Monday, July 16, 2007

Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context

This is a really interesting piece on the hurtfulness of words and a school's positive response to this possibility (not all were affected in the same way). No one should ever be marginalized or alienating in an instructional setting and it should be remembered that particular words carry with them a certain potency that need to be acknowledged—as they can affect existing relations and the instructional process itself. I wonder if this discovery and agreement on things is more the exception or the rule? -Angela

Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007; A01

Montgomery County educators are replacing a lesson that called for students to read about and discuss a racial epithet against African Americans as a precursor to reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" in ninth-grade English classes.

The lesson, called "Questionable Words," focused on two reading selections, an essay and a poem, each dealing with the epithet and how the author was hurt by its use. Curriculum officials reexamined the lesson after an African American student told the school board in the fall that the class had upset her.

"What we heard from enough community members and some teachers is that it's sensitive, it's emotionally charged," said Betsy Brown, curriculum director for Montgomery schools. "And if we have a lesson that could be misused and cause real hurt to a few or to a whole classroom of kids, then maybe we need to change it."

The complaint from Maya Jean-Baptiste, a 15-year-old at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, marks a departure from the usual protest of racially insensitive language in classroom literature. Most often, someone seeks to ban a book; Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a perennial target. In this case, the student objected to an introductory lesson whose purpose was to prepare her for the racist language in the book.

Maya said she walked into English class one day in the fall to find the desks arranged in a semicircle. The teacher passed out copies of an essay called "The Meaning of a Word," by the African American writer Gloria Naylor, which recounted the first time the author heard a young classmate use the "N-word." Maya's class was preparing to read Harper Lee's coming-of-age saga.

The teacher, who is white, read aloud from the essay and asked students to mark the word each time it appeared. She imitated stereotypical African American body language and elocution, Maya told board members, "moving her neck and pointing her finger."

"She has a different style of teaching things," Maya said, "and we knew she was a little over the top on some lessons. But this was not a lesson to be over the top about."

An official of the county NAACP accompanied Maya to a school board meeting in November and asked that the board "immediately abstain" from teaching the lesson.

School system officials would not say whether the teacher was reprimanded.

The Montgomery school system's decision comes at a time of heightened attention to racial insensitivity, largely after talk-show host Don Imus made racist and sexist comments about a college women's basketball team in a broadcast in the spring. On Monday in Detroit, NAACP leaders had a mock funeral for the "N-word" and other racial epithets, symbolically retiring them from use. Delegates to the group's annual convention marched through downtown with a ceremonial pine coffin and a bouquet of artificial black roses, according to the Associated Press.

Each year brings fresh attempts by parents and civic groups to challenge racially insensitive literature in the public schools. The most common target, education leaders say, is not Naylor's provocative essay, which isn't widely taught in high schools, or even Lee's novel, but rather "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Both books are standard fare in high school English classes. Twain's book, peppered with epithets, is considered more inflammatory.

National Cathedral School, an Episcopal institution for girls in the District, made national headlines 12 years ago when it pulled the Twain book from its shelves. The book was reintroduced in an elective, upper-grade course and is widely taught in the school today. More than a decade earlier, a black administrator at Fairfax County's Mark Twain Intermediate School led a nationally publicized effort to remove the book. It failed.

Education scholars recommend that teachers prepare students for books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" with historical images and writings that explain the time and place in which the works are set. This can -- and should -- be done without dwelling on racial slurs or reading inflammatory material aloud, said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, a Twain scholar and former Harvard University professor who works in the education division of Discovery Communications.

"All of those speeches, those texts, those novels are placed into a contextual period, and students have to understand the period before reading the text," Chadwick said in a telephone interview. Undue focus on epithets, she said in a subsequent e-mail, "unnecessarily stresses students."

Approaches to racially charged literature vary among local school systems.

D.C. parents may opt not to have their children read Lee's book, which is taught after a preparatory lesson on Jim Crow, civil rights and the justice system, according to John White, a spokesman for the school system. "Huckleberry Finn" is not taught in the school system. Arlington students read "Mockingbird" and "Huckleberry Finn," prefaced by lessons on epithets and "why the words are no longer used," said Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for the school system.

The Twain book is taught, although not required, in Fairfax high schools. Instructional materials call for students to "examine the cultural and political impact of language" in books of that era.

Montgomery students read "Mockingbird" two years before "Huckleberry Finn." In the past three years, they have prepared for Lee's book by reading Naylor's essay and the poem "Incident," by Harlem Renaissance figure Countee Cullen.

After Maya's complaint, Montgomery curriculum officials surveyed teachers and students on the lesson. Some students "expressed, in hindsight, some discomfort and some concerns" about the selections, Brown said, but most deemed it worthwhile. She noted that the lesson, as written, did not call for teachers or students to read aloud Naylor's essay. No complaints arose at other schools.

"It's about the word," Brown said, "but it's not actually going through the essay and reading the word aloud again and again."

An alternative lesson, to be taught in the fall, replaces the essay and the poem with a piece by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called "What's in a Name," which tells of the disparaging treatment of his father by a white man, who refers to all black men as "George."

Students also will study a pair of Library of Congress photographs depicting the Jim Crow era: a girl drinking at a segregated fountain and a man entering the "colored-only" section of a theater.

It's "an easier lesson to use," Brown said, and it accomplishes the same goal of preparing students for the book they are about to read.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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