Teachers Challenge Duluth Schools on Censoring ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Huck Finn’

Duluth Public Schools’ decision to remove two classic American novels from the district’s curriculum has been ripped nationally. But now the de facto classroom censorship of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” finally seems to have struck a nerve locally, as well. The process by which administrators’ reached their controversial decision has been questioned and criticized by a group of concerned citizens and educators in the Duluth News Tribune.

The Arrowhead Reading Council, a professional organization that counts several current and former Duluth district teachers as members, sent a letter to School Board members and administration asking for evidence that three different policies were followed.

“There is a process by which materials that are challenged are examined at building level and that always includes teachers,” said Deborah Sauer, a council member and former Congdon Park Elementary teacher who retired in 2015. “If there had been complaints across the years, then those people complaining should have been directed to the procedure.”

The Duluth teachers union has also raised concerns over the decision to prevent high school students from discussing the literary masterworks due to their racially charged language. One of the key objections is that administrators failed to follow their own rules for parents or others who challenge the curriculum.

The council is most concerned with a policy that deals with “challenged instructional resources.” It says that if a resident of the district requests the removal or restriction of a resource for anyone other than the child in his or her care, a form must be filled out through the school the child attends and a process begins. That includes the formation of a three-teacher committee by the school’s principal, who reviews the material and makes a decision. The policy also allows for an appeal to the district curriculum director. The reading council says it doesn’t appear that was followed in this case.

[Duluth Superintendent Bill] Gronseth said none of the people who have complained about the books over time cited that specific policy or went through that process. He said members of the district’s education equity group have brought up the language in the books, and so have members of the local chapter of the NAACP, noting that neither group took an official position on removing the books from the curriculum.

Individual teachers are also speaking up.

Kristin Warmanen, a ninth-grade English teacher at East, said most English teachers at both high schools were “blindsided” by what they perceive as a “rushed” decision, as complaints made to them were rare. She said the decision was disrespectful of teachers, who are doing the work of teaching the books and interacting with kids.

“I’ve never taught a novel that engages students more,” she said of “Mockingbird,” noting President Barack Obama has cited passages of it in speeches. “We really would have liked to have the chance to work out a compromise with administration that would protect students’ dignity.”

She said teachers prepare students for the language and describe the historical context of the novels. Those uncomfortable with the books are offered other options, she said.

The unilateral action to remove the books clearly undermines the protections that are supposed to be in place to guard against censorship and book bans.  But school administrators and board members continue to be utterly tone deaf to critics and concerns, offering only to include teachers in the process of selecting which authors will replace Lee and Twain.