Battle over English curriculum at MSD continues

by Eric Stearley


Tensions ran high at the Metropolitan School District’s May 13 board meeting as a packed room full of parents and concerned citizens voiced their objections to the list of reading materials proposed for high school students. The contentious debate grew out of a board policy reform last year, which requires teachers to submit supplementary book selections for approval by the board. As part of the new procedure, parents were given the opportunity to review the selections and submit objections to books that they didn’t think should be included.

In total, teachers from both district high schools submitted more than 90 books for review. The board policy requires teachers to submit titles for review that some people may find objectionable.

“We tossed it around, and we said, ‘how would we know what someone might object to?’ So, the teachers decided to vet all 90-100 books,” Superintendent Sandra Weaver said during the meeting.

Parents were given 30 days to review the list and submit objections. In the end, three families objected to a total of eight books: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Meyers, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, and Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion.

The last three books on that list were quickly removed. After submitting five objections, Carmen Fleck received an email from submitting teacher and Northfield High School English department head Erin Sapusek.

“She said, ‘I have decided to rescind Perks of Being a Wallflower, Thirteen Reasons Why, and Warm Bodies. These are selections that I value as great books and good reads, but they are best served as recreational reading at the choice of the student,’” Fleck said, quoting the email from Sapusek. “I had asked for more time, and she wanted to save me the hassle, because she figured Warm Bodies would be one that I would object to as well.”

A fourth selection, Fallen Angels, was later removed from the list.

“We vetted classroom sets that were there,” Weaver said during the board meeting. “No one has any intention of teaching it, but they decided to vet what was there. I talked with the board the other day, and that is going to be removed from the list. We decided that since no one has any intent of teaching it, we would remove it.”

“I don’t like the books that were on there, especially the Fallen Angels,” said School Board President Matt Driscoll. “Besides it being on there, it’s fiction. It’s one thing to have a true story where you can get some value out of somebody growing up and learning something from bad things happening to them. A true story is a lot different when there’s a positive end to it versus make believe. I’m not a big fan of fiction in the classroom like that.”

With four books left on the objection list, the focus turned to The Glass Castle, an autobiographical memoir. During the current school year, the book was taught in junior English classes, as well as a freshman honors English class.

Teresa Sears was the first to speak out during the public comments section of the board meeting.

“I wonder if the board has read the books on the list,” said Sears. “As a Christian, I don’t take God’s name in vain, and I don’t want my children reading that, but it wasn’t only God’s name in vain, it was the filth. Absolute filth. I wish you brought your kids here so I could read it to them.”

Sears read a list of objectionable words to the board after clarifying, with those in attendance, which book the words were taken from. She was visibly upset.

“My children will not sit in a class with that vulgar language,” said Sears. “Some day they can choose to read it on their own, and that time will come when they answer to God.”

Sears was not the only parent to voice an opinion. In total, eight parents presented their concerns.

“There are a lot of words that I wouldn’t want my children or grandchildren reading,” said Doug Friedersdorf. “There’s a lot of profanity, graphic violence, kissing, sexuality, homosexuality…”

Friedersdorf then read a synopsis of the plot that several members of the audience and school board found objectionable.

“It won the YALSA Alex Award in 2006 for adult books, not children,” said Friedersdorf. “This is pathetic. Whoever’s giving you your 90 books to choose from needs to be raked over the coals.”

Friedersdorf was correct in stating that The Glass Castle won the award, however, YALSA stands for Young Adult Library Services Association, which is a division of the American Library Association. The Alex Awards, in particular, are given to 10 titles each year that “have a special appeal to young adults, ages 12-18.” The book spent a total of 261 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. It received three objections, the most of any book on the list.

“The Glass Castle is [a] great read,” Fleck said in an interview prior to the meeting, “but I have trouble thinking that a ninth grader can separate…the sexuality that’s in there, that content, to find the value of the book.”

“There are a lot of kids (in our schools) that are sexually abused,” concerned parent Sandi Kirtlan said in an interview. “They’re in years of therapy.”

“Some of them haven’t even come out that they’ve been sexually abused,” her husband Scott added. “Some kids have experienced this and have just been holding it in for all of these years.”

“They’re wanting to bring these kids into a classroom and teach something that the parents don’t even know they’re bringing in, and by the time the parent realizes that their kid is reading this book, all that therapy is gone,” Sandi continued.

“That could be a great book, but in a therapeutic setting for these kids,” added Scott. “There are kids that, that would just be devastating to have to relive.”

Many parents present at the school board meeting voiced concerns about the fact that ninth grade honors students, though academically advanced, are not as mature as eleventh grade students, and therefore, should not be reading the book.

“There’s a lot that the human body does in that phase from 14 to 17, and you cannot compare the two,” said Scott Kirtlan.

More than anything, Fleck wanted to know what the educational objectives were for the books proposed.

“My initial concern with this is why some of these books were put on the list to begin with,” said Fleck. “I have asked to see educational objectives for and English class for these books, and I have yet to be given the educational objectives. “Like the book, Fallen Angels, it’s a great book. My child can learn about the war, though, in history class and not have to have all the sexual fantasies of the soldiers thrown into it. I just want to see why they chose this book.”

Her husband Brad agreed.

“Like The Glass Castle, if they come back with great educational objectives and the teacher can explain to us how she intends to use the book, as far as showing the person overcoming these challenges that they had early in life, that could be a great resource in that way,” said Brad. “At an eleventh grade level, I would potentially then be OK with that.”

Superintendent Weaver summarized a two-page request form submitted by a teacher, which included the educational objectives. She explained how the book met state standards for contemporary non-fiction texts and autobiographies.

“The Glass Castle is a study in non-fiction writing, character development, and development themes not available in other novels and autobiographies,” Weaver read. “No other novel or autobiography in contemporary text has the complexity of themes that this autobiography has. Themes suggested are self-sufficiency, non-conformity, chaos, paranoia versus control, endurance and wisdom by the author, and personal survival and achievement despite overwhelming obstacles.”

Carmen Fleck still wanted to know why this particular book had to be a part of the curriculum, and if it fell in line with the district’s goal to put “kids first, last, and always.”

“You’re telling me that this is the very best piece of literature that we can put in front of our kids when our mission statement is ‘to build the mind and character of every student to produce positive citizens for the 21st Century?’” said Fleck. “You would not allow your teachers to walk around the school building saying these words. Our kids are sitting in a class, required to read this and being tested over this for a grade, yet this is something that they would be reprimanded for if they Googled it on their computer.”

“If a child were to open this book and read these two pages, they’d be disciplined in some form,” said Scott Kirtlan in an interview. “How can we justify that, ‘you can’t say it, but you can read it?’”

Another concerned parent, Todd Dazey, was sympathetic to the views expressed by those present at the meeting. His main point, however, dealt with the rights of parents.

“If a parent says that ‘this is something I’d let my child read,’ then I fully support that parent to make that choice, just as I would expect that they would fully support my choice not to let my child read this,” Dazey said at the board meeting. “My position is that they are not fine, but I cannot define morality for any person in this room or in this world, nor would I want to.”

Weaver addressed the issue of individual parent choice at the meeting. When initially discussed at a prior meeting, it was said that students who chose not to read a book would have no choice but to fail that section of the course. This was of primary concern for the Flecks, Kirtlans and Mr. Dazey. They worried that not allowing their children to read certain books would penalize their children academically.

“We’re not trying to ban books, nor are we trying to take away your right to parent as you choose, so don’t take away our right to parent as we choose,” Dazey said in an interview preceding the meeting.

“We’re just trying to do what’s best for our children,” Scott Kirtlan added.

A new policy regarding repercussions was announced early in the meeting. When parents go to school registration next fall, a list of books to be read in each class will be made available, with likely objections noted. If a parent objects to one of the selections, an alternate assignment will be given to the student.

“If there are two or more books, then we suggest you do the online program and it’s the same credit,” Weaver said at the meeting.

This put some at ease.

“If you want your child to read that, that’s fine, but I don’t want my child to be forced into reading that, so if there’s an alternative assignment that they can do without failing the grade and without having to read that specific book, I’m OK with it,” said Dazey.

Others were not totally satisfied.

“Why do we want this kind of controversy in our school? It makes no sense whatsoever. Why do we want to push the line when there’s no need?” Brad Fleck asked the board. “I’ve got other things I could be doing, but because I feel like the school district violated public trust, I need to be here.”

One parent was more concerned with the judgment of the teachers than with the individual book selections.

“A bigger concern for me is, OK, you’re going to take two weeks and read a book. They’re exposed to a teacher who thinks that’s fine for an entire year of classes,” said Cole Wyatt. “To me, that’s a far bigger issue…somebody whose judgment is so lacking that some of that material would be fed to children under their care.”

“They’re teachers,” Weaver responded. “They teach the book and talk about, “why was that particular language used?” So they do go through that. You mentioned words that you can’t search on the Internet. That’s because in the class, they’re taught about appropriateness, inappropriateness, and they talk about the impact of what went on in the author’s life.”

At one point, the meeting fell out of order, with people talking over one another and directing pointed questions and accusations at educators and members of the board.

“This group, as a board, has decided to allow public comment,” Weaver said, clarifying the meeting’s procedure. “That is not a typical thing that a lot of boards may do. We’re the farm. We’re Wabash, Indiana. We say, ‘come, we want to hear what you have to say,’ but hearing what you have to say is different than discussing back and forth. This is a meeting held in public. That does not mean that there is any expectation of a response back from the board or myself.”

As the public comments concluded, the board went about its normal business before arriving at the recommendation to approve the book selections. Four of the five board members were present. Board member John Gouvela was regretfully absent, attending a business meeting that he could not miss. The other four offered their opinions on the matter.

“With the list the way it is, I’m not especially happy with The Glass Castle being on there,” said President Matt Driscoll, “but if we have a list where it’s starred for parents to look at it and say…I want to opt out of that, that allows parents to have control over what their student is reading. There’s a lot of parents that aren’t here, and we’ve gotten some emails. They’re perfectly fine with it. It’s a balancing act. At this point in time, I think I would vote to pass the list. I kind of have to trust the process that we did, a little bit.”

Board member Troy Baer agreed.

“The process worked. The Glass Castle was one of those that I was borderline, but having gotten some feedback from some very conservative people that I respect, I think if there’s an option, not a requirement, I would be OK with that.”

Board member Kevin Bowman was alone in the fact that he has read The Glass Castle. Superintendent Weaver confirmed prior to the meeting that at the time the objections were submitted, none of the objecting parties had read any of the books objected to, though some have read them since.

“If you want to hear my thoughts on The Glass Castle, I’ll share them with you. I thought it’d be worse than what it was,” said Bowman. “It was interesting. It held my attention. I don’t think I would say that you need to read it. For myself and my own belief system that I come from, I thought it was sad that some people live in such a spiritual vacuum and are so misdirected in life. The parts that were read here tonight [were] pretty much the whole of all the bad things that were in the book. The real story in that book is about a couple of screwed up parents. I mean, screwed up. And the kids make it through their life. They’ve still got their issues too. It’s not a lot about sex or that kind of thing. I just want you to know that.

“I still have issues with it at a freshmen level,” Bowman continued. “Would I let my daughter read it? My daughter is a senior. No problem about it. Would I choose that book? You have no idea what I would choose to have these kids read, but that’s me. Are there other things out there? There’s great things out there. Why do we even want to go there? I struggle with that a lot. I came here tonight with what I thought was the way I was going to vote. Now, after hearing everything, I’m undecided.”

The fourth board member, Ryan Rosen, echoed some of what Bowman said.

“Would I let my kids read the book? I’ll answer you directly. I don’t know yet. My kids are very young. Taking Kevin’s word for it, I’d probably let them,” said Rosen. “I struggle with a ninth grade level. I have a perception that children are not developed enough at 14 or 15 years old to comprehend what an adult expects them to comprehend.

“How do I want to vote on this? I consider this position as a representative of the people that vote me in, and it’s hard for me to sit up here and say I’m going to vote for a list when there’s this many people here against it. That’s not fair. I feel like I need to vote with what this community holds, or at least a portion of it, especially people that live in the same district that they vote me in.”

Rosen is employed at the Wabash Fire Department and offered some insight regarding what he encounters in the course of his duties.

“Right now, I don’t agree with one book on the list, but I can see why a teacher would want to teach it, especially in a very conservative community – to show kids that everything isn’t as it seems.” said Rosen. “If we go into certain portions of this community, you can see some of the same things that are demonstrated in this book. That’s a fact, people. We get to see these lives lived out, so it’s real.”

While several parents still felt that the classroom was not an appropriate setting for the discussion of these unfortunate realities, the time for public comment had passed. In the end, all four board members felt that John Gouvela’s counsel was needed in order to make a final decision. The book approval was unanimously tabled with the final vote set for the May 27 meeting.

“I’m glad to have people that want to discuss academics, so I feel good about that,” Weaver said in a later interview. “I appreciate the input. I appreciate the questions. I think we have to remember that we are choosing for an entire district, not just for a few children, and I believe we have given parents good options if they object to books.”

Weaver said that since the meeting, she has spoken with some of the teachers involved to let them know that she is supportive of what they’re trying to do in teaching students. She also spoke to the fact that the only parents present were those objecting to the list.

“I’ve had parents contact me that are for the list, and they don’t want this group of parents speaking for them or their child,” said Weaver. “Sometimes only the people who are upset about it voice their opinion, and that’s too bad.”

“If the board votes a different way, they’re an elected board, and you take care of that with your vote,” Scott Kirtlan said. “Those are the people who you elected, so we really need to respect their decision.”

A brochure distributed by the district asks, “Got an idea about how to make a great education even better? Knock. The door’s always open.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Carmen Fleck. “We’re knocking, because I think there’s better alternatives to some of these pieces.”

The next school board meeting will be held May 27 at 6 p.m. As always, parents, concerned citizens, and community leaders are encouraged to attend and voice their opinion before the board makes its final decision. 

Posted on 2014 May 20