Renfroe switches up classic book in eighth grade curriculum


“I don’t know if it will become a classic, that’s the question. It needs to become a universal requirement in an English class, that people have conversations about what’s going on and I think that’s really scary for a lot of school systems. I think that sometimes kids aren’t ready for that, and luckily in Decatur they are,” Coffin said.

As Kristen Karably walks around Renfroe Middle School she sees a growing amount of students glued to the inside of their books. She wonders what they could be reading that is so captivating and why it’s not currently taught in classrooms.

This past summer, Renfroe Middle School administrator, Kristen Karably made the decision to switch up a key book in the middle school curriculum. This switch was from the classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM),” to the more recently written book, “The Hate U Give (THUG).”

The unit that both books fall under has a common theme of taking a stand despite a conflict that makes it difficult for the main character to do so.

“Up until [2018] it was just a unit the teachers taught and I think people just [taught ‘TKAM’] because they had been doing it; it was out of routine,” Karably said.

Among the reasons for the book change was Karably’s observation that many students were reading “THUG” throughout the school last year.

“I was just curious, and I would stop them in the hallway and ask them about it because they were really into it in a way I haven’t seen other kids be into books,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get kids to read, so I thought it would be really nice if we could choose a book kids wanted to read anyway.”

The book switch was also compelling to Karably due to the author’s planned visit to Decatur and the movie coming out during September and October when the students would read the book.

“I suggested it over the summer to one of the teachers that had been here for a while and then to the new teachers who were coming on,” Karably said. “I asked them to read it and give me some feedback and they loved it but because of the content. Because it was a mature read, I was very concerned about potential issues.

Since Karably had this concern, before she moved forward she talked to Renfroe administrators to ask their opinion and found that they were in favor of the book change.  

Before moving on, because of the book’s harsh language and maturity level, Karably ensured parents had a say in whether their child would read “THUG” by distributing a permission slip. By signing the permission slip a parent indicated that they were willing to let their child read “THUG.” Those that didn’t return their signed permission slip would read “TKAM.”

“More parents and kids chose ‘The Hate U Give’ than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” Karably said.

“I’m glad that Harper Lee wrote that book because it made it so that other authors wanted to challenge that narrative, and to say well why don’t we hear from Calpurnia, why don’t we hear from Tom,” Coffin said.

For Karably, the decision to change a key book in the curriculum was relatively simple. She finds that “THUG” is more relatable to students than the traditional books that are often chosen.

“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a great book, but it’s not relatable to all students,” Karably said. “So it’s nice to have something that so many more kids can get into.”

Shelby Coffin, a first-year teacher at Decatur High School, previously taught eighth grade at Renfroe. Due to this, she is familiar with teaching “TKAM,” but having read “THUG,” views it is a better choice and would have supported the decision if still at Renfroe. Similar to Karably, she believes “THUG’s” ability to relate to more people makes it more impactful than “TKAM.”

Coffin has this belief due to the higher level of relatability and more informative perspective of “THUG.” “TKAM,” according to Coffin, was “written by a white privileged woman, and Harper Lee (the author) herself has spoken of this.”

Not only was Lee a privileged white woman, but she wrote from the perspective of a young white girl. Angie Thomas, the author of “THUG,” is an African-American woman writing about inequality from a young black girl’s perspective.

Since Coffin perceives perspective as such a crucial thing, at Renfroe she initiated a project in which students would switch the perspective “TKAM” was told into another character’s.

“I think it’s important that it’s a novel that teaches the way that a white woman would see the world at that time, but I also feel like it leaves a lot of children wondering why isn’t my story told; why aren’t there other perspectives being told at this time?” Coffin said.

In schools, Coffin believes that studying dialogue and the culture in which a book is written in is key, especially in “THUG.” According to Coffin, “THUG” exposes and embraces more of a specific culture than “TKAM” is able to.

“I think Angie Thomas has a much greater grasp on the way that race works in our culture today and the impact that a lot of racism has in this climate,Coffin said.

Though the school took into account “THUG’s” high maturity level, Coffin still worries about the degree of this level.

“It sort of requires teachers and parents to do a good job at having open conversations with kids, because there is hard language and it is a tragic story but it is very true, it’s very relevant,” Coffin said.

Coffin believes both of the books have the intention to shed light on history, however “THUG” does this is in a more appealing, perspective conscious way.

Daxton Pettus, a sophomore, has a similar viewpoint to Coffin. He feels better represented through “THUG” due to its personal message.

“As an African American, and an activist in the community, I think ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ did give a great perspective on the legal system and who it favored at the time, but ‘The Hate U Give’ gives a current and accurate perspective on the legal system nowadays,” Pettus said. “I like both books equally but as far as the message in both books, while similar, the message in ‘The Hate U Give’ was more personal and helped the readers empathize more.”

As the country changes, Coffin sees it as necessary that the books we read change as well. This means books will be put in place of classics if that are more prevalent in society. For the classics that do stay in place Coffin wishes for them to be read with “a greater critical eye.”

Before teaching at City Schools of Decatur Coffin taught in North Fulton County. Taking this into account, Coffin perceives that Decatur has done a greater job at incorporating a variety of authors into the curriculum.

“There were a lot of changes and efforts in making sure that whoever’s in your classroom is able to read about themselves, and we’re not just teaching about dead white guys,” Coffin said.

According to Coffin “some kids can still connect to the classics, but most of the classics are written by a very specific group of people. There aren’t very many women, there aren’t very many people of color, there aren’t many people of different classes.”

Coffin feels some classics are still in place because they’re viewed as safe.

“I think some people are afraid to have really tough conversations, but I think the fact that they’re teaching ‘The Hate U Give” is really brave and that’s really an amazing thing to do,” Coffin said. “But if a kid wants to read a classic, then I think that has its relevance too.”

Though Coffin would not mind if “TKAM” faded away a little, she does hope it is at the least talked about. Whether that’s mentioning it in literature and/or history class, or questioning “what are the challenges behind that book, why is this book controversial, why was this ever read?”

According to Coffin, it is still of importance to read some classics for the sake of having a greater understanding of history in relation to current events today.

“Then you don’t understand why people are angry and why Black Lives Matter is such a big deal, and why it’s an important movement, and why any of it is happening,” Coffin said. “So I think if you don’t know what happened before it’s like you’ve erased history.”

Contact the writer, Alexis Siegler, at [email protected]