Canadian authors applaud school board’s approach to teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Some Canadian authors believe students should be able to see their identities reflected in the stories they learn about in English class, and they applauded an Ontario school board for making that a priority.

The Peel District School Board said it wants to expose students to texts from diverse authors on race and injustice in an effort to update its English curriculum, and it has mandated “To Kill A Mockingbird” only be taught through an “anti-oppression lens.”

The board sent a memo in June to English department heads that said if teachers choose to use Harper Lee’s classic novel in their lesson plans this school year, it should be done with a critical eye.

“English texts need to be selected based on the diversity of ethnicity and race, faith, family structure, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, ability, and mental health,” said the memo. ”The intentional choices made around text selection and their uses are fundamental in creating culturally responsive learning spaces.”

African-Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke said texts taught to students about racism should have main characters of colour because that validates and centralizes their experiences of oppression.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” was written by a white woman and published in 1960. It explores racial inequality in a small Alabama town through the trial of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman as told from the perspective of his white lawyer’s family.

“I’m glad that (the school board) is looking beyond a white American text, with white characters as the heroes, to consider other kinds of texts, with people of colour as the heroes, to teach anti-racism,” Clarke wrote in an email.

Poleen Grewal, the school board’s associate director of instructional and equity support services, sent the memo and said the novel will be taught to explore the impact of how racism is portrayed by a white author and how that leaves out the perspectives of those who have actually experienced racism.

She said while all texts should be looked at critically, she believes ”To Kill a Mockingbird” requires deeper analysis.

“It would be de-constructing the use of the n-word, talking about how the story is portrayed written by a white author and a white narrator,” said Grewal. “We could be comparing it with another book that it similar, but is written from the perspective of a black author.”

Grewal said the school board has been including texts in the English curriculum from black authors so students can learn from a “realistic” and authentic experiences. She said the debate around “To Kill a Mockingbird” had been brought up last school from that initiative.

“There’s a lot of discourse around banning books versus let’s think about how we’re teaching them,” said Grewal.

Last October, ”To Kill a Mockingbird” was removed from a junior-high reading list, before its teaching was quickly resumed, in a Mississippi school district over complaints about the book’s language, including racial slurs.

Grewal said that banning the book was discussed, but ultimately the school board decided against it.

Chinese-Canadian writer Wayson Choy said he agrees that “To Kill a Mockingbird” should be taught with a more critical approach and in context, since racism is discussed differently today than it was more than 50 years ago.

“Teachers have a responsibility of supplying a prehistory based on when the book was written and what the period of the book deals with, so when students read it, it wouldn’t be out of context to hear those words used,” he said. “I don’t think a book should ever be taught out of context as if the book were its own history.”

Choy, who taught English — including “To Kill a Mockingbird” — during the 1960s and 1970s at Humber College, said students should be able to see their identities reflected in the stories they learn about, otherwise they would feel like outsiders.

“If you only have middle-aged white folks in all the literature, it isn’t relevant to a whole bunch of people,” said Choy. “Literature doesn’t make sense unless what you read tells you something about yourself.”

Clarke said while he doesn’t think “To Kill a Mockingbird” should be banned, he believes there are many more stories that do a better job of telling stories about racism.

The school board says seven classrooms will be teaching the novel through an anti-oppression framework this school year.

Clarke said Canadian students should be exposed to stories with characters of colour that don’t have to “rely on good-intentioned white people to protect them from white-supremacist racism” and don’t just take place in the U.S.

“Maybe it’s time to give Canadian authors’ views on racism a chance to enlighten Canadian students.”

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