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Originally published Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 9:08 PM

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Book fuels debate over 'objectionable' content in Richland schools

A novel about a 9-year-old boy dealing with the death of his father on Sept. 11 has sparked a months-long discussion in the Richland School District about how far teachers need to go to inform parents about a book's content.

RICHLAND — A novel about a 9-year-old boy dealing with the death of his father on Sept. 11 has sparked a months-long discussion in the Richland School District about how far teachers need to go to inform parents about a book's content.

School Board members already have reshaped policy dealing with the way novels are approved for classroom use. Tuesday, they're poised to consider how to notify parents of "objectionable" content, such as profanity, sex and violence.

The options range from including a short statement in course syllabi to instituting a ratings system. The latter has some worried it could lead to censorship and questioning how such a system — which would be subjective by nature — would even work.

Others say the bottom line is current practice isn't good enough and needs to be changed.

School Board President Rick Jansons said the board's goal has been to find the best path when it comes to communicating with parents about sensitive material.

That hasn't been simple.

The novel that sparked the discussion is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer. The best-seller tells the story of Oskar Schell, a young boy whose father died in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The book contains profanity, sex and descriptions of violence.

It was among the titles students could choose to read in a 10th-grade honors language-arts class at Hanford High. It was approved for the classroom under the policy the district had in place at the time.

Last school year, the parents of a student in the class read through the book and found language and content they felt was inappropriate.

They took their concerns to the School Board, saying that they — and other parents — weren't being made aware that books offered in class might contain such content.

The board has been discussing the matter ever since, hearing from parents, students, teachers and administrators.

One significant change already has been made.

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Under old policy, novels like "Extremely Loud" — which are supplemental to the curriculum — were OK'd through a school-based process. Committees within the schools would discuss and settle on titles, with the principals giving approval.

By contrast, core-curriculum materials — like textbooks that all students use — passed through a districtwide Instructional Materials Committee, or IMC, made up of teachers, administrators and parents.

In recent months, the board has changed the process to require novels like "Extremely Loud" also go through the IMC. The board also expanded parent presence on that committee — from four community members to seven. The committee has 15 members.

"The intent of that change was to ensure the opportunity for public and parents to comment on anything we're putting into the high-school classrooms," Jansons said.

The more challenging question has been what to do about novels with potentially objectionable content.

David Garber, of West Richland, the father who brought concerns about "Extremely Loud" to the School Board, has asked that it be noted on course syllabi if a book contains profanity, sexual situations and violence. He said he likes the idea of flagging books because parents need to be clearly warned about potentially objectionable content.

"Parents need to know what's going on in the classroom. They need to know what's being offered to their children before it's given to their children," he said.

Some other parents who spoke at a recent School Board meeting agreed.

However, other people — including several teachers — have said they're uncomfortable with the idea of flagging books.

The problem, they said, becomes, what is the standard?

"My judgment of what needs to be flagged might be different than yours. I don't know how you could establish a commonly accepted criteria," said Jim Deatherage, a longtime Richland High English teacher.

Before Deatherage presents novels in class, he talks to students about the content and asks them to avoid books their parents wouldn't approve of, he said. Deatherage also allows them to choose alternative books and welcomes hearing from parents, he said.

Teachers said they list in their syllabi the titles of the books offered in class and encourage parents to contact them with questions. The district also has an opt-out policy in which students or parents who feel uncomfortable with a book can pick a different one.

Those safeguards are sufficient, teachers said.

The issue has come up before in the district. In the late 1990s, some parents objected to the content of a handful of novels approved for high-school classrooms, including Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." The parents asked the board to remove the books, and there was lengthy discussion.

The most recent book debate hasn't gone unnoticed by students. Sarah Worden, a Richland High senior and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, said the issue has come up in some classroom discussions.

She said she agrees parents have the right to know what their kids are learning, but she also doesn't want books that students would learn from being singled out because some think the content is objectionable.

"By this point in time, we have to decide [for ourselves] what's right and wrong," she said.

Nancy Smith, an English teacher at Hanford High, chose "Extremely Loud" for her 10th-grade honors class. It was one of several books students could pick from for a unit on how historical events are treated in literature.

She said she's heard from parents who read the book and thought it was a good pick for the class, and also from students who liked it and believed they learned from it.

In her view, literature is meant to provoke discussion and teach the reader about the lives of others. She said she wants students to experience a broad range of challenging literature.

Garber said he isn't trying to force his standards on others but wants a better system for keeping parents informed.

"I just have this one area where I think [the district] needs tuning up," he said.


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