A classic American novel taught for years to junior high students in Lawrence won’t become a mandatory text for eighth-graders now attending middle school.
Earlier this month, principals in the Lawrence school district’s four middle schools rejected a plan that would have designated Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as the “core” text for eighth-grade language arts, as had been proposed by middle school teachers and endorsed by the district’s curriculum specialist for language arts.
While the book will remain available for use by language arts teachers, it will not be required reading for all eighth-graders — unless all teachers at that level opt to use it in their mandatory English classes.
Principals rejected the “Tom Sawyer” designation, citing concerns from some students and parents — particularly blacks and American Indians — regarding the book’s subject matter, language and themes. The book includes references to slavery and use of the “n-word,” and a prominent villain in the book is “Injun Joe,” a “half-breed” American Indian.
“I don’t think any of us are questioning the quality of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ as a book,” said Myron Melton, principal at West Middle School. “We’re just looking at it through a different lens … one looking at equity in the district.
“We were getting a little bit uncomfortable as to whether this was a core book that appeals to a broad range of students across the district.”
Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer, said that the decision came amid the district’s ongoing efforts to educate and help district personnel deal with racial issues through a program known as “Courageous Conversations.”
The issue, she said: Many students of color in the district find themselves reading books and other materials that portray their ethnic groups during specific periods and in specific roles — such as blacks as slaves or in dealing with the civil rights movement. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” for example, is a book used in 11th grade.
Middle school principals have decided that “Tom Sawyer” doesn’t fit within the broad context identified for determining a core text for eighth-graders.
“It has not been removed as a book,” Bodensteiner said. “It doesn’t mean that ‘Tom Sawyer’ couldn’t and shouldn’t be included. It’s just a matter of whether we need to broaden the literature so that there is a respect for all of our students throughout history.”
But Kelly Barker, who teaches American history at Southwest Middle School, remains upset that the book did not achieve “core” status. He’s required, by the state, to teach his students about U.S. history from 1787 — when the Constitution was passed — until 1899.
Students reading “Tom Sawyer” in English then can come to history class and learn how the themes of slavery, U.S. expansion, border wars and other topics fit in with Twain’s book, published in 1876. Barker has been taking advantage of such synergies for all 15 years he’s been in the district.
It’s not easy, of course, but Barker figures students should be exposed to some of the transgressions of the past so that they can better understand what followed, what exists and what is to come.
“How do you explain to kids that what happened in 2008 — with Barack Obama being elected — is truly, completely and utterly historic if they can’t see what our society was in the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, and what it continued to be through the 1880s, ’90s, Plessy v. Ferguson, ‘separate but equal’ and all that?” he said. “It is so difficult sometimes for our kids to wrap their heads around this.”
Susan Harris, a Twain scholar and Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas University, understands how principals might object to “Tom Sawyer” as a core text. The racial implication of Injun Joe, after all, is that “he’s a thief and a bad person because he’s Indian.”
But Harris applauds teachers such as Barker and others who approach the themes, issues and language of the book with more than the literal meanings of the words and descriptions alone.
“This needs to be taught, but it needs — as any historical novel needs — to be historicized,” Harris said. “Rather than the teacher setting out all the lessons, the teacher needs to be able to elicit student discomfort, and then find ways of helping the students understand where that discomfort comes from.
“With young students, we can’t whitewash history for them. It’s refusing to admit the ugliness in your history. If you refuse to admit ugliness in your history, then you’re doomed to repeat it.”
Principals understand why the majority of English teachers favor using “Tom Sawyer” as a core text, aside from its subject matter: The book includes “rich vocabulary” and other literary devices — alliteration, similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, personification and on down the line — that make it “rich in (addressing) the state standards” in place for eighth-graders, said Will Fernandez, principal at South Middle School.
“That’s why they use it,” Fernandez said. “It’s all in there.”
And that’s why this week Fernandez is reading the book again, for the first time since “way back in the day,” during his own junior high years.
Next month, he and his fellow principals will gather for a meeting with their schools’ English teachers, to discuss the topic and try to identify an alternative story or letter or other writing to serve as a core text for eighth grade.
English teachers at his school already are preparing a presentation for why “Tom Sawyer” works for them. Now, having already heard from students and parents who object to the story, Fernandez wants to see for himself.
“It wasn’t offensive for me then,” he said, of junior high. “But this is 2011. I’ll read it and see if there’s any reason to take offense, from an adult standpoint.”