'To Kill a Mockingbird' in the hot seat at WA school district

District committee criticizes the book's language and says the way it handles race issues is problematic.

Harper Lee's 1960 book "To Kill a Mockingbird"

A Mukilteo School District committee believes the way race is addressed in Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" is problematic. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

When To Kill a Mockingbird debuted in the midst of the civil rights movement, it was both beloved and criticized. The novel by Harper Lee, published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but was also banned from some schools because characters use racist language and the plot centers on an allegation of rape.

In recent years, school districts have been revisiting the use of To Kill a Mockingbird in the classroom, with a focus on equity for students and in the curriculum.

The Mukilteo School District recently approved removing the text as a required assignment for ninth graders. Under the change, the district retains the book as an option for teachers who still want to assign it. 

Three teachers at Kamiak High School made the request in the fall to remove Lee’s iconic novel from the required ninth grade curriculum, said Monica Chandler, the district’s director of curriculum and professional development, told Crosscut in an interview before the school board approved the proposal. The book will not be not banned, however, and teachers may still choose to assign the book in their classrooms.

The teachers’ objections to the book included criticism that Black characters are not fully realized and that the book romanticizes the idea of a “white savior.” 

The teachers also cited concerns that characters in the book frequently use the N-word while no character explains that the slur is derogatory, and that the word and the portrayal of Black characters cause harm to students of color.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, Verena Kuzmany, a teacher at Kamiak, questioned the “romanticization” of the book as a “cherished classic.”

“We need to examine carefully … whose collective memory we are upholding,” she said.

The district’s instructional materials committee agreed with the teachers about removing To Kill a Mockingbird from the ninth grade required reading list, but voted to allow teachers to continue to use it in their lesson plans.

That committee, made up of teachers and community members, approves all curricula in Mukilteo schools, assessing every textbook, including language arts, math, science and social studies. The criteria include grade appropriateness, how the material fits other textbooks and whether the textbook is free of ethnic, racial, gender or religious bias.

“It’s not about banning or censoring books,” Doug Baer, another Kamiak teacher, told the school board at the same meeting, adding that the novel will still be available in libraries throughout the district.

Baer said kids should not have to “endure embarrassing and offensive language” during class discussions of the book. Instead, students should be taught in environments that respect them, he said.

Thien Nguyen, a Mariner High School senior who represents students on the school board, said the district should also consult students on the matter.

“They have to sit in that classroom and read derogatory terms,” Nguyen said. “It’s hurtful and it’s harmful.” 

Chandler said several teachers did come to the book’s defense in front of the instructional materials committee, saying the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird still have relevance today and and the book can help students develop critical thinking. They said the district should consider additional training for teachers to navigate sensitive texts. 

The teachers’ request was the first time in 20 years that someone has proposed removing a text from the Mukilteo curriculum, Chandler said. The book was made required reading in 2016 as part of a curriculum adoption, and has been approved in the district since 1992.

Mukilteo isn’t alone in its efforts. School districts in Bellevue and throughout the country have also reconsidered Mockingbird as part of middle and high school curricula.

Their calls also echo writers in recent decades who have taken issue with what many fans believe is the moral of Mockingbird’s story, with the emphasis on identifying with Atticus and Scout as examples of how to be a good person living in a racist society.

“Many who defend Mockingbird as a choice for curriculum are imagining students emboldened by Atticus to ‘fight for right’ or inspired by Scout to be better than the society into which she is born,” wrote author Alice Randall in 2017 for NBC News. “But imagine instead that you are an African-American eighth-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read Mockingbird. Perhaps it reinforces your growing suspicion that you are unlikely to get a fair trial should you stand accused of something like Tom Robinson.”

The book’s popularity runs deep. Oprah Winfrey has called it her favorite novel. PBS viewers selected it as their top novel in the 2018 special The Great American Read.

The novel’s narrator, Scout, tells the story of a trial of a Black man falsely accused of rape and assault of a white woman — events that unveil the community’s racism, sexism and classism to Scout’s 6-year-old self. The events take place in the 1930s in a fictional Alabama town that was based on where the author grew up. But many readers have also lionized Scout’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, who represents Tom Robinson, the innocent man on trial, despite the blowback and legal injustice that Finch expects to come.

Since the 1960s, the book has faced challenges from inclusion in classrooms and libraries because of its language and subject matter. In 2019, the American Library Association listed it as No. 15 in its top 100 most banned and challenged books of the last decade

But some educators argue that a more effective way to approach the novel is to lean heavily into its controversies and complexities, explore issues of systemic racism and the Black characters’ lack of agency and voice, and question why characters with race and class privilege are centered.

Geoffrey Glover, an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in African American literature and 20th century American prose, believes that Mockingbird is worth teaching as a way to bring those exact criticisms and questions into the classroom.

“I do think that approaching the novel through its weaknesses is perhaps one of the most American things you can do when you're talking about a novel that deals with race,” Glover said. “Because I mean, in many ways, the complexities of the racial landscape in the United States are there because we haven't succeeded in dealing with these issues yet.” 

Glover suggests pairing To Kill a Mockingbird with texts by Black authors, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Ann Petry’s The Street, or more recent books, including The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or Monster by Walter Dean Myers.

“You could talk about it in terms of the contemporary post-George Floyd kind of moment that we're in right now,” he said.

However, he added, that's not always easy for teachers to do in K-12 school districts with the current political climate, where discussions of racism in America often have been politicized and demonized.

The organization Facing History and Ourselves, a group that develops resources to help teachers discuss racism, prejudice and religious intolerance in history and literature classes, provides a teacher’s guide on To Kill a Mockingbird for high school and middle school and offers educators a course on teaching it.

Dimitry Anselme, the organization’s executive program director for professional learning and support, said the group recognizes the controversies surrounding Lee’s book, but believes that teachers who choose it for the curriculum need to provide proper context to help students navigate it.

“If they decide to teach it, [they need to] think about it deeply, get professional training and use proper teaching strategies that will help kids navigate the complexities of the book,”  he said.

Anselme said the book is a product of its time — America in the 1950s and 1960s — when mainstream American discussions about race relations centered on individual responsibility, rather than recognizing and confronting institutional racism.

“In the middle of the American civil rights movement, Attitcus comes in as an inspiring figure for many Americans at the time. He gave them a roadmap of how to deal with racism on an individual level,” Anselme said.

Anselme said the theme of the book — about personal responsibility in pushing back against racism — is still relevant, which is why people still talk about the book 60 years after its publication, though perhaps the questions readers are asking about the book now are different.

“We increasingly hear that teachers are wrestling with their own identities,” Anselme said, particularly because most public school students in the U.S. are people of color, while the majority of U.S. teachers, are white, like Harper Lee and her narrator. “How do I teach this book that is respectful of students of color in the classroom? Am I teaching this book because I’m romanticizing it? How do I teach it so that it engages the kids?”

Updated with the Mukilteo School District's decision on the proposal made on Jan. 24.

About the Authors & Contributors

Venice Buhain

Venice Buhain

Venice Buhain writes about education with an equity lens. She previously worked for KING 5, The Seattle Globalist and TVW News.