Biloxi taught ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a grade earlier than other Coast schools

A young girl statue reads ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by author Harper Lee on July 13, 2015, in Monroeville, Ala. The American classic was pulled from the eighth-grade lesson plan at Biloxi schools after a complaint from a parent about the students’ response to the book’s use of racial language.
A young girl statue reads ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by author Harper Lee on July 13, 2015, in Monroeville, Ala. The American classic was pulled from the eighth-grade lesson plan at Biloxi schools after a complaint from a parent about the students’ response to the book’s use of racial language. AP file

Biloxi School District was teaching “To Kill A Mockingbird” this year in the eighth grade, at least one grade earlier than any of its neighboring school districts.

Schools in the other three Coast counties teach it — if it at all — in grades 9-11.

When Biloxi pulled the book from the lesson plan for all eighth-graders in the second nine-week term — after a parent complained it made her and child uncomfortable — the backlash was swift. It made national news. The outrage was about intellectual freedom and the need for children to be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable in order to grow. The book was pulled, even after the child of the complaint was given an alternative book to read.

The book is listed on Accelerated Reading Bookfinder as easy enough for a sixth-grader to read, but it’s recommended for grades 9-12 based on interest level.

Biloxi School District isn’t responding to Sun Herald questions and has said little about how it came to pull the book from class and required reading. It has since offered students a special class two days a week to study “Mockingbird.”

There’s no doubt the subject matter can make the reader uncomfortable at any age. And those defending “To Kill A Mockingbird,” an American classic, say that’s the whole point.

Accelerated Reading summarizes it this way: Two children witness the effects of racial prejudice, as their father courageously defends an innocent black man who has been accused of raping a white woman.

The book is narrated by a 10-year-old, so the language is simple, which makes it appealing to teach to a younger audience. But Common Core standards — which Mississippi and 42 other states use — list it as recommended for grades 9-10 and calls it an outstanding book for college-bound students.

Some reading lists have it at seventh-grade reading level, right up there with “Mary Poppins.”

But with the subject matter, some educators say, maturity level has to come into play when teaching “Mockingbird.”

While the average eighth-grade student is 13 or 14, they are still in middle school, so they haven’t made the transition mentality to high school and the new discipline required there, educators say.

Yolanda Williams, who complained on behalf of her daughter in the Biloxi eighth grade, said the children in the class were saying the N-word and laughing out loud. The N-word was in the supplemental reading material as well, Williams said.

“My daughter is 13. I don’t have to micro-manage, but she brought it to my attention” what was going on in the classroom, Williams said. “The laughing was enough.”

“If she had been comfortable in that class, she wouldn’t have brought this to me,” she said. “Eighth-graders and rape? They’re just not ready. That’s not content for them.

“College students can really dive into that, or maybe an honors class,” she said. “But rape and lies about rape, for eighth-grade readers, it would just go over their heads.”

Williams said he believes Biloxi should still offer “To Kill A Mockingbird,” keep it on a list of recommended reading, but make it optional, which appears to be what the school district did.

Picking books for class

Leslie Leyser is the English chair for Pass Christian School District, which teaches “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the ninth grade.

She agreed to talk about how her district selects novels, short stories and poetry for class study as long as it wasn’t compared to or misconstrued as criticism of anything Biloxi schools do.

“We get together every year and do a vertical alignment — taking the standards set out for each grade versus student maturity,” she said.

They are looking at what will meet very strict Common Core standards and still be age appropriate for the students in each grade — “something they can handle.” Then they look at novels and short stories and poetry that best fit those standards.

“The state doesn’t mandate what (reading material) to use to teach the standards,” Leyser said. “Ninth and 10th grade standards center on characterizations — how they change and help develop a theme,” she said. A student will learn to identify the author and narrator point of view.

In ninth grade in Pass Christian, they also teach Mississippi history and geography, which brings in the civil rights movement, she said, “and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ fits right in there. Context helps support the teaching.”

She said students need the context of the time period to understand “Mockingbird” and its racist language. They need the background knowledge.

“There are topics that are difficult to handle. If you don’t know the time period you might misconstrue,” she said.

So when approaching “Mockingbird,” she said, they instill some level of comfort up front, with the “expectation that we’ll discuss things that are at a high school level, and we’re going to be more mature about it. We won’t allow any of the students to be disrespectful.”

“We all come to the lesson from a different point of view, and when respectful, we understand each other’s differences.”

“I love it, personally,” Leyser said about the book. “I really think it fits our standards well. And being from the point of view of a young girl in the South, naive and innocent to the things going on around her, she comes at things in a certain way. She says, ‘I don’t see different kinds of folks. I just see folks.’”

Academic freedom

Ocean Springs Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter was an English major who sees the book not only as a Southern classic, but also as an American classic.

It’s taught in Ocean Springs in the 11th grade.

In her district, like many others on the Coast, teachers are given the freedom to choose what academic materials they want for class.

Coleman-Potter says “Mockingbird” is a standard for high school, like “The Great Gatsby,” another period piece.

She also points out that “To Kill A Mockingbird” is so well-known and remembered, in part, because people saw the Oscar-winning movie, which followed the book well and got across its themes.

Lea Bellon, Gulfport’s director of instructional programs, said their teachers choose what they want to teach. She calls it being given academic freedom to select books that meet the students’ needs.

“Teachers do plan together, and if they want a book, we would let them teach it,” Bellon said.

Gulfport teaches “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the ninth grade.

“Gulfport teaches it at the high school level,” she said. “Now in the ninth, but in the past, it was the 10th grade. The middle schools haven’t used it ... but teachers do have academic freedom.”

Which Coast schools teach ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and when

  • Pascagoula-Gautier School District: yes, 10th grade
  • Gulfport School District: yes, ninth grade currently; 10th grade previously
  • Biloxi: Previously eighth grade, currently unknown
  • Ocean Springs School District: yes, 11th
  • Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District: no
  • Pass Christian School District: yes, 9th
  • Jackson County School District: yes, ninth and 10th, depending on the school
  • Hancock County School District: yes, ninth
  • Moss Point School District: no
  • Long Beach School District: yes, ninth
  • Harrison County School District: The district doesn’t require it, but teachers have the option. The superintendent would not indicate which grades teach it, if any.