Mark Twain’s classic novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will no longer be taught at Lyons Township High School, which will drop the book from its curriculum after the school year ends.
Presently, “Huck Finn” is assigned reading in Honors English I at LTHS, but the District 204 Board of Education approved dropping the novel as part of curriculum changes approved Feb. 19.
At the same meeting the school board approved an equity statement for LTHS pledging to “continue to promote practices, systems and processes that advance equity, access and inclusivity.”
In recent years, many schools have dropped “Huck Finn,” because of racist language and stereotypes in the novel, including frequent use (more than 200 times) of the N-word.
“’Huck Finn’ has been a book that we’ve been debating what to do with for quite a while,” said Scott Eggerding the director of curriculum and instruction at LTHS, who is a former English teacher and department chairman at the school. “Our African-American students have expressed a lot of concern about the use of the N-word in the book.”
Karen Raino, the chairwoman of the Language Arts Division at LTHS, said that the decision to drop “Huck Finn” from the reading list was unanimously endorsed by the schools English teachers.
“The book has been controversial for years,” Raino said, adding that some criticize the novel for promoting a “white savior” theme.
“Who doesn’t love Mark Twain? He’s an amazing satirist,” Raino said. “But several of our families through the years had raised concerns, especially families of students of color, had raised concerns about the ways their students have felt in the classroom about the teaching of that text.
Raino said “Huck Finn” has been in the curriculum for around 30 some years, longer than any other book in any other English class.
“Why teach a book that may alienate some students when there are so many other books that can teach the same skills?” Raino asked.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in 1884 and is written in the vernacular of pre-Civil War Missouri. The book has long been controversial with some early reviewers describing the book as trash. It was banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 right after it was published.
In Honors English I “Huck Finn” will be replaced by a book that students choose from a list about the theme of social justice, a theme that is already explored in the class.
In another move to modernize and diversify the curriculum, the novel “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead will replace “Frankenstein” next year in Accelerated English I. “The Nickel Boys” won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Whitehead is a Black author.
LTHS next year will also offer a new senior elective English class, Multicultural American Literature, which will feature writings from non-white authors including, among others, James Baldwin and Alice Walker.
“That won’t have any white male authors in it; it will be more people of color,” Eggerding said.
In high school English classes, the emphasis in recent years has changed from teaching specific books and authors to teaching skills.
“The shift through Common Core, and through phonics and whole language is that students need to be able to read and discern meaning, and it really doesn’t matter what they read as long they’re are reading books that have rich content, have good vocabulary and the teacher should be focusing on the reading skills,” Eggerding said.
RBHS tweaks English curriculum
The trend towards more diverse curriculum and reading assignments is not limited to LTHS. Riverside-Brookfield High is changing its year-long Honors Shakespeare class next year to a semester long class open to all students. A new honors world literature class will replace to year-long Shakespeare offering.
“The typical high school student is not jazzed about taking a year-long Shakespeare class,” RBHS Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction Kylie Lindquist told the RBHS school board last fall when the course changes were approved.
RBHS is also changing its western civilization classes to world history.
“It’s more culturally relevant to our students,” Lindquist told the school board. “It allows students to explore more of the world. It gives students a well-rounded experience that western civilization simply doesn’t offer.”
Eggerding noted that the curriculum is always changing and some other classic works, including “Death of a Salesman” and “The Scarlet Letter,” have been dropped from other courses in recent years.
But many classic works, including those written by what some derisively refer to as “dead white men,” will still be read at LTHS. The Honors English I curriculum will continue to include Homer’s “Odyssey” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“We still teach a lot of dead white guys,” Eggerding said. “We got a whole lot more dead white guys than we have people of color.”