Agencies | Governor
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 Ends 1/15/2014
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1/13/14  5:00 pm
Commenter: Leila Christenbury, Virginia Commonwealth University


Reading the recently posted parental and citizen support comments for the proposed Board of Education amendment, there are some threads of argument that are consistent.  Many of the comments reflect a belief that schools and classroom teachers require students to read objectionable, damaging, and sexually explicit materials; two commentators write that teachers are currently asking students to “read garbage” and to read “deeply immoral” works.  In addition, after requiring this reading, some commentators believe there is no recourse on the part of the student or parent. Neither of these contentions is true:  Virginia school divisions vet all materials carefully, approve reading lists, and most provide established avenues for alternative reading assignments and for challenges to those materials.  I know of no Virginia teacher who provides or pushes salacious and developmentally inappropriate material on their students; teachers are professionals, citizens and parents, too, but some of the posted comments appear to ignore that entirely.  As a second item, many of the commentators seem to believe that the objectionable materials are almost always contemporary works, not the oft cited “classics” that these commentators fear have lost their place in the public school classroom.  Not so; the classics as most of us identify them (Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Dickens, the American greats such as Twain, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Morrison, and others) are well represented in the current public school language arts curriculum.  In addition, within many of those classics texts are considerations of the great moral issues, many of which are indeed”sensitive” and open to debate.  Just recall a few examples:  In Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Macbeth debates if he should murder to advance his career; in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, the main character  agonizes over his illicit love for another man’s wife;  in Dickens’ Great Expectations Pip accepts help from a convict.  Finally, the passage of the proposed amendment will not, as one writer hopes, “facilitate transparency,” and the voiced concerns about that amendment are not evidence, as another notes, that Virginia school divisions are resistant to inquiry or question.  With no workable definition provided, however, of what is “sensitive” and what is “controversial,” two important concepts which are truly interpreted differently by different people,   Virginia teachers will, at the very least, have to send to all parents a list of all works that they are using in their classroom and update that list on a weekly basis when there are the predictable additions to the reading.  In conclusion, do we wish to abandon any and all confidence that a public school curriculum and its dedicated teachers are working in the best interest of our children?  Do we wish to assume that the only way parents will have “a right to know”(as one comment contends)  is to saddle school personnel with compiling and sending out endless lists of reading material, lists that are sent in addition to regularly published syllabi, curriculum outlines, and posted assignments and homework?  As a lifetime citizen of Virginia, a 40-year veteran educator, a former high school English teacher,the past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, and a university professor of English education, I heartily oppose this proposed amendment.

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