Sensitive topic is cause for discussion
By Hannah Spranger, Co-Content Editor
Incorporating sensitive content into the English curriculum is an issue the department has been grappling with for years. There is a fine balance between pushing students to embrace tough conversations and introducing content that students may not have the emotional maturity to handle.
The high school English department has clear parameters for how teachers handle sensitive content, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
“We’re really clear on objectives and how the content ties to learning goals and making sure people feel safe in discussions,” English teacher John Rees said.
Recently, while reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Stephen Floyd’s American Literature class, the discussion about sensitive content was raised. The prevalence of the n-word in the novel sparked conversations and an opportunity to look at the word’s significance.
“We spent some time looking at the history of that word,” Floyd said. “We did a little background in preparation for the racially charged words that are in the text.”
The junior classes were presented with the choice of whether to say the n-word out loud in the context of the book.
“We had a long full-class discussion about whether we should be allowed to say [the n-word],” junior Ellie Jackson said. “The majority of our class chose to have it be the choice of the reader, as long as it was Mark Twain’s words.”
Teachers encouraged their students to ask themselves the author’s intentions behind the inclusion of content such as the n-word.
“You can read the word, but we talked about the context,” former English teacher and high school principal Susan Hanson said. “Why would they put that word in a play? What were they thinking? What was the reason? What did they try to do with the audience?”
Including sensitive content in literature classes is a powerful tool that can prompt difficult conversations and new ways of thinking for students.
“I believe that the 16-17-year-olds in the classroom are capable of some critical thinking about that word,” Floyd said. “There is, in our culture, a fairly broad gray area surrounding that word … It is not a word that I’m comfortable saying out loud even in that text. But a text is a text and a text always has a historical context.”
Some students support the lack of censorship of the word when reading historical literature in order to preserve the original meaning.
“I think it should be used in the context of the book,” junior Nathan Lavigueur said. “It’s a part of the book and it’s powerful inside of that, and it shouldn’t just be taken out.”
Others believe the replacement of the actual word is just as powerful.
“You can acknowledge that it’s in there without saying the word because certain things are just okay to say, [but] certain things aren’t,” senior Bella Crayton said. “You can use a substitute.”
When choosing material, teachers will often assess the maturity of their students.
“[We ask ourselves] if the students [are] going to be able to handle that content so they’re mature and don’t fixate on it,” Rees said.
Junior Isaiah Dziko felt that too much emphasis was placed on the conversation surrounding the n-word in his American Literature class.
“I think it’s just best if we address the sensitive topic, but it’s the only thing that we’ve talked about,” Dziko said. “We haven’t been talking about the book; the only thing that we’ve talked about is … the n-word.”
Sensitive content is often chosen with the intent of prompting conversations that are relevant to broad, current issues.
“The content is usually tied to important relevant issues such as racism and genderism,” Rees said. “Without the ability to talk about stuff, we can’t move forward. The discussion is necessary for a good education and democracy.”
Teaching sensitive content gives students the ability to grow and believe in their own ability to spark change.
“I think given the correct context, literature can open people’s eyes and make them think, ‘I can make this better. It doesn’t have to stay this way,’” Hanson said. “I think that’s why we sometimes read controversial things.”