‘N’ word, to read or not to read?

7 Nov

I’m going to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee with my tenth grade students for the first time in four years. I personally love the book, but stopped reading whole class novels believing other methods to be ‘best practice’. But author Kelly Gallagher, in his latest book, Readicide, convinced me that it is an important part of cultural literacy for students to be exposed to the traditional common classic texts. He specifically mentioned reading Mockingbird in tenth grade.

When I taught the book last, I’d simply explain to my students that the book had language I’d never use but would go ahead and read aloud. I believe that I should read it as it is written. I think that fifteen year olds are mature enough to realize the difference between me saying the word and the fictional and historical context in which it is written. But I must recognize that the last time I taught Mockingbird, I was dealing with a mostly racially homogeneous group of Anglo-Saxon maritime Canadians. Now I have a bit more racially diverse group.

When I announced that we would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my black students piped up and said, “That’s a racist book.” Instead of dealing with it at that time, I simply looked directly at him and repeated myself. But, now that I’m about to begin with it, I’m wondering how to approach the racist language. I realize the content that deals with racism is far more complex than the use of the ‘N’ word, but I’m looking forward to the discussion that will open up. But, the use of the ‘N’ word has me a bit troubled. I don’t think my short, we’re going to read it “because that is how the author wrote it fifty years ago” speech will do.

I found a great article dealing with the use of the word, “No Defense for Webster’s ‘N’ Word“, that I think I’ll read with my students. Then I plan on having a conversation where I hope my students will tell me how we should deal with the word when we encounter it in the text while reading aloud. Does that sound like a good plan?

That’s exactly what I’m going to do, but I’d still like to know what blogdom thinks. ‘N’ word, to read (aloud) or not to read? That’s my question to you.


5 Responses to “‘N’ word, to read or not to read?”

  1. Lori November 7, 2010 at 9:02 PM #

    Food for thought Debbie. 🙂 This from the elementary teacher who likes to skip the word ‘stupid’ in children’s books. But lately I have been saying it and talking about it. I know the “N” word carries much more weight but I feel it is a good opportunity to bring in some history. You can do it!!

  2. Leanne November 7, 2010 at 9:14 PM #

    This comment from another elementary teacher who generally skips the word “stupid” in kids’ books, both to my children and my students. But now that I think about it, I think that’s a cop out. I think your plan to read this article and open up the topic of what to do with your students is excellent! I honestly think your discussion of how to deal with the “N” word may be more memorable and beneficial to them that actually reading the novel! Please let us know how it goes and what you decide.

    By the way, I have to say that I read To Kill a Mockingbird in Grade 10, and I loved it. It was the first “classic” novel I had read (aside from Anne of Green Gables, of course) and began a love of classic literature that continues to this day. I think you may have even inspired me to read it again! Wish I could be a fly on the wall in your classes!

  3. Michael G. November 7, 2010 at 9:57 PM #

    Perhaps you could start off by doing a short profile on the writer and some comments on the book by well known African-American personalities such as Oprah Winfrey. That way, your students can see that this book has enormous importance in tackling racism and has inspired people who have been tormented by racism.

  4. Angela November 8, 2010 at 6:42 AM #

    I think it’s a slippery slope when we take it upon ourselves to try to edit uncomfortable pieces of literary work. I think it’s wonderful that you’re dealing with it head on. Hopefully it will open up a discussion on how a word can provoke such negative feelings. We as a society always find a way to replace one word with another….”gay” is the new “n” word. It is so bothersome to hear kids and adults use “that’s so gay” in reference to anything not mainstream. Good for you to be willing to deal with the difficult things and not take the easy way out. Keep us updated on how it goes.


  1. 2010 in Review | wildmudturtle writes - January 2, 2011

    […] ‘N’ word, to read or not to read? November 2010 4 comments […]

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