Incoming students at Santa Monica High School this summer are exploring issues around gun violence and strained race relations — even if they never see a TV segment or news article.
As stories of shootings spark tensions across the nation between different communities and demographic groups, local students are getting a fictional but realistic look at society through “How It Went Down,” a 2014 novel by Kekla Magoon.
The plot centers around the killing of a black teenager by a white shooter, providing a storyline that officials believe will serve as a launching pad for discussion on current events and social problems.
“Books are selected that will foster deep conversation when the students return to school as part of classroom lessons,” Santa Monica-Malibu school district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker said. “The topic of this book is relevant to conversations happening now throughout the country.”
Each year, teachers from each site meet to decide on summer reading books. The Samohi committee included members of the English, humanities and freshman seminar departments. This year’s book was approved by then-principal Eva Mayoral, who recently resigned to be closer to family.
The committee aims to pick texts that are “accessible enough for independent reading but rich enough to delve into deeply as the year begins,” English department chair Jennifer Pust said.
Students and parents are invited to participate on the committee, whose members read three finalists and discuss the merits and challenges of each before submitting a recommendation for approval.
“How It Went Down” was unanimously approved as a summer reading selection for Samohi at the local Board of Education’s meeting April 14. The book is intended for all incoming students.
“‘How It Went Down’ offers an intriguing mix of perspectives and narrative styles, and the concepts of multiple and unreliable narrators (and morally ambiguous protagonists) are all discussed and taught in 9th and 10th grades as part of our focus on characterization,” Pust said. “In the 11th and 12th grades, we’ll also use the book as a springboard — not only for discussion of current events, but also to explore postmodern fiction, archetypal characters, and the bias and rhetoric various characters display and evoke.”
An anonymous complainant, the parent of an incoming freshman, left a message with the district with concerns about the book, according to Pinsker. She was not aware of any other feedback received by the district office.
“Any parent with concern can speak with a teacher or a district curriculum leader to better understand the very careful and purposeful selection process,” she said.
Pust said a few parents contacted her department directly with concerns and added that their children are allowed to read previously selected all-school summer books instead.
She noted that parents are sometimes uncomfortable with other, more popular school reading assignments, including widely taught works like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“As always, if parents have concerns or questions about any of our curricular choices, we welcome them to contact teachers directly, as we can often arrive at understanding together through conversation,” Pust said.
The selection of the book fits in with other efforts at Samohi to build understanding across racial lines, officials said, including the school’s restorative justice program.
The novel “serves a purpose for further conversation and fostering a positive and inclusive school community,” Pinsker said.