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‘The Hate U Give’ Novel Sparks Controversy in English Class

EHS English teacher Shannon Hart with a copy of the novel “The Hate U Give.” (Photo by Alex Glenzer / Falcon News)

The novel “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas has been the target of controversy across the nation for the way it depicts the shooting of a young, unarmed black man by a white police officer. This semester, backlash over teaching the book hit close to home during a unit on the novel in Elmira High School English teacher Shannon Hart’s ninth-grade classes.

The book was part of a larger civil rights unit for the English 1 classes, according to Hart. During the unit, students took a look at different speeches and other works, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Hart said they also covered people such as activists Rosa Parks, Malcom X and Cesar Chavez, and topics such as bus protests in the 1950s.

The class then went into modern-day civil rights issues and took a look at where the United States is today. That is where the book “The Hate U Give” came in.

Hart said the EHS English Department added the book to fit with one of the thematic units included in new curriculum adopted this year while providing a more modern-day viewpoint for high school students. The themes that the classes focused on were centered on activism, identity, loyalty and family, with a heavy focus on the modern issues surrounding race.

The book was met with positivity from students, Hart said. In an anonymous post-reading survey conducted by Hart in his classes, 80% of students rated the book a 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5 of how enjoyable it was, as well as saying they would recommend it to another student.

The survey also revealed that 73% of the students found the book somewhat relatable to teenagers today, 94% said the teacher was “fair and accurate” in presenting the “controversial topics brought up in the book,” and 86% said they “felt comfortable” sharing their views during class discussions.

“The majority have found it to be a good book. I’ve had a few kids say that they really identify with some of the characters in the story,” Hart said.

Despite that, there was a lot of negative feedback from adults in the community, especially on social media. Hart said he wasn’t actually fully aware of the responses because they were expressed online.

He explained that people perceived the book as promoting anti-police beliefs, the organization of Black Lives Matter, as well as some sexual content and language.

“The first complaints, and the majority of the complaints, dealt with what the parents ‘think’ the book is about,” Hart said. “Many had not read the book but were reacting to excerpts they had seen online. Lines from the book such as ‘F-the police’ upset people.”

He said the parents who had issues with the book did not fact-check or verify the content of the rest of the story, but if they had, “they would’ve seen that the main character feels uncomfortable with talk like that, and mostly disagrees with people who were violent towards the police.”

Hart said that while some people believe the story is an attack on the police, it isn’t.

“The main character’s uncle is a black police officer, and the discussions they have about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cops is a discussion we should all be having,” Hart said.

Hart said he was contacted by several people who do not have students in his class, with some offering their support.

“I’ve had as many people, just about, who are unhappy with me teaching the book as I’ve had with people supporting me teaching the book,” he said.

While Hart said he was not surprised by the level of response, he found it to be interesting. There have been objections to most of the books that have been taught during his 20-plus years at EHS, but never something this big.

Hart talked to each parent with a student in his class who contacted him personally about their concerns with the book. In those conversations, he said he tried to explain what the class was doing and what the book is really about. He said some parents didn’t get the same message from the book that he taught to the class.

“I find that most of the people are focusing in on one or two aspects of the book and not the book as a whole,” he said. “There are a lot of people that just don’t see the big picture.”

Students were given the option to opt out of some assignments for the unit. Hart said that only one student did so.

EHS Principal Rick Gardner said the book “was a great choice by Mr. Hart, and I hope he decides to teach it again in the future.”

While Hart said he might make some changes to the lessons, he does plan to teach the book again next year. One thing he would do differently is to not focus as much on a discussion around the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he saw it as an extension of the protests of the 1960s, but now he believes the topic is too controversial.

“It’s such a small part of the book, and I feel like it has taken over the conversation this year,” Hart said. “That’s something I would try to avoid next year.”

Superintendent Gary Carpenter said he is in support of the use of the book because of its relevance and how it encourages critical thinking in the students.

“It allows our students to come up with their own perspective and thoughts, and share them in a safe environment,” he said.

Gardner added that he was particularly struck by the themes around family and their dynamics. While the story is from a perspective most of the students are unfamiliar with, he said, “the message and themes are universal.”

“I believe it is healthy to occasionally see and discuss the world through the lens of someone that has a different life experience,” Gardner said.

Student Responses

In the anonymous post-reading survey that Hart assigned, students responded to the question, “Should this book be taught again?” Posted below are some of the students’ responses. Falcon News has decided to publish them as they were written in the survey, without corrections.

“this book was kind of controversial, there were a good amount of people pretty upset about it, but it has a good message so it could be taught again yes.”

“i think this book should be taught again because i dont think people understand that this can happen to anyone so we should be able to read it without parents getting mad about it because we should learn about this stuff. it is a great book.”

“[The teacher] did a good job teaching this book. However this book is extremely inappropriate. F the police should never be stated in a book that it being taught in school, not even to mention the swear words.”

“I think it gives a good new perspective and is very good. Lots of language but i think the book in itself is a good lesson to be taught.”

“Yes this book should be taught again. With all the stuff that is going on in the world this book is a great representation of teenagers today. But i think we shouldn’t have so much censorship, the things in this book were incredibly accurate and censoring these topics can make teens think it’s not ok to be a teenager. If parents are concerned with this book than maybe they should have more conversations with their teen, not censorship.”

“It was a good book other people should learn about it but also learn more about how hard cops jobs are first so they get an idea before the read it.”

“I personally would not read it again because of the level of controversy.”

“I think that is was a some what contorversial topic and that maybe people aren’t mature enough yet for the heavieness of this book and the topics disscussed around the book. But overall was a good book and i personally did not mind talking about.”

“I enjoyed this book and the characters in it. I felt like the book wasn’t relevent to me, but it is a nice way to show perspective in another direction.”

“My personal thoughts on the book is overall it was a good book. There is a lot of cussing though. I know the topic of the book does not make a lot of people happy because a lot of people have very one sided and strong opinions on the Black Lives Matter movements.”

“This book should not be taught in schools for many reasons. One being that if teachers feel the need to skip over parts of the book because they think we aren’t mature enough to handle it then we shouldn’t be reading the book at all.”

“i think this this book taught me absolutely nothing and i just waited three mouths reading it i think we should be learning about stuff in gonna use in life and not are teachers opinion. no this book should not be taught again. we should focus more on actual English and not BLM.”

“I believe that this book should definitely be taught again. This book was eye opening on this subject, I saw stuff on tv but never really understood exactly the impact of what was happening until I read this book.”

“I do not think this book should be taught in schools at all. Frankly i think that it is inappropriate, biased and full of foul language. It sends an anti police message which I find disgusting seeing that these people risk their lives every day, these people have families who worry every day on whether their loved ones will come home and it is just disrespectful to the and their family’s to teach a book that is so one sided. Any book that constantly says “fuck the police ” or “burn those pigs” is disgusting and sends a message that all cops are racist and shoot black people for no reason when more officers are killed each year by criminals than black people but those statistics were not talked about. When you have to skip pages, and bleep out many words on every page, that should be a good clue that it isn’t appropriate. This book made fun of white people and all sorts of assumptions about white people, we are all the same, stuff like this just furthers the divide that this country already has.”

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