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Wading into Controversy

The school where I teach is adding some new books to the curriculum.  Yay!  I've been agitating for some changes to English 9 and English 12 because all the books and plays we read are by white men.  No minority writers, no women.  Inexcusable!

The English department came into some book money recently, and we spent considerable time reading and discussing additions.  We made several, but the ones that startled me most landed in English 9 and English 12.

In English 9 we're adding THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME by Mark Haddon.  It's the enormously famous book about an autistic teenager in London who sets out to solve the murder of the dog next door.  Although the author is a a white male, the book is told from the point of view of the autistic protagonist, and we have a great many autistic students at Nameless High School.

Another English teacher and I had actually advocated for this book in English 9 a few years ago, but the idea was turned down, which is why I was surprised the book went through now.  The reason for the rejection?  The book uses the word "fuck" nine times.  I was careful to point this out again this time, but no one deemed it a problem.  "We teach OF MICE AND MEN, and it has the N word in it," one of the department members pointed out.  I just nodded.  I had used that same argument last time, but was overruled.  Huh.  Things can change in a few years.

In English 12 we adding THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker.  This is another controversial book in high schools because of the strong language, sex, and lesbian themes.  It was, in fact, briefly taught about 15 years ago at one of the other schools in the district and caused a ruckus.  However, the ruckus was mostly over the fact that the teacher hadn't read the book.  She had decided to teach a novel she hadn't read to her students to show them that she didn't have an "answer key" to themes and symbols and all that, and that she would discover these things along with them.  So the adult themes and situations caught everyone off-guard--the teacher didn't prepare the class because she didn't know. The students were also tenth graders, rather younger than seniors.  And parents complained.

However--and this is one thing I like about my school district--Wherever Schools is hesitant to ban books outright.  After much discussion, the school decided not to ban the book but to designate the book for English 10 Honors.  Since it had become such a big deal, though, no other teacher wanted to get into another fight, so the book quietly disappeared from the curriculum.

Now we're bringing it back.  I'm happy!  We're air-lifting TARTUFFE out (no matter how hard we try, none of us English 12 teachers have gotten the seniors to respond well to Moliere) and replacing it with PURPLE.  I'm looking forward to teaching it.

However, I'm wondering if there'll be any blowback.  I've had some parents object to OF MICE AND MEN, and a few times parents have pulled their kids from the unit entirely over the language issue.  Recently, in fact.  CURIOUS INCIDENT and PURPLE both have stronger language.  I don't quite understand this sensitivity--if you spend more than three minutes in the hall at school, you'll hear every word from both books several times over.  It's not like the students don't know these words or use such words themselves a hundred times a day.

But we'll see what happens...


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2016 07:00 pm (UTC)
"I don't quite understand this sensitivity--if you spend more than three minutes in the hall at school, you'll hear every word from both books several times over. It's not like the students don't know these words or use such words themselves a hundred times a day."

Clearly you're underestimating the power of parental denial. "If we don't let them read books with those words, they'll never learn what they mean."

See also, "If we only teach abstinence, they'll never think of trying sex for themselves." ( I'm sure the high correlation between "states that teach abstinence only sex ed" and "states with the highest teen pregnancy rates" is nothing more than a completely unexplainable statistical anomaly... )
May. 27th, 2016 08:35 pm (UTC)
Sad but true.
May. 27th, 2016 08:48 pm (UTC)
I remember after highschool, after Mike and Sue (parents) moved from the small town we last lived at... Sue sat me down and said how glad she was to have raised us in the countryside of Ontario. On a farm. Away from all those things that could make a life go wrong.

Like drugs.

I pointed out that Lanark County (where we were) had a THEME song about its pot. Lanark County Homegrown. Almost every kid I knew (not every kid, just the ones I hung out with) had parents - yes, parents - who were all ex-hippies and grew their own.

I laughed and laughed and laughed and laaaaaughed.

Edited at 2016-05-27 08:57 pm (UTC)
May. 28th, 2016 12:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, small town life is no insulator from . . . well, anything, really!
May. 29th, 2016 06:59 pm (UTC)

I did Tartuffe in college, and was totally oblivious to its appeal or reason for being in the curriculum. I still don't get it. Anything that modernizes high school reading lists is a good thing.

In the summer between third and fourth grades, we moved from one side of Brooklyn to the other. At the end of the first day in my new (Catholic) school, my Mom asked me how it was. I told her it was OK, that I'd made two friends, but I couldn't understand most the other kids when they talked outside of class. She wanted to know what they were saying, so I gave her the litany of four-letter words I had heard for the first time that day. Mom was shocked, then more shocked when the principal told her she was lucky to have kids who had made it to fourth grade without hearing those words, but that we would have to get used to it. By the time we got to Twain, Steinbeck and Salinger, there weren't many surprises left.

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
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