District Pulls Huck Finn; Begins Broader Text Evaluation Process

Annette Ungermann, News Editor

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been informally removed from the junior English curriculum following a district-wide meeting on October 8. The staff development day, held at Acalanes High School, included a 2-hour meeting for all English teachers.  The meeting was facilitated by Associate Superintendent of Instruction Aida Glimme and Associate Superintendent of Human Resources, Amy McNamara.

Principal John Walker stated that while there has been “no official action to remove a novel from our reading list,” there is an effort underway within the district to “review what’s on that list to make sure it’s up-to-date, to make sure that it’s meeting the needs of our students in terms of curriculum and diversity and rigor.”

Despite the district’s goal of a holistic review of all tests, according to Campolindo English teachers who attended the meeting, the central focus was on the famously controversial text, the plot of which outlines the titular character’s odyssey through the deep American South accompanied by a former slave. 

The book’s controversy lies in its characterization of African Americans, and its use of a racial slur (the “n-word”) 219 times within its pages.

District administrators reportedly expressed concern with the book’s placement anywhere in the English curriculum, especially as a “core” reading requirement.  McNamara and   Glimme focused on the text’s impact on minority students in particular and noted that it was a frequent trigger for parent and student complaints.

English teacher Jake Donahoe confirmed that the presentation covered “the way in which our students of color are struggling in certain courses at their respective schools, looking at their grades specifically in English,” and segued conversation into a central question, ” ‘Are some of the ideas that we have impacting their ability to connect to our curriculum?’ “

Sophomore and Black Student Union club president Amia Bonilla noted that before reading books in English class, she “didn’t know prior to reading the books [that they contained the n-word],” adding that when she heard her teacher say it out loud, it made her “feel really uncomfortable” in the classroom.

“I feel like, as one of many white students at Campo, my opinion isn’t necessarily relevant,” said senior Claire Sebree. “I can’t speak to what it feels like to be an African American student and have that read in the classroom.”

Despite this, Sebree did admit the difficulty in finding where to draw the line. “If you start taking out any books that have any derogatory implications towards any group, you’re gonna miss out on a lot of good literature because sometime’s that’s necessary in furthering the story.” 

Though McNamara and Glimme emphasized that the district does not intend to fully “ban” any books, English teacher Matt Ridenour said that recent events on campus, which include a last minute decision to omit the text from lesson plans, show the district “kind of, in all intents and purposes, banning the book.”

Donahoe confirmed that shortly after the October 8 meeting, Campolindo “definitely has teachers who were intending to teach it this year and had to scramble” to “find other opportunities with books.”

Ridenour finished teaching the novel prior to the district meeting and subsequent lesson plan changes.

Despite Campolindo’s core requirement of the controversial novel, Ridenour confirmed that within the English department, there is “definitely not a consensus” when it comes to the merits of teaching the novel, adding that some teacher believe “that through good discussion and historical background, [teachers] can point out the fact that there are racist parts of this book.”

According to students, English teacher Chris McNevin has opted out of teaching the supposed “core” requirement in past years, instead teaching the novel’s central themes in a lecture independent from the physical text.

Donahoe recognized a key aspect of this ongoing discussion on how to approach controversial curriculum, asking, “How do we value a book over a student? If I know that a student is uncomfortable and feels in yet another way that they are separate from their peers, how do I come back to that with ‘But it’s a really good book,’ right? And so that’s where we try to find the grey area, where we talk about what it is to value all aspects of it.”

Current reevaluation attempts to address this issue. A committee comprised of district administrators as well as English teachers from all Acalanes campuses will begin to look over all novels taught at varying grade levels throughout the district, with efforts to align reading lists and create greater consistency.

The district “will look to make sure the list reflects a broad range of authors, including contemporary authors, including non-Western authors, including authors of color, ensuring that we don’t have the list that we’ve had from the 1980s just because that’s the list we’ve always had,” said Walker, confirming the districtwide need to “consistently review [the list] and make sure that it reflects the type of texts we want our students exposed to.”

Bonilla agreed that the district has room for improvement in terms of other novels in the curriculum, not just Huck Finn, citing To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men as two other novels that state the n-word. Bonilla supports the removal of Huck Finn. “I don’t think that the book saying the n-word over 200 times is okay and should be an example [within curriclum],” said Bonilla.

Walker stated that reevaluation of English curriculum will go beyond the novel. “As the Campolindo principal, I have a very strong interest in that our students– as they work through grade 9, 10, 11, 12 –that they are exposed to a broad range of literature that will set them up well for success in college. And that really necessitates a consistent review of our reading list, to make sure that it’s meeting our goals.”

This process is an integral part of “a conscious realization that [educators] need to include the impact of these books on our students and not just our intent to provide you certain knowledge,” said Donahoe. “I think at its core, it’s this idea that we as teachers think that we can transcend all of that. That we’re such good teachers that we can move around the radical impact of certain words– because we’re gonna talk about it, and we’re gonna process it. And there might be truth in that. But that’s not the only truth, and I think that what we’re seeing particularly on this campus is that realization that we’re not doing a very good job in helping our students of color feel safe.”