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'To Kill a Mockingbird' substitute irks Duluth teachers

DULUTH — 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 faculty backlash.

Penned by Harper Lee and Mark Twain, respectively, the classic books had been required reading for Duluth's high school students until last year. The district announced plans in February 2018 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 High School 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 Duluth East High School, 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 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."

The NAACP issued a subsequent statement clarifying that the organization itself did not request the removal of the books from the curriculum.

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.

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. ... 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 director of curriculum and instruction left to take another job.

Gail Netland took over the position in July, and came in to find a list of over 100 books were put forward as candidates.

The final decision was made in December.

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

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. "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."

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.

Spirit Car Letter by on Scribd

"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.

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."

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."