Discomfort, Yes. Different Tests, Hell No.

Last month, my friend, Erika Sanzi, wrote a piece on her blog Good School Hunting. She raises several great points. I’ve re-posted it below.

Some kids are uncomfortable with reading To Kill a Mockingbird down in Biloxi, Mississippi. That’s a good thing. And an important part of the learning process, especially when it comes to understanding the uncomfortable truths around racial injustice in both the past and the present. 

Just this week, the Lieutenant Governor —and candidate for Governor—Ralph Northam (D) in Virginia demonstrated precisely why we must get uncomfortable (and then get loud) and the Washington Post’s editorial board was right to raise the alarm about what he had to say about school accountability and standards.

Mr. Northam claimed to believe in accountability but was utterly unable to explain what he means by the word. The state’s Standards of Learning (SOL), which establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do, aren’t working, he said, and should be tossed out. What would replace them? Astonishingly, after almost four years as lieutenant governor and a month away from the election, Mr. Northam had no answer.

The late Senator Kennedy and former President George W. Bush came together precisely to ensure that  every child, regardless of race, wealth, or zip code, was counted. And that their academic growth and achievement were measured. They wanted “no child left behind” and as imperfect as the law by that name may have been, it was grounded in the belief that low expectations are a form of bigotry.  Virginia is wrong to be moving in the opposite direction and so is every other state doing the same thing.

One of the essential ways that we protect ourselves from sliding backwards is by understanding and learning from our past. It is unfathomable that now, 25 years later, Biloxi, Mississippi’s school board has decided to pull ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from its 8th grade reading list. What—or who— are they so afraid of?

From the Associated Press:

The Sun Herald reports that Biloxi administrators pulled the novel from the 8th-grade curriculum this week. School board vice president Kenny Holloway says the district received complaints that some of the book’s language “makes people uncomfortable.”

And from The Sun Herald:

Sun Herald received a email from a concerned reader who said the decision was made “mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

The reader said, “I think it is one of the most disturbing examples of censorship I have ever heard, in that the themes in the story humanize all people regardless of their social status, education level, intellect, and of course, race. It would be difficult to find a time when it was more relevant than in days like these.”

Every Black person I know has been called the ‘N’ word and school board members are now concerned about how the use of the word in a historically accurate novel makes people feel? Atticus Finch is held up as the quintessential example of what activist Brittany Packnett said yesterday on a panel at the Black Male Educator Fellowship’s Inaugural Convening in Philadelphia:

“Neutrality is a sin in dangerous times.” –

And this is worse than neutrality. This is making a conscious decision to protect people from a discomfort than can and will never compare to the discomfort of being Black in America.

And the issue isn’t really ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’;  the danger of this action by the board lies in the reason they have provided for pulling the book mid-lesson: makes people uncomfortable.

Joanne Jacobs asks the perfect question: “I wonder what other books Biloxi will find to teach about racial injustice without making anyone uncomfortable.”

And Hawaii teacher Christina Torres adds this at her blog:

I’d like to be remembered as a teacher who made students think. I’d like to hope that, when the time comes, I more-often-than-not choose to be courageous enough to challenge my students (and myself) to be, do, and act better. I think most teachers want to enhance their students’ critical thinking skills.

And that doesn’t happen by focusing on comfort. It happens by focusing on the challenge, on shining a light onto those exact places of discomfort and fear so we can name them and talk about them. As runner and creator of Black Girls Run Ashley Hicks once said, “the blessing is outside of your comfort zone.”

We need to experience discomfort because we learn and grow from it. And hopefully that experience motivates us to speak up about a sitting Lieutenant Governor who wants to be Governor calling for lower academic expectations for certain kids. And it means not sitting by silently while a school board in Biloxi, Mississippi pulls a book because some people don’t like how it makes them feel.

I do have hope that change is coming and that the voices we need to push us in the right direction are growing and getting louder. The front page of the Philly Tribune’s Late Sunday Edition and its coverage of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice conference gives us reason to believe that neither the Biloxi school board nor the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia will have the last word.

(As I finished writing this, I was reminded of a group of Baltimore middle schoolers whose rendition of “Rise Up” went viral this week. In case you missed it here it is.)



Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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