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  1:11 pm
Commenter: Lauren Benere

Please Do Not Pass this Amendment

Type over thisAs an English teacher in Chesterfield County, I am deeply concerned about the proposed changes to how we handle “controversial” or “sensitive” instructional materials in English classes that would require us to highlight every passage that parents or students might find controversial. I feel that the proposed change of having teachers “identify” these sections of a novel will not only inhibit English teachers from doing their jobs well, but will also do our students a disservice.

Firstly, how do we define “sensitive” or “controversial”?  These terms are ultimately subjective to each individual parent or student. What some families consider controversial would not raise an eyebrow in another household—so how would we define this in an objective way that does not overly burden teachers (who already have plenty of paperwork)? Many “controversial” items appear on television, video games, and films our students see every day—usually with the approval and knowledge of their parents.  Shakespeare explores many “controversial” subjects: teen suicide, sedition, revenge, betrayal—would we remove these classics from the curriculum because they explore in-depth, sometimes unpleasant topics, just because one parent objects? If a teacher is required to report every instance of an arbitrarily-decided “controversial” content, this prevents them from doing their jobs well because this is just one more step to go through after lesson planning, test writing, test remediation, and other miscellaneous paperwork that is already required of us. This is a hoop to jump through that teachers may not have the time to do, especially if it may result in not being able to teach a text.

To counteract these concerns in the past, teachers make efforts to select novels and other materials that are age-appropriate for their students—this is a part of their job. Most teachers do not go out of their way to teach materials that are not age-appropriate for their students. The extra paperwork and potential restrictions to the curriculum that are applied arbitrarily to potentially assuage just a few families does not aid the teacher in teaching well. This runs the risk of restricting teachers to a few “appropriate” (again, arbitrarily defined) texts because few parent concerns. This also might prevent teachers from exploring real-life situations and themes in an environment that encourages discussion in a safe way, under the guidance of an adult. If parents are concerned about the teaching of certain issues, perhaps a novel the student is reading for can start a healthy conversation between the parent and the student about these issues, and the parent can then share his/her personal views with the student. The proposed changes may prevent these opportunities.

Additionally, Virginia schools are well-known for sending students to colleges prepared. This is largely due to our rigorous middle and high school English programs that work well without unnecessary restrictions on what we teach because we have to report “controversial” sections; such a restriction would prevent students from reading novels that will prepare them for college.  If we are forced to report the “controversial” sections of what we share in our classrooms based on the “controversial,” “sensitive” guidelines, our students risk not being exposed to the same rigorous curriculum, and the same in-depth discussions, and real-life issues that great novels address. These are standard norms in college classrooms, where professors have an entirely free hand to teach whatever texts they like, regardless of how students’ parents may feel about it. Do we want our students to leave unprepared for these college-level expectations by a de facto restriction of the texts high school teachers teach based on the concerns of a few? This is hardly fair to the majority of our students and their families who wouldn’t have a problem with it.

Lastly, this rule change would promote a simple form of censorship. If parents can veto anything teachers teach on a whim, it is nothing less than a censorship of literature. Is this a lesson we want our students to learn? I’d rather teach compelling texts that deal with issues students are they themselves deal with every day—whether we as adults want to face them or not—than teach students that some books are just “not okay.”

Please do not pass the amendment to 8 VAC 20 – 720.  text and enter your comments here. You are limited to approximately 3000 words.

CommentID: 29654