Posted on November 1, 2007

‘Huckleberry Finn’ Lesson Plan Prompts an Uproar

Jessay Brown, Star-Telegram (Fort Worth), October 31, 2007

A coalition of Metroplex activists is calling for Birdville schools to ban the classic 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after a student said he was offended by a lesson plan centered on how to deal with the book’s use of the n-word.

Students in an English class at Richland High School took part in an exercise Thursday intended to help them prepare to read the book, about a mischievous white boy who travels down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a runaway slave. Jim is referred to as the n-word throughout the book.

Junior Ibrahim Mohamed, 17, the only black student in the class, objected to the lesson, which consisted of having students talk about hurtful statements and what context can do to a word’s meaning. The Birdville school district provided the Word Magic lesson plan to the Star-Telegram.

Although the district’s officials have repeatedly apologized to Mohamed and his parents, members of several African American and Islamic groups have formed the Coalition to Stop the N-Word in response to the Birdville incident, said Thomas Muhammad, spokesman for the coalition and chairman of the Dallas chapter of the National Black United Front, an advocacy organization.

They plan to meet with Birdville Superintendent Stephen Waddell today. The family and the coalition have five demands of the superintendent, including elimination of the novel from the Birdville curriculum, Muhammad said.

The group also wants the teacher to perform community outreach work with the black and Muslim communities and apologize in writing. The school district should apologize in writing and conduct sensitivity training on understanding blacks and Muslims, Muhammad said.

The teacher, whom district officials declined to name, has apologized to the student and family, said Mark Thomas, Birdville district spokesman. The teacher has stopped teaching the book this semester. The lesson plan has been scrapped for now, but other Birdville teachers are continuing to teach the novel this year, Thomas said.

Huck Finn has been taught in the district for many years. As part of district curriculum revisions during the summer, a racially diverse team of Birdville teachers worked with a consultant to develop an introductory lesson plan for the novel, said Ellen Bell, Birdville’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The lesson plan was called Word Magic (How To Deal With The Word “N——” When Reading Huck Finn.) Students were given several words and phrases, including the n-word, and told to discuss how context can change the meaning of words.

“The purpose was to talk to students about language that could be hurtful and see it in the historical context in which it was written,” Bell said. “The teacher was trying to be sensitive to students’ feelings and not to be hurtful.”

Mohamed told the teacher he was offended by the racial slur.

His mother, Tunya Mohamed, said he was “badgered” by the teacher after she denied his request to remove the word from the chalkboard or replace it with “n-word,” and continued to say the word during the class.

Ibrahim Mohamed complained to campus officials after class.

Mohamed, who transferred to Richland High from Trinity High School in Euless in the fall after his family moved to the North Richland Hills, is considering leaving the school and quitting the junior varsity football team, his mother said. “He is really upset, and he is very, very depressed.”

No formal complaints or grievances have been filed. School district officials declined to say whether disciplinary action had been taken against the teacher.