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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12/30/13  5:03 pm
Commenter: Jennifer Moyers, Parent/Broadway High School Teacher

Oppose the amendment

As a parent and a teacher, I urge the Board to reject this proposed amendment.

I certainly understand the need to select books for children when they are developmentally ready to consider their ideas and topics, which is why, in Rockingham County, we have a system in place to approve books before they are placed on core reading lists and to offer students and parents the right to request an alternate title if a particular book is problematic.

The amendment that has been proposed, however, offers a multitude of problems:

The word “sensitive” is too broad for manageable definition.  I can’t imagine the sheer scope of trying to navigate all the literature I teach, evaluating each work as to what is “sensitive,” then making a list in my syllabus of that “sensitive” material.  One poem I’ve taught in the past centers on the death of a dog.  Is that sensitive?  To some students, it surely would be; to others, such a work wouldn’t be a problem.  How can I judge—before I’ve even met my students—what will affect them?  And, after all, *shouldn’t* it affect them?  Shouldn’t they FEEL something when they read literature?  If they feel nothing, if they think nothing, if they object to nothing, then they aren’t really reading, really experiencing literature.

The majority of texts, while surely containing “sensitive” material, are about far more than that.  Teachers in my department teach—among many other works—texts such as The Great Gatsby, Things Fall Apart, The Road, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Cold Mountain, and Of Mice and Men.  While I could certainly select some “sensitive” topics from each book, they’re all about something more: about dealing with sadness and defeat, about overcoming tragedy and hardship, about finding joy and friendship and resilience and triumph in even the most difficult of experiences.  People don’t lead easy, painless lives, and our literature should—and does—reflect that.  To sanitize students’ reading experiences is to present them with a false view of the world and, ultimately, to fail to prepare them to take part in that world. To reduce any text to being about a particular instance of “sensitive” material is to overlook what makes literature great and powerful. Denying students the opportunity for imaginative rehearsal denies them the opportunity to think about how they will deal with realistic challenges and tragedy in their own lives.

All literature is—and should be—“sensitive,” for it should generate conversations about topics vital to understanding our world and our lives.  Certainly some children are ready for different conversations than others, but to create a blanket statement about what is or is not “sensitive” in any given text is not realistic.  Can you imagine, as a student, being faced with a list of the sad or violent or sexual experiences in the literature that you’re going to read in a class?  First, on a practical level, that’s a HUGE list of spoilers.  Next, how could you look past those experiences to see the truth of the whole text?  Reading a list of what happens in a book (particularly before reading the book) is vastly different than reading the book itself, than living through an experience with characters, than learning the lesson or outlook or observation that book offers.  Empathizing with a character’s life, while still maintaining a distance safe enough for discussion, for the acceptance or rejection of a character’s thoughts and decisions, is a process integral to accessing and developing one’s humanity.  If a reader can’t empathize with a character—despite that character’s potential hardships or mistakes—then how can we expect our students to grow into PEOPLE who can empathize with other PEOPLE?  Such imaginative rehearsal is necessary to students’ development into kind, empathetic, thoughtful citizens and human beings.

Again, I support parents’ desire to protect their children.  I support the idea that teachers should offer a list of texts that they’ll teach in their class.  Parents can then read the texts—the entire texts, not a list of isolated events or words—and judge whether or not their children should participate in that experience.  Or they can trust teachers.  They can trust that no teacher deliberately sets out to give students literature for which they’re not ready.  Parents can choose to read literature along with their children, supporting classroom discussion with their own conversations, exploring why language or behavior is or is not appropriate given the students’ own values and thoughts.  Imagine the value and depth of a student working through a text both at school, with a teacher and classmates, and then again at home, with a parent.  What a powerful learning experience that would be.

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