Christian Curriculum

Educators Debate Usefulness of Classic Literature in the Classroom: ‘Teacher Abandonment’

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Teachers at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., voted in February to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from required reading material for ninth graders, while allowing teachers to teach the novel if they choose.

Harper Lee’s classic novel is one of readers’ picks for the best book of the past 125 years, according to a recent New York Times report. But its sensitive plot and depiction of black Americans have turned off some educators, who now advocate somewhat more contemporary class criteria.

“Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white saviour’ character and his perception of the black experience,” the American Library Association said in its explainer why “Mockingbird made its Top Ten Most Challenged List of Books in 2020.

Schools in Burbank, Calif., also temporarily banned Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay,” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” by Mildred D. Taylor in 2020. after racist concerns from parents.

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James E. Fury, a Wisconsin public school teacher for seven years and an advocate for the continued teaching of novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” called Lee’s and others’ book banning movement a this one lost.

Kill a mockingbird
(JB Lippincott & Co.)

“Well, getting rid of the classics is getting rid of the culture,” Fury told Fox News Digital. “I think it’s misguided in a number of ways. You know, in the West we have a common culture of these works and they all build on each other, and they refer to each other, and they make alluding to each other. You know, the intertextuality of these works, if you read much more contemporary, you miss how a work is a commentary on a previous work.

Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 book “A Lesson Before You Die,” Fury said as an example, is a commentary on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” putting themes from Lee’s novel, racism, and l injustice,” in a more realistic light.”

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“But if you hadn’t read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ you wouldn’t understand what this author is doing,” Fury continued.

The push to teach contemporary literature at YA, he mused,is really a kind of abandonment on the part of teachers who currently find themselves in a position where the first educators were in some way beholden to a way of teaching reading, which did not yield great results.

Too many teachers, he said, “feel the need to loosen up the books or the rigor of the books in order to meet them where they are or try to tap into their personal experiences in order to hook them. to…reading the books and getting them to stick with the class.”

An empty classroom.

An empty classroom.
(Stock)

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Others welcome the change. Cicely Lewis, creator of the Read Woke Challenge, has been a teacher or educator for over 18 years. She started as a language arts teacher, before teaching Spanish, and is now a librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Georgia, after winning Librarian of the Year in 2020.

Read Woke, which Lewis launched in 2017, encourages students to read books that “challenge a social norm, give voice to the voiceless, provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised, seek to challenge the status quo” or “have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group,” according to her official website. She added in a conversation with Fox News Digital that the books are intended to “amplify the voices of the global majority and present various protagonist characters”. Some of the most popular books on the list include “Dear Martin, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Girl”, “The Book of Unknown Americans”, and “The Hatred You Give”.

Lewis said that in his experience as a language arts teacher, kids “don’t read” the classics. Assigning contemporary readings, she said, is a way to “re-energize” students otherwise disenchanted with reading. She suggested that the books on the Read Woke lists aren’t meant to replace the classics, but to supplement them.

“And so you can have a complete story because a book like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ you have a black character who’s written by a white author, and his character is very one-dimensional,” she said. “It’s not really developed. And there are a lot of tropes when we have African Americans portrayed in stories that aren’t written by African Americans.”

“I believe in having classics in the classroom, using them, but they don’t have to be the central text,” Lewis added. “So as a language teacher I would use a book like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and then I would have some extra text, which would be like a modern day story, something updated, just a little snippet of that to try to hook the kids in. And what I’m suggesting is why can’t this book be the central text and then maybe the classic text would be the supplemental text?”

The title page of an ancient book of Shakespeare's plays

The title page of an ancient book of Shakespeare’s plays
(Stock)

Daniel Buck, who taught in public and private schools for six years, including English literature and language from grades 6 to 12, took a different approach, saying that in his experience his students don’t had no problem engaging with classic literature and suggested that the blame is on the teacher if they find young adults falling asleep at their desks.

“Every year my students rank Shakespeare as the favorite author we’ve read,” Buck told Fox News Digital. “Classic literature is truly timeless, touching on universal aspects of human nature, society and the world at large. One girl told me that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the first book that really ‘got it’ Abusive parents, teenage love, street violence, bluster, fickle young men — if kids have trouble “identifying” with Shakespeare, it’s the teacher’s fault, not the bard’s.”

Emma Johnson has been teaching for seven years, first at a public school in rural West Texas for two years, and now at a small international Christian school in Moscow, Russia, where she is head of the history department and has contributed to the drafting of the curriculum. for his previous schools. She, too, called classical literature an “extremely important” part of the curriculum.

“Classic literature is extremely important to the education of our students,” she told Fox News Digital. “Shakespeare, Orwell, Twain, Harper Lee, all the classics should be encouraged and read in class.”

Like Buck, Johnson said it’s the job of teachers to make sure students are engaged with the classic text.

“I find students who read classic literature with a teacher who loves classic literature, they enjoy it too and are able to engage in literature,” she said. “It is so often remarked that students don’t like classic literature because they can’t connect with the material, but the stories are so timeless that it’s impossible for students not to find something to they can connect in the stories.”

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Lewis and some progressive voices have also noted attempts by conservatives to challenge the books, recently calling for an attempt to ban LGBTQ books.

“And so when we take those books out, I think we’re telling the kids that they don’t matter,” she told Fox News. “And I also think we…we also do a disservice to kids who aren’t members of the LGBTQ community because these books give them the opportunity to learn more about this community and how they can become an ally and how they can support And so it really saddens me to know that this is something happening in 2022 and happening in the United States”

“Conservatives are pointing the finger at progressives for banning Seuss, while turning around and doing the same once in power,” Johnson noted, referring to attempts to ban Dr. Seuss’ children’s books on images criticized as racist.

“There’s a widespread undoing instinct right now in the culture on both sides of things,” Fury agreed.