A somewhat recent controversial issue among high school English classes has resurfaced as NUSD has benched To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic book which had previously been taught for years. Many have defended this novel for its discussions of class tensions as well as racial divisions, while others believe the novel’s profanity and characterizations to be deeply problematic and uncomfortable for our ever-changing student body at Novato High.
This discussion has reached far past the controversy of TKAM (To Kill a Mockingbird) as it has opened new discussion on the efficacy and relevance of many other books included in the English Language Arts curriculum.
Most notably, Scott MacLeod, the journalism teacher at San Marin, recently wrote an article titled, “In defense of To Kill A Mockingbird” in which he discusses both perspectives from the “white savior” characterization of the main character, Atticus, to the beauty and power of the story as a whole. MacLeod also touches on an extremely important conversation surrounding the experiences of those who read sensitive content. He notes, “pain is a very different thing from discomfort.”
The difference between the two emotions is drastic as it makes the difference between a book, which may be up for benching, and a profound novel which invites relevant class conversations.
Christina Corsetti, Novato High English Teacher and English Department Chair, explained her views on the topic.
“Literature and content is meant to elicit a response, but it should be worked through sensitively,” she said.
At its core, this is a discussion of the value which a novel holds in relation to a teacher’s essential standards. There are a wide array of new books being introduced at Novato High by teachers, all novels which prove similar points to the classics while presenting an author with a voice and characters for students to identify with. Students who can see themselves reflected in the literature they are immersed in are arguably more empowered to learn.
“I’m interested in having students that want to recognize that the change of our culture is reflected in our literature and there’s so many good things to read,” said English teacher Mike Taber.
By introducing new authors, teachers are able to hit all essential standards while avoiding themes which might not be as relevant or necessary today, all while clearly portraying the purpose of a book.
With this in mind, it is important to note that the classics are not going anywhere. Many of these books have had a profound impact on our society and have continued to evoke healthy conversations across the globe. All books which are “benched” or “paused” are still available for check out in the library, and approved for teachers to include in their curriculum.
“As long as a book is board approved, teachers have the autonomy to use whatever book they deem appropriate as long as they are addressing our essential standards,” said Corsetti.
This brings us back to the conversation of what is relevant and what is not. A key example of a novel’s changing relevance can be found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This book has been a part of the 9th grade English curriculum in some teachers’ classrooms for years, although this is subject to change in the near future. Romeo and Juliet is specifically being paused because of concerns surrounding themes of suicide within the ending of the book. Novato High is still mourning the loss of two students due to suicide, so it only made sense to pause the novel.
“Most teachers are pausing on Shakespeare at both the 9th and 10th grade levels. This was made in response to recent suicides at NHS – we are still grappling with loss as a community and it will be a process,” said Corsetti.
Alongside the pausing of certain books, the English Department is also piloting new books which will include more relevant and engaging material for students across the district, such as The Girl with The Louding Voice, which will be taught by NHS English Teacher, Nicole Slavin.
With this understanding, English teacher Laura Roberts simplifies the controversy surrounding TKAM.
“Teenagers do not need a teacher to show them the importance of the racial discrimination thread. That component is strong enough for any reader to understand,” she said.
Perhaps this says something within itself about the relevance of overly-sensitive themes of classics in the classroom. Although it is the responsibility of schools to pause books in response to district wide conversations, it is also the students’ responsibility to continue to express when books make them uncomfortable or cause them pain. Teachers and students must continue to work together in order to create a safe school environment, while also sparking relevant discussions on touchy topics which impact our community.