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Students read ‘controversial’ book

By Staff | Mar 29, 2011

USC English teacher Laura Johnson plans to continue using "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in her 11th-grade class.

United South Central School District 11th-grade literature students will soon begin reading an American classic novel some people consider controversial.

In fact, the book published in 1885 is the fourth most banned in schools.

Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been said to challenge authority and mocks religion. It’s also been criticized for trying to lead children astray.

But, some schools across the country have stopped using the book because of Twain’s use of one word — the “N” word. More than 200 times to be exact.

USC High School principal Kelly Schlaak says the district has used the novel as a “teaching tool” for several years.

“At the very start the teacher discusses right away the “N” word and what it means,” she says. “Our students realize use of the word in the book is important to understand where our country was at that time and how far we’ve come on racial issues since then.”

Twain’s book has always been a part of Laura Johnson’s curriculum during her 10 years as an English teacher at USC. In fact, Johnson also used it at Waterville before coming to USC.

“It’s not a racist book. The whole point Twain was trying to make is that racism is wrong and he tries to show that through use of language,” she says. “It has a powerful message.”

Johnson says Twain also uses the themes of friendship and adventure to take a historical look at that era, the 1800s.

Johnson admits that students at first are a little shocked when she discusses the “N” word and why it is used in the book.

“I explain the source of the word and what it means to different groups of people,” she says. “The students learn it is inappropriate to use the word. I have never had a student use it disrespectfully or misuse it.”

Kevin Grant, principal for the Blue Earth and Winnebago elementary schools, oversees curriculum for the Blue Earth Area School District.

Grant says the novel is not used in the classroom, but it is available for students at the high school library.

“I don’t think the teachers in the English Department have made a conscience effort not to use it. They just have different books they would rather use,” he says.

At Maple River High School, “Huck Finn” has been required reading for 11th-graders for several years.

“We certainly do use it, because of its importance. It’s a canon in American literature,” says English teacher Margaret Rengstorf.

Schools that have banned Twain’s novel will have an option soon.

An Alabama publishing company featured recently on the “60 Minutes” news program is offering a sanitized version. The “N” word is being replaced with “slave.”

Johnson says there are no plans to replace the original version.

She plans to show her class the “60 Minutes” segment to generate, what else, discussion.

“The students like to know what’s going on in the real world. They love that, talking about what is currently happening,” she says.