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  6:57 pm
Commenter: Susan Traner, Menchville High School

Controversial amendment

I am firmly against the passing of 8VAC 20-720 both as a teacher and a parent. 

Firstly, as a high school English teacher, nothing gives me more pleasure than to see students become passionate and animated by text, either their own or that of published authors. The supposed intention of this amendment is benign. However, it suggests something that is already in place, the ability of parent and student alike to ask for alternative readings based on maturity and readiness.  As lead of my department, I can tell you that several times a year we have requests from parents or students who, for whatever reason, ask for an alternative assignment. As educators, we always carefully assign an alternative reading so that the students can still meet the learning objectives afforded by the "objectionable" literature.  Literature by it's very nature is controversial. As Franz Kafka once wrote, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? The kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The danger of such an amendment is in its implementation.  At worst, a list would be created outside of the classroom to save time and energy.  With that sort of rigid list, no consideration of current events, student interest or need, or current/modern reading could be included. This would encourage less rigor, less enthusiasm, and less citizen ready reading skills. If this list is teacher generated on the syllabus at the beginning of the year, some cliff hangers will no longer be cliff hangers; some of the mystery will be gone. Who is this Catherine who asks to be let in the window of Wuthering Heights? What do you mean Pearl's father is Dimmesdale? Gatsby by dies in his pool? Don't get me started on Scout and Lenny's stories, both student and teacher favorites that would be ruined by listing controversies. On the other hand, banning a book or listing it as controversial might spark less internet summary reading and more readership of the assigned books. In weighing in on this amendment, I challenge you to look at a list of books with student appeal for all grade levels. Find out how many you can find that are powerful, appealing, and without any controversy. Also, look at the recommendations for AP titles. If we take away controversy in the courses leading to AP and college courses, I fear for the readiness of our students. 

But what is "controversial"? It is an abstraction that can not be readily defined and certainly has as much to do with a reader's own beliefs and experiences as anything else.  For the ambiguity alone, this is an unnecessary and reckless amendment. 

As a parent, I am interested in what my son reads and will read. We talk about the reading that goes on in his classes. We talk about the reading he does on his own. I talk to him about the reading I am doing in class and in my personal life. Growing up I had a mom who gave me free reign to read any book in the library.  When she taught third grade, I saw her spend a great deal of her meager salary on books for reluctant readers, mostly boys, trying desperately to stear them towards something that would ignite a spark in them.  As a mom of an eight year boy, I want him reading controversial books that are age appropriate. I love that they tackle life's struggles, some that he will or has faced and others that he will never personally encounter. I am sure that if he had gone through a particular trauma that was represented in assigned reading and I thought he was too fragile to relive it, I would talk with his teacher to seek out an alternative.  However, I want his teachers to have the freedom to find new and old books to enliven the classroom experience, their own enthusiasm for their craft, and push their students to think in new ways, to prevent my son from developing the "frozen sea"' inside him. From conflict, the root of much that would be deemed "controversial" but someone, comes thematic discovery: looking into the human condition, seeing that we aren't alone, that people beyond our neighborhood are important, valuable members of humanity, that issues of self, power, trauma, resiliency, lost dreams, hubris, hypocrisy, intolerance, and bravery happen everywhere to everyone and there are many "choose your own endings" to consider in life. 


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