Sunday, March 29, 2009

Should Huck Finn Be Taught to High School Students?

Yesterday I presented at the annual Reading the World Conference on multicultural children’s literature at USF in San Francisco. My Co-Presenters were Craig and Derrick from Reach and Teach, a progressive education company that sells my book, The Call to Shakabaz, and provides teachers with materials to inspire young people to take action for peace, justice, and social change. After our presentation, we were free to do as we pleased and I attended a workshop entitled “Courageous Conversations: Does Huck Finn Belong in Your Classroom?” presented by Willie Adams of the Head Royce School in Oakland. Mr. Adams is a Black educator, a dean at Head Royce, and a filmmaker.

The title of this workshop grabbed me not just because of the provocative question it asks, but because my own daughter Yael hated Huck Finn with such a passion that she began skipping English class to avoid discussing the book when in high school, and finally sparked a significant change in her own classroom in the way the teacher and class approached the book after she came clean with the teacher about her issues with Huck Finn. Huck is a problem.

In 2004, a Black English teacher at Head Royce told Mr. Adams that he was planning to get a group of Black students together to talk about their experience studying this book at a predominantly Anglo/Euro upscale private school and he invited Mr. Adams to film this discussion. They filmed the students, then the teachers, then others, all talking about the dilemma of teaching Huck Finn, which is a required text in the California Framework, is considered a great American novel, appears on the AP English Exam, and is fixed in the cannon of great literature. The value of Huck Finn as a literary work was not the question. The question was really, “Are high school students, sophomores or juniors (usually it is taught junior year with American Literature), really prepared to handle this book?” And also, “Are teachers prepared to teach this book to young people of all races?”

After we viewed a segment of the film, the participants at yesterday’s workshop jumped into a heated discussion. Some of the things that were said follow:
Students need to feel safe in a classroom to have a real discussion about Huck Finn and the students at Head Royce in the film clearly did not feel safe in their classrooms.
High school students are definitely not mature enough to handle this difficult book.
But will they be at a disadvantage in college because they haven’t read it? It’s part of the cannon, it’s referred to by many other authors and is the basis for so many other significant pieces of writing. They will have to confront these issues about slavery, racism, and our country’s history eventually, why delay?
It’s hard enough teaching Twain’s use of satire, without dealing with the strong emotions that surface around the portrayal of Jim in this book and the constant use of the N-word (like on every page). A contemporary adolescent will not get that this book was a condemnation of the institution of slavery. It doesn’t read that way in 2009. It reads as the opposite.
Is it fair to put Black students or students of color on the spot like this with a text like this? It’s 400 pages long, for goodness sake. That’s a lot of book about slavery and racism for teenagers to stomach.
An Anglo/Euro teacher from Tennessee said, “If you think this is hard in California, imagine teaching this book to a class of Black and white students in Tennessee?”
A Black librarian from Baltimore said, “We underestimate our students. I think they can and should be able to read this book, but teachers must create a safe place for real discussion about the issues it raises. If this is done, then this book can have a strong transformative power to help heal race relations.”

How much should we protect our children from the truth? When are they old enough to begin conversations of substance about race? As a parent of half-Black children (and half-Black boys), I remember the day I talked to my boys about the fact that the friendly neighborhood police officer, like the one they saw on Sesame Street, was not necessarily their friend too. It broke my heart. But I fear for their safety.

If you have an interest in following some of the discussion in the wide world about Huck Finn, just google the words “should huck finn be taught.” Click here to read a recent article about it in the L.A. Times.

Mr. Adams ended the workshop by telling us that Huck Finn is no longer taught in the Oakland Schools, despite the fact that it is in the California Framework of required reading; and since 2004 (when he made his film), it is no longer taught at Head Royce. What did they substitute in it’s stead at Head Royce? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – also a very difficult book to read. The debate rages on.

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