General Session #1: “Our Family Gathering: A Conversation with Students and Educators”

Based on four articles in the November 2016 English Journal exploring the efficacy and ethics of high school teachers’ teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the macrocosmic question of whether they should teach not only this novel but also other sensitive texts, this session will explore with our audience and participants the topic of our teaching sensitive texts—a topic of impact and import elementary-college. Participants of the session will include the editors of English Journal, Julie and David Gorlewski, and the authors of the articles—Leigh Patel, Ebony Thomas, Peter Smagorinsky, and me. Also, representatives from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Mark Twain House—Peggy O’Brien, Michael LoMonico, and James Golden—will apprise us of how they do and support our work. In addition, and most unique, students and their teachers, with earnest support of administrators, have read The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice (1623), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and will attend in person and via prerecorded segments. Ms. Julia Torres will be with us in-person; Ms Lisa Loomis will be prerecorded. And Ms. Siegmund, with colleagues from the other schools in the VA consortium, will be in person via live-stream. Students and teachers have been working on this project since November 2016.

Schools participating:

  1. Capital Repertory Magnet School—Hartford, CT—Teacher: Lisa Loomis
  2. The Commonwealth Governor’s School—Virginia—Teacher: Winona Siegmund with other teachers and students from the consortium.
  3. Denver Center for International Studies at Montebello—Denver, CO—Teacher: Julia Torres


We also provided students with a series of questions for them to consider as they read, queries based on the concerns and issues discussed in the four articles, based on literature, and based on my work with students around the country


The Questions (Students):

1. How do you view and experience the texts you read in class? In other words, do you view and experience them as:

  • Relevant to you in your life now? I
  • lllustrative of aspects of yourself or anyone you know or have met?
  • Instructive now and even after you leave your class, as examples of how to act, react, inquire?
  • Useful in informing you about how to deal with conflict, difference, identity, coming of age?


2. Many of the texts you read in your English classes, even though some are fiction, explore social, cultural, gender, religious, racial, geographical themes. For example, in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, he uses the setting of 17th-century Salem and the Puritans within a specific historical moment to comment on what is happening in the United States during the McCarthy era in the 1950s (McCarthyism). Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz, relies on a real image Morrison finds of a woman whose jealous lover stabs her in a night club. Based on this image and the historical event of the Great Migration of many southern African Americans—some former slaves, others, their descendants—Morrison builds a narrative exploring love, jealousy, loss, aspirations, emotional and sexual repression—all set within the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation of 1920s New York.

  •  Some of these texts can be uncomfortable reading. Would you rather read such texts in your class with your teacher, or would you rather not read any texts that have uncomfortable topics?


3. Do you think you and your teacher should be allowed and encouraged to read together challenged or sensitive texts?

4. What do you think would happen if you and your teacher were allowed only to read non-controversial texts—happy texts, texts with no conflict, texts with no resemblance to real-life (verisimilitude)?

5. What would you tell other teachers in the NCTE convention audience about your perspective that would/could help them in their classes when they may be unsure, or even frightened, to teach such texts?

6. Finally, what advice would you offer to help teachers better prepare students for these kinds of texts? For example, with students I always set up the historical period, define the origins of controversial terms, provide primary source documents and images to share with students more of the period—its voice, its look, its personality.

7. Do you have any questions or other thoughts to share?