Biloxi has sent a letter home to students. It plans to restore “To Kill A Mockingbird” to the eighth-grade classroom and begin teaching it again in class, starting Monday.
Students do, however, have to ask to participate, by returning a permission slip signed by a parent to their school and their English Language Arts teacher by Friday.
On Biloxi Junior High School letterhead, Principal Scott Powell wrote on Oct. 23 to eighth-grade parents: “As has been stated before, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is not a required read for 8th Grade ELA (English Language Arts) students.
“However, 8th Grade ELA teachers will offer the opportunity for interested students to participate in an in-depth book study of the novel during regularly scheduled classes as well as the optional after school sessions ...”
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The intensive book study will not take place everyday, the letter states, “but we plan to finish the novel before Christmas break.”
The principal goes on to tell parents that the students will write an argumentative essay and discuss comparisons of characters and events between the book and the 1960s film.
Students who don’t want to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” will be given another assignment that keeps them on track for class and state assessments. They will just have a different topic for their argumentative essay.
Biloxi School District became the focus of a national public outcry earlier this month when it pulled “To Kill A Mockingbird” from the classroom lesson plan because a parent and grandparent complained it made their child uncomfortable. News and commentary came to the defense of the book, a popular favorite and Pultizer Prize winner that takes on racism from the perspective of a 10-year-old in a Southern town in the 1930s.
The parents complaining, however, told the Biloxi School Board that the teacher allowed students to laugh at the use of the N-word in the text and discussions and disagreed with the need for such a racist word in a classroom setting for 13- to 14-year-olds.
The school district’s policy stated that complaints like those could be satisfied by giving the child of a complaining parent alternative reading material, so that one or two parents don’t determine what a whole class would read and study. But at the time, the school pulled the book anyway and offered it on an as-requested basis in an after-school setting.
Biloxi received letters as diverse as one from an 11th-grade Advanced Placement language class in Tenafly, New Jersey, that urged Biloxi to continue teaching the book and one from the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.
The 11th-graders sent a letter of protest appealing to each Biloxi School Board member not to remove Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” from the classroom. They recalled their experiences reading the book in eighth grade at Tenafly and implored Biloxi to immediately put it back in the classroom for this school year.
“These derogatory and offensive words are powerful; they make people uncomfortable because they are painful to hear. However, it is critical that discrimination, offensive language and racism are discussed in the classroom,” the students wrote. “We need a book like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to illustrate the extreme prejudice that existed in our country’s past and to help start a conversation about the issues that sadly still exist today.”
The Mark Twain House sent an offer of help teaching racially controversial material. That organization has expertise, resources and experience helping educators and other entities teach difficult subject matter.
“Great literature makes us uncomfortable. It changes how we think, forcing us to analyze our established points of view,” the letter stated. “Guiding students through that process is, as you know, a key element of middle-school literary studies. We have nothing but sympathy for the difficult situation you find yourself in, fielding complaints from parents who may not understand the book being taught or why its author uses certain words. We also know the difficulty of navigating uncomfortable texts when students are not able to handle the material maturely and appropriately. These books should build empathy, and not be used to single out classmates.”
An author and Biloxi book shop teamed up to give away 100 of the books to Biloxi students and the Biloxi Public Library issued a Facebook notice that it would order extra copies and make sure “Mockingbird” stays on the shelves. And the ACLU of Mississippi responded to Biloxi saying it opposes censorship in all forms.