Edmonton trustee encourages teachers to view N-word as 'teachable moment'

An Edmonton trustee says To Kill a Mockingbird — and other high school literature containing racial slurs — should be viewed as "a teachable moment" that can ease discomfort among black students in the classroom.

"Teachers should look at that as a teachable moment and have a discussion," Ray Martin told CBC News on Friday.

His comment followed a meeting with members of the Safety Committee Coalition to discuss teaching approaches to novels with the N-word which don't marginalize black students. "The kids that would feel uncomfortable, they probably wouldn't be if it was put in that context," Martin said.

Youth advocate Ahmed Abdulkadir says he's heard from black students in Edmonton, Sherwood Park and St. Albert who felt alienated during lessons about novels that include racial slurs. In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the N-word shows up 48 times.

Abdulkadir and other advocates are encouraging educators to teach the history behind the N-word, introduce related discussions on racism and educate all students on the harmful effects of the word.

Martin said he agrees teachers need to be aware of what's happening for students in the classroom when they study literature that contains racial slurs.

"We're not saying that they should ban these books," Martin said. "But it's clear when these words are in a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, that you put it in context of the times, and what it meant at the time, so that people are aware that it's not something we tolerate now."

Consult with students

Advocates have also suggested teachers first consult with black students if they are considering allowing a racial slur to be read aloud or used during group discussion. But they emphasized teachers must make it clear that use of the word outside the classroom is hurtful and inappropriate. 

Abdulkadir said Friday's meeting with Martin and another board official was productive.

"They were eager to work with us and find solutions to the problems that we have raised," he said, adding the aim is to create a safe space for all youth.

In an email Friday, Alberta Education press secretary Lindsay Harvey said while the province does not currently have guidelines around teaching literature with racial slurs, the possibility of addressing that during the current curriculum review "could certainly take place."

"The public is invited to share their ideas for the curriculum rewrite at any point in the six-year process and we encourage them to do so," she wrote.

Abdulkadir said they will meet again with staff from the board's diversity and Indigenous section. He described racism and low completion rates for high school as a "shared issue" faced by both communities.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca      @andreahuncar