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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1/13/14  9:30 am
Commenter: Carl Bache, Chesterfield County Public Schools

Sensitive Materials in the classroom

This policy, and this issue is extremely problematic.  Though I sympathize greatly with parents in general, and certainly those who have specific and heart-felt points-of-view on moral and ethical issues and the extent to which their children should be exposed potentially controversial issues and experiences, the difficulties of this policy put teachers in some very tight restrictions.

The first difficulty is understanding what would count as sensitive.  The policy mentions sexually explicit materials, and I would certainly agree that up to a certain age, children (such as my 6th graders) are not ready to learn everything.  If only the publishing industry agreed.  Both otherwise, the policy only mentions controversial and sensitive materials.  I imagine teachers are expected to make the determination as to what that means, and certainly there are some obvious examples, but others are not.  Some parents are entirely open and will let their children read almost anything, and others are extremely restrictive.

In English Language Arts for middle school, more emphasis has been placed on persuasive writing, but that is hardly possible without the use of some form of contraversy.  What is a contraversy that is safe?  In the past I have used the school uniform debate, but it is possible that I might have a student whose religion requires certain dress as appropriate, so it might be insensitive of me to bring up a topic that, to an extent, criticizes the idea of appropriate dress for all children of a certain age and/or gender.  There is no telling what will be a contraversy for certain families until we hit that line.

There is also emphasis on independent reading, and I urge my students to select books that their parents/guardians approve, but it is certainly possible that some students will use independent reading as cover to rebel against parental authority and put the school and teacher in the middle of it.

Finally, there has been emphasis placed on 21st century skills, which can be difficult to teach using 18th century mores.  For teaching and learning to be authentic and yet protected from the real world is a near contradiction, especially if we are to make use of internet-based resources.  Though possible, through filtering, there have already been reported incidents of students hacking school-provided electronic devices to go on to non-approved sites, like Facebook, in other school districts.  As this seems to be the future for many school districts, the question remains: how do we protect students from the dangers of the real world even as we increase their access to it?

This is no doubt a difficult issue, and parents have every right to want to restrict what their children experience of the world.  I would never just throw them out there.  I would only argue that the vague language of this policy does little to help us as teacher know what to protect these students from, beyond the obvious, and how to do so in a way that does not limit our explorations to topics that are sanitized, meaningless, and unengaging.

CommentID: 30128