Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Education
State Board of Education
Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions [8 VAC 20 ‑ 720]
Action Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
Comment Period Ended on 1/15/2014
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1/10/14  3:04 am
Commenter: Scott Laske, English teacher in Newport News Public Schools

Controversy is unavoidable


While it is certainly completely understandable that some “Parents have raised concerns about the use of controversial instructional material without parental consent,” this amendment is unfeasible and excessive.  First of all, the vague language used in this amendment makes it difficult to ascertain precisely what kinds of materials are to be reported.  Almost every piece of literature written could be viewed as controversial by someone.  One of the purposes of literature is to confront the reader with the real world as it exists, even though that real world is often filled with controversy; to confront the reader with the full spectrum of human experience, even though the history of human experience is continuously filled with controversy; and even to confront the reader with the horrors wrought by humanity on nature, on society, and on each other, even though such horrors must invariably be filled with controversy.   Controversy is unavoidable.  Thus, if one of the purposes of school is to prepare children for life, then school must include controversial material.  Thus, school always has and should continue always to utilize materials that are considered controversial to someone. 


            I would argue, as would any teacher of English, that every single piece of reading that I have ever assigned could be viewed as “controversial.”  I cannot think of anything that I have taught that could not be deemed controversial:  The Scarlet Letter makes an adulterer a hero, Death of a Salesman and Ethan Frome both also include adultery as well as suicide, Of Mice and Men deals with mercy killing, Inferno includes too many controversies to list, Huckleberry Finn is well-known as a banned book, and even the Bible, which I do teach, contains rape, adultery, murder, and torture to name just a few.  Thus, again, I submit that the language of this amendment is too vague.  Does the state sincerely believe that it is necessary and even realistic to expect that every teacher of English submit a list of book titles and all possible controversies contained therein?  More importantly, who is to decide what precisely is “controversial”?


            It is certainly understandable that some “Parents have raised concerns about the use of controversial instructional material without parental consent,” because all parents want to protect their children.  No one would argue that parents should not be concerned.  Parents should certainly be actively engaged in what their children are doing and what their children are exposed to:  that is the foundation of parenting.  Thus, parents can and do contact teachers to find out what their students are being taught.  In my experience teaching for the past eleven years, I have welcomed such interest from parents.  There have certainly been occasions where specific reading assignments were deemed inappropriate by a parent, and I have always provided alternative assignments.  I am curious as to why this particular process is not adequate.  Are there schools where teachers refuse to give alternative assignments?  That type of situation is certainly objectionable, and parents should absolutely object to teachers and schools that engage in such practices.  However, I would venture to guess that that type of situation is the exception and not the rule.


            This amendment is excessive: it seeks to smother a blazing wildfire that does not exist.  Parents can and should ask questions.  Parents can and do object to material that they find controversial.  Teachers can and do assign alternatives.  It has always been this way.  In eleven years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of times this issue has come up.  The state seems to want to step in and take over the parents’ role in this situation with this amendment.   


            More importantly, this amendment speaks to a lack of trust between parent and teacher that is baffling and sad.  This amendment suggests an even larger issue of trying to shield children from reality that is alarming and scary.  Is asking a child to read and discuss a controversial book really so terrifying?


CommentID: 29941