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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1/1/14  2:36 pm
Commenter: Audrey Baylor

Supporting Values without Censorship

It is important for me as an English teacher to offer meaningful, critically acclaimed contemporary fiction in addition to the classics.  I believe it is important to present a balanced curriculum that is both age appropriate and part of the evolving literary cannon. 

As a Shakespeare instructor and AP Literature teacher, rarely do I see parents object to bawdy Elizabethan language or controversial topics like anti-Semitism or racism (although both occur in a play like Merchant of Venice or Othello or even selected lines from more commonly taught Shakespearean plays).  When I teach Shakespeare, I am not pushing for students to pick up on every innuendo or every slur, but neither would I shelter a twelfth grade reader about to graduate as carefully as I might a ninth grader fresh from middle school.  It would be wrong not to teach students how to read closely, how to understand the values and social strata of an audience in Shakespeare's day.

I never teach a contemporary work because it has shock value or controversial issues--not ever.  First and foremost, if I am about to teach a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction with sensitive content, I would first discuss the importance of students making their own choices after taking into consideration their parents' preferences.  That is, I would ask second-semester seniors not to read a book like Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours if some of the language or gay characters are going to be objectionable to them or if they think their parents might object.  We discuss the importance of students standing for what they believe, and we talk as a class about respecting each other’s individual choices.  I also present the merits of the book, particularly as it connects to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway which we have just finished reading.  Students always have a deeper understanding and greater appreciation for Woolf after reading Cunningham.  I offer alternative selections although I cannot think of another contemporary work that is going to have the same instructional value in helping them understand the stream-of-consciousness style of Woolf, or, of course, that other book would be my first selection.  Indeed, as an AP literature reader for the College Board, I have found that some of the strongest essays and consequential highest scores come from pairing a critically acclaimed perhaps “sensitive" novel with a classic; this is not something I tell students even though I have seen it occur time and time again. I prefer to see instead that it is a sign of maturity that there are students who choose to read something else, and that other students demonstrate respect for their choice.  I believe considering how and why we choose to read one thing over another reinforces home values as well as teaches leadership.  Learning how to state values or object to content is a crucial skill for students about to go to college; there, they are likely to be asked to read works that some of their parents might certainly find objectionable.  Of equal note, sometimes I have had students turn down a novel based upon values even though their parents (and previous siblings) do not find the work objectionable.  That's a wonderful thing.  The student is learning to make his or her own responsible choices.  I have also had a number of parents opt to read novels alongside their sons and daughters.  I think that's equally good, but it is not something I manage, whether it's a mother reading Pride and Prejudice alongside her daughter for pure pleasure or The Hours to discuss sensitive content.  Obviously, the parent is not my student, and I would not dream of stepping into her prerogative to actively guide reading choices or get in the middle of her reading discussions with her soon-to-graduate senior.

Furthermore, I should add that if I teach a work like Cunningham's The Hours, I always balance it with another contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning work like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a novel that chronicles the beautiful faith of a minister in the Midwest.  Interestingly enough, I have never offered this work as an optional choice; it is a required reading for everyone, even though my classroom increasingly has fewer and fewer families professing religious affiliations, so perhaps this is not balanced on my part, to require a reading with religious content but not to offer alternatives to sensitive content.  I suppose if someone voiced opposition, I would consider an alternative for this as well.

Over the course of years, I have seen a marked shift in what is called "sensitive" content although my approach in handling all materials remains consistent.  My students seem less and less sheltered from content that I would consider sensitive, but I still think it's valuable for them to sort through what they read despite the hard reality that they apparently do not stop to consider what is or is not appropriate to view, nor are their parents with them at a friend's house or wherever they seem to go to view such content.  I may be shocked by some of what is openly available to them on TV or in film but they rarely find objections.  To me, this is even more reason for a classroom to work through how we decide what is or is not appropriate for us based upon our own values and the respected wishes of parents.  I teach them that standing for a personal moral choice is a good experience for everyone in the classroom.  I would hope that this sort of in-school introspection carries to out-of-class social interactions, and in that way, I believe I am supporting the very process the most conservative of parents want their children to make.  We need kids who are able to stand for something that goes against the norm, and we also need to be people who respect those individuals, and in some instances, begin to question some of their own choices that they otherwise might not have thought to do.

Finally, I have to say that every year I have students who come back to say that either the reading selection process  or a particular sensitive reading choice has helped to shape who they are in a significantly positive way.  I believe it is important to support the disenfranchised individual, whether the person is disenfranchised for being religiously conservative in a not-so-conservative or not-so-religious peer group, or, on the other end of the spectrum, whether that person is ostracized for being gay or having a family member who is gay.  Both students are equally important and valuable in my classroom.


CommentID: 29800