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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12/17/13  2:34 pm
Commenter: Michelle Davis, Page Middle School

"Controversial" Classroom Materials

It's wonderful when parents are involved in a child's reading any age. The benefits are too many to list, but teachers know them well.   And we are so thankful.

As an 8th grade English teacher, most of the writing that we cover has a conflict.  Some of those conflicts could be seen as controversial.  What is controversy though?  As I reflect on the stories and materials that I use in class, labeling them as controversial becomes problematic.  

In tagging authors' works as controversial, I am placing judgments on literature based on my own standards.   This will likely point a finger right back to me eventually.   In my haste to get together a friendly September parent note home...all about controversy...what if I miss something?   What if a teachable moment comes up in the news that students want to discuss or research?   What if teachers don't agree on a selection's "controversy factor"?  Is this the tone I want to set at the beginning of the school year?   As an 8th grade teacher I know that listing all of the "controversial" content in September likely guarantees that strong readers will read those selections by October.   Sometimes pointing out elements of "controversy" can spoil plot points too.

Much of the reading in my course is self-selected independent reading based on interest and reading level.   Because of this, I rely on students and parents to make shared decisions regarding appropriate texts.   Whole class novels are not as common in my classroom, but I smile to think of how many children read The Outsiders for the first time with me.  This is a novel that I use with all students, adding in supports for children who need it while advanced readers may read it independently with a critical eye for craft.   You've probably read it too.   There's smoking, drinking, stealing and fighting.   There's gang violence.   The most loved character of the book knifes someone...and that child dies.   But those of us who have read this young adult classic know that it's much more than its controversial content.   For so many reluctant readers this is the novel that turned them into eager readers.

S.E. HInton wrote the story as a teenager for the simple reason that there weren't any realistic teen novels in her library that she wanted to read.   Remember the popular film?   Francis Ford Coppola made that film happen because children asked him to!   Part of our reading lives, especially for teens, is deciding who we are and who we aren't.   These big ideas are often explored through "controversial" material.

I am so lucky.   I am.   Since 1999 I have been blessed with students and parents who value what I do in the classrom.   I am always open to switching a class novel out for a family who does not think that a child is ready for the content.   Adding this promosed amendment to what I do for children will create more work and trouble than is necessary.   I am always open to parents' concerns....and students' concerns.   Perhaps the intent of this amendment is rooted in parents taking an interest in their child's education, but it seems to place an unnecessary burden back on the classroom teacher.

I would encourage all parents to develop positive relationships with their children's teachers and ask about class novels.   Parents with access to the internet can use Amazon to easily access a variety of critical or user reviews indicating the major plot points of the stories.   Virginia also allows students to take courses online or at home, providing more control over class content and the ability to tailor coursework specifically to a single child's emotional readiness, reading ability, interest and maturity level.

Thank you for understanding that I spend a lot of thought in choosing books that are age-appropriate to support the Virginia Standards of Learning.   I hope that parent concerns can be handled on an individual basis instead of passing an amendment that would affect all Virginia teachers and ask us to give quality reading materials unnecessary labels.

CommentID: 29659