino or Native American. The other authors of required books on the ninth grade curriculum are William Shakespeare and Homer. It's not until junior year that Duluth students read a book by a person of color, when "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" is on the required list.

Teachers wanted a book by female author; Harper Lee was the only woman on the required reading list.

They also wanted an engaging, ninth grade-appropriate book, something not too long that would scare away reluctant readers, that also tackled big themes.

Teachers found it tough to find a single book that met all those criteria. Several English teachers suggested keeping "Mockingbird" and adding a book by an African-American author.

"I started reading a lot of books," Warmanen said. "But then a deal-breaker would come up," like a violent scene or racist language.

The process to select a replacement for "Mockingbird" was delayed after the curriculum director who made the initial decision to pull the books left for another job. The list was narrowed down to three late in the fall of 2018.

School district officials asked some parents, students and community members to review the finalists. The NAACP's Devine Eller was among them. She said she was given six weeks to review the three books and offer her input.

"The decision was made very quickly after the feedback went in," she said.

Netland, the district's new curriculum director, said she sought outside feedback to make sure the district didn't miss any potential red flags in the books they were considering.

"I was intentionally screening, looking for potential concerns that we might not have thought of, to make sure that we're not adopting something that there could be a problem in the future," she said.

Eventually, the school district's curriculum staff and teachers settled on "Spirit Car," a Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir by Minnesota author Diane Wilson. The book explores her family's Native American heritage and the trauma they suffered during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Wilson said she was shocked to hear her book had replaced "To Kill a Mockingbird" on the Duluth schools' required reading list. But she said "Spirit Car" can help Duluth students understand a difficult part of Minnesota history.

"When you have in your own state history that reflects ethnic cleansing, which is what the removal of the Dakota people really was," she said, students can benefit from a book that explores the consequences to the generations that followed.

Wilson also said it's important to broaden the canon of books that students read to include more diverse authors.

"The value of sharing stories from perspectives, from communities that have been historically oppressed, and encouraging those stories to be told, that's the power of writing, that's the power of literature," she said. "It's to make long-term change."

Duluth ninth graders will read Wilson's book this spring. Netland said she'll be meeting with teachers this week to start the process of building a "Spirit Car" unit about identity.

"As we were talking, that was really a topic that teachers and staff had energy around. It was something people can relate to," she said. "Ninth graders are really looking to explore their own identities. Who are they, where do they come from, what goes into who I am, what stories do I let be a part of who I am?"

Some teachers said they have concerns about the book's ability to hold the attention of freshmen readers in the same way that "Mockingbird" did. But they said they will do the best job they can to teach the new book. Sorenson said the student teacher he works with is already calculating how many times students would have to walk down the hallway to equal the distance the Dakota were forced to march.

Teachers plan to meet after the school year to discuss what worked and what didn't, to improve how they teach the book next year.

Still, teachers like Kristin Warmanen say it is tough to get excited about any new book that's taking the place of one she adores.

"It's just been a really tough year," she acknowledged. "But we are professionals and we're going to do the best job we can to teach this book, and to make sure students are engaged and get everything out of it that they can."

Assigned reading lists for Duluth Public Schools

Note: 12th graders don't have a required reading list as they can choose from several different English classes.

9th Grade

"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare
"The Odyssey" by Homer
"Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past" by Diane Wilson

10th Grade

"Antigone" by Sophocles
"Julius Ceasar" by William Shakespeare
"Lord of the Flies" by William Golding

11th Grade

Note: Classes must pick three of the following books to read

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by Frederick Douglass

When "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was removed from the 11th grade reading list, the district came up with this list of finalists to replace it.

"There There" by Tommy Orange
"Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
"The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates" by Wes Moore and Tavis Smiley
"The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative" by Thomas King
"The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story" by David Treuer