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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12/16/13  9:50 am
Commenter: Peter Barringer

objectional material law change

In public education, almost all of the material covered in an English or history classroom can be deemed objectionable by a parent.  Please ensure that the verbage change is explicit.  Unnecessary burdens are placed on teachers that eat away time that could be used to create lesson plans or evaluations. 

To have to deseminate a list of all reading selections on a teacher is an incredible burden.  Often the materials have been published in division approved text books.  For example,  if a Muslim parent objects to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathon Edwards would a teacher have to provide an alternative assignment?  Or a Christian parent complains about the teaching of the Crusades in a history class, would that have to be removed or an alternative assignment issued?

This slippery slope will require every teacher to have a policy and the ability to create multiple evaluations per each individual student.  In high school that would equal 120 individual lesson plans.  All material in the Common Core, as well as the Virginia Standards of Learning, also follows this paradox. 

CommentID: 29616

12/16/13  10:17 am
Commenter: M. Harrell, SCPS

8 VAC 20-720

This amendment should NOT be passed. If this bill is passed yet another edcuational/professional decision will be taking out of a teachers hand.  We are the ones who hold the degress, been trained and work with the studenst on a daily basis. We are the ones who can make the BEST decisons for the learning that takes place and needs to take place in their classrooms. We SHOULD be the ones making the decisions. This is public education! 

The passing of this amendment will create more problems that can be avoided!

CommentID: 29617

12/16/13  10:25 am
Commenter: Melinda Humphreys, Thomas Dale High School

Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials

As a parent, I can certainly understand concerns about content. However, as a high school educator, I cannot possibly label every passage another parent might find objectionable or offensive. The lines are too ambiguous; what one person finds objectionable, another doesn't even notice. Additionally, this would effectively remove many texts that have been studied for years, including, but not limited to: Oedipus Rex, most of Shakespeare, Inferno, and The Color Purple. Many non-fiction texts that deal with controversial issues and those currently in the news are studied in order to prepare for the numerous state and national tests, specifically preparing for the persuasive writing portion of those tests. Students must practice with controversial topics, and persuasive writing in order to achieve success both on required tests and in life beyond high school. 

CommentID: 29618

12/16/13  10:35 am

What is "sensitive" information?

What is sensitive information?  What is "sensitive" to one person is often not controversial to another.  Therefore, teachers would have to make lists of every possible text in order to adequately notify parents regarding what their children would be reading.  This is not only an undue burden on the teacher but also a stifling influence in the classroom.  New or current materials wouldn't be able to be incorporated because they weren't listed at the beginning of the year, and notifying each and every parent of the new text would be a burden that few teachers would undergo mid-year.

Further, students deserve the right to discuss and ask questions about controversial issues.  It's how they learn to think.  While no teacher should tell their students what to think, every teacher should teach their students how to think - how to analyze both sides of an issue and make an informed decision.  Our world is full of gray areas, where right and wrong aren't always clear-cut.  If we pretend that our world is a fairy-tale place where the good guy always wins and the bad guy is always punished, we aren't preparing students for what they'll face once they leave high school.

Please do not pass this amendment as it is currently written.  While I understand that the intention is good, the implementation of such a regulation would be devastating to our efforts to reform and improve twenty-first century education.

CommentID: 29619

12/16/13  11:12 am
Commenter: L. Mark dePaulo Jr. USNR, MSEd, Pittsylvania County Schools, Gretna High

This is an idea and legislation which is fundamentally misguided, ill-conceived, and simply wrong.

This reminds me of a former principal who objected to films of the Holocaust because they were too "graphic". My answer to that was "that is the problem with Holocausts, they are simply TOO GRAPHIC. Is this really the best that our legislature can do? But then let us not  listen to  the "pointy end of the spear" in the direction of your decision making. We are simply the ones who actually "know" what education needs, and conversely what it does not. But none of this surprises us. Was it not this legislature which presided over the dismantling and partial destruction of public education in the Commonwealth? Shame on you all.


CommentID: 29620

12/16/13  11:58 am
Commenter: Kate Goodwin, Charlottesville High School

Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials

I am very concerned about this amendment regarding the use of controversial instructional materials. While I understand that some students may not be ready to discuss and explore texts of a sensitive nature, there are several problems with this amendment.

1) It's hard to determine what constitutes sensitive or controversial material. What may be perfect for one student based on his/her development may not be suitable for another. What guidelines should I use for determining which texts to list as controversial in my syllabus? These issues can and should be handled on an individual basis. That's how I've handled them in my classroom--this doesn't need to change.

2) It would be impossible to identify all potentially sensitive or controversial material. I have hundreds of books in my classroom library, and I can't identify every issue in every book. There simply isn't enough time. I would rather spend my time crafting lessons and assessing student progress than flagging "inappropriate" chapters in student choice books.

3) It's important to teach students how to pick books and materials that are appropriate for them and what to do if they encounter material they aren't ready for. When they go to the public library, no one tells them what they can and can't check out. When they leave my class, I don't control what they read or watch. Students need to be taught how to determine what's appropriate for them. This is a valuable life skill.

4) What may be regarded as difficult subject matter often serves as a catalyst for great class discussion. When students are pushed to think beyond their own perspective, they all have kinds of new insights and ideas. Please don't stunt this kind of growth in my students!

I care deeply about my students and have modified my materials in the past to help accomodate students who aren't developmentally ready to read the materials we're exploring in class. I am happy to continue doing this. Please do not waste my time and expertise by asking me to identify questionable content in every material in my classroom.

CommentID: 29621

12/16/13  12:44 pm
Commenter: Misty Elmore, English 11,AP Language Teacher,English Chair,Campbell Co,BHS

Teachers' responsibility vs Parents' responsibility

In the midst of a reform of the American Education System to increase rigor, better prepare for college and workforce, and promote critical thinking for our students, the laws and regulations being placed upon the educators are actually stifling these main objectives. We are hand-holding and codling the very same students we claim to be better- educating. We are placing nearly 100% of the responsibility on the teachers while the students and their parents have very little.  

This new regulation proposed by the VA Board of Education would simply impede English and history teachers' efforts to encourage students to think on higher levels, experience the world from other points of view, and make connections to world issues. We expect students from all over the state to perform at the same level on standardized tests but we shelter them the very information that would allow real learning to take place. 

Furthermore, shouldn't it be the parents' responsibility to inquire about their child's learning experiences, rather than the teachers' responsibility to make sure every resource is approved by the parent prior to using it in a lesson? Why do we cater to the minority viewpoint when making policies that affect everyone? In the AP Language class, we use many types of controversial resources to encourage learning and growth in the classroom. I explain to my students that they are on the verge of becoming actual adults and one of our goals is to promote mature thinking, reading, and writing. They also are encouraged to share everything with their parents. If a parent has a question or concern, he or she is able to contact me on an individual basis. This rarely takes place.  But when it does, it allows for open communication to satisfy the needs and concerns of one student/parent rather than creating policies and lessons for the whole.

We continue to be hypocritical in education. We expect the teachers to strive for unattainable goals and perform with unrealistic expectations all the while hand-cuffing them with ridiculous laws, rules, regulations, and responsibilities which juxtapose the stated intentions of producing critical thinkers who are better prepared for their future roles in the community. Teachers are tired of fighting to teach. Enough is enough. Do not pass another regulation which cripples our ability to perform our jobs effectively.

CommentID: 29622

12/16/13  1:54 pm
Commenter: Aggie Craft, Charlottesville City Schools

Use of Controversial Materials

What consititutes sensitive material? Who is to say whose opinion is correct? This is a lose/lose situation. It is inevitable that no matter how much is disclosed about any given book, someone could find it offensive.

What educators have said thus far in this strand is spot on. We are preparing students to be successful by allowing them to discover their own limits, learn how to make good decisions in difficult situations, and becoming literate citizens by engaging in wide reading and writing.  

Research has shown time and time again that giving adolescents choice in reading material will result in more reading. This is precisely what we need. Teachers are embracing research-based practices that support giving students choices in reading. When students and/or parents are uncomfortable with a selection, offer another choice. Problem solved!

This is, indeed a slippery slope. Do not take decisions away from teachers or students about what they read. Do not take teachers away from crafting engaging curricula.

Even better, ask any student if they'd like to tackle issues or avoid them. They'll want to tackle. 

CommentID: 29623

12/16/13  2:04 pm
Commenter: Valerie Egger, Loudoun County High School

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

In college, a professor told my freshmen literature class, “we read the great authors because their stories are molded by pain. If we read things written by college freshmen, they would have no pain, no substance. They’d be about how you miss your kitty cat or how difficult it is adjusting to dorm life. There would be no true pain, no substance, and nothing to be learned.”

He was right. Great literature is greatly unpleasant, and this is how literature achieves its power.

My students have asked me time and again, “Why don’t we read pleasant stories? Like where no one dies and everyone is happy.” What could be learned from such stories? What problem, pain, or injustice would kindle the spark of critical thinking if there were nothing bad happening? Edison did not invent the light bulb because he lived in a well-lit world.

It is from unpleasantness that humans forge forward. And the literature we teach is full of unpleasantness. Now, an issue is brought forth that would require teachers to “warn” parents of “sensitive” material so that parents could prevent their children from reading anything unsavory and request an alternate assignment. This mandate would needlessly alarm parents and would put great works of literature at risk.

It is this type of white-washing that the great works of literature warn us against. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of any novel in the curriculum of any high school in which I’ve taught that does not contain “sensitive” material of one sort or another. Asking teachers to warn parents of it seems almost farcical.

Most any Shakespeare play contains lewd jokes and puns (for those able to understand them). Should we warn parents against all works of The Bard, all the human truths and struggles of his works, just because of a few lines of pun?

The Grapes of Wrath provides a beautiful, poetic account of the struggle of individuals against a behemoth of a system, questioning the function and efficacy of government and business. It’s a work that opens students’ minds to the gray area of any policy or action, showing actual human consequences of decisions made in board rooms or at legislators’ desks, hopefully preparing students to make better decisions when they become adults. Should we scare parents away by warning them that the book contains a disturbing scene involving a still-born corpse floating down a river, or a scene in which a woman breast-feeds a starving old man? It doesn’t get much more sensitive than that.

1984 is a book that warns against dictatorships and the result of allowing the powers-that-be to censor history, literature, and thought. It’s a miserable, dangerous, white-washed world meant to stifle an individual’s ability and willingness to think and act independently. The novel is a dire warning to inspire readers to cling to individual freedoms and free thought. Should we warn parents against the book because it contains a Department of Pornography that produces entertainment for the lower class? Prostitution? A promiscuous young woman who has sex as her method of rebelling against oppression? Nearly the entire third section of the book details the main character’s torture as he is forcefully required to conform even his thoughts to the will of The Party. The sensitive and unpleasant content in the novel pushes students to question the nature of power and the human spirit. It provides a frightening truth about how people like Hitler have been able to sway so many to their malicious wills.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a freedom-loving, anti-racism novel contains over 200 uses of the “n-word.” Should we warn parents against this classic and the values it instills because of archaic language use and racist characters (who are always made out to be the bad guys, whom we wouldn’t want to emulate)?

Oedipus Rex, the seminal work of tragedy from 400 B.C., contains an incestuous marriage, parricide, suicide, and the graphic gouging out of one’s own eyes. Should we warn parents against such an important work, one that establishes the basis for all tragic heroes that follow? The terror caused by such sensitive material provides the cleansing fear—the catharsis—that was the purpose of the work. Difficult to replicate with a less sensitive story. Dr. Seuss, perhaps?

Their Eyes Were Watching God uses beautiful, poetic, and suggestive language to describe a pear tree in such a way that it becomes a metaphorical orgasm, signaling the main character’s entrance into adulthood. Should we warn parents away from this book, renowned for its figurative language and sociological and historical relevance, a book in which the protagonist seeks fulfillment in life against a society that promises her none?

The Great Gatsby shows the corruption and danger of the get-rich-quick mentality of life in the Roaring Twenties. Shall we encourage parents to deprive their children of this experience because of the drinking, affairs, drunk driving, violence, and murder portrayed in the book?

Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Rape and murder.

The Scarlet Letter? Adultery.

Romeo and Juliet? Murder, elopement, and suicide.

How long the list of sensitive works will become!

The proposed legislation will place an onerous burden on teachers and will alarm parents for no reason. Parents are already provided a syllabus that includes a list of works to be studied each year. With the prevalence of Google, Wikipedia, and SparkNotes, we can trust that parents will be able to research the books themselves and discuss any issues or concerns with their children’s teachers. School boards, principals, and department chairs all ensure that books approved for use in the classroom align with Virginia Standards of Learning and contain educational relevance and literary merit. Teachers are required to attend training and gain licensure (and relicensure) to ensure they are qualified to appropriately teach sensitive materials. These checks are already in place for a reason. Syllabi are already distributed to inform parents of the works to be studied. Asking teachers to post warnings of any “sensitive” material is like asking the justice system to revert to a mentality of “guilty until proven innocent.”

Author Ray Bradbury said, “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” His dystopian Fahrenheit 451 portrays a society that does not allow books, creating a spineless, thoughtless culture. Perhaps Bradbury was right, though. Maybe destroying a culture is easier than burning books. We just have to find more ways to encourage people to stop reading them.  

CommentID: 29624

12/16/13  2:24 pm
Commenter: Brian Schwartz, VBCPS

A Lesson In Futility

The consideration of amendment 8 VAC 20-720 is, simply put, an affront to the trust in judgment granted to every teacher by the division and school that hired him or her. As an educator, trained in my field, the decision to alter instruction based on content that could be considered offensive is process that cannot and should not be reduced to sending home a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year. We teachers are not fooled by the ambiguous wording of the proposed amendment; this is an attempt to support the removal of all informed determinations in favor of supporting a reactionary and misinformed minority. If this amendment is passed, teachers will be forced to work under an amendment that is not only technically impossible to enforce, but one that is also crippling to the educational process as a whole.

From a physical standpoint, it would be impossible for me to list every single piece of objectionable material in every novel, novella, play, poem, article, essay, and short story read in a school year. In an increasingly budget-centric teaching universe, the resources that will be consumed meeting this required mandate, in terms of dollars and hours, would prove to be a tax too great for any teacher to bear. How many dollars will be wasted printing guides covering all of the potentially objectionable material in Hamlet? How many hours of planning time should a teacher be expected to waste making this guide? This is clearly a lesson in futility.

Even if this tax is expected to be paid at the beginning of the school year, how can we then be expected to do this every time a new material enters our unit? Most teachers operate flexibly, where units and lessons can change even a day or hour before class begins. Is it then fair to tax a teacher for differentiating instruction between classes and introducing new materials when the need for them appears organically throughout the school year? Clearly this isn’t.

This is overlooking the central problem with this amendment, which is the vagueness of its wording. Considering that English classes typically only study written works with a central conflict, and the nature of conflict typically involves behavior that one or more party considers to be offensive, how then can a teacher be expected to teach any work of significance if an uninformed minority is given the option to veto a work based on their own inflammatory word list? Allowing parents to cherry pick inflammatory key words from a list without any context regarding their use in the work is the exact behavior that this amendment would encourage. How many guardians would veto a work based on a subject they find offensive without reading into the greater context of the work? If this behavior is tolerable then parents should have to take a comprehension test on the work to show they understand its use fully in thematic context and still object to its presence.

This proposed amendment is a lazy solution to a problem that could be overcome with two steps. Step one: Parents, be involved with your student enough to know what they are reading in class, or consult the materials used list that most teachers provide at the beginning of the school year. Step two: Research any work you are questionable on. Step three: Email the teacher of the course if you have questions or concerns, as they will be accommodating to any request. It is that simple. 

CommentID: 29625

12/16/13  2:40 pm
Commenter: William Brazier, Social Science Supervisor, Loudoun CPS, President, VCSSSCE

Education and "Controversial" Material

Why would anyone want to suppress "controversial" or "sensitive" material? Maybe there are some good reasons, but I can't think of any that stand up to reason. First of all, there is the difficulty determining what "controversial" or "sensitive" mean. Teachers used to be "criminals" if they asked their students to read Darwin's Origin of Species. Second, if we want our students to learn, to truly learn, they must have their ideas and opinions challenged, and challenge comes from "controversial" material. Third, to those who would object to "controversial" material being examined in the classroom, I have a question: What are you trying to do? Are you trying to prevent your child from ever considering this material? Or, are you trying to wait for an "appropriate" time?

If the answer to this third question is yes, then I understand. Still, is the appropriate response to "controversial" material to suppress it? Teachers should always strive to publish a syllabus or book list so that parents do know what will be read or used in class, but the reasons this should be published is so that parents can be prepared to work with their children and their child's teacher in processing anything "controversial"--not so that they can "opt out" of the learning experience. The world is out there, and if we don't make school a part of it, then school will be irrelevant.

Sometimes a new article comes out, or a teacher discovers a new great resource, and does not have time to get a notice out about an addendum to the class materials. In this case, teachers really need to know their students well and work with the material with sensitivity, and even alert parents as soon as possible. And having said this, we must realize that teachers have to choose materials that actually help students to master the learning objectives identified by the curriculum.

All of this is to say that a new regulation aimed at suppressing "controversial" material is in some ways understandable, but in practice wrong-headed. Local educational leaders, at the county, city, and school levels need to make sure whatever teachers use in class actually has kids learning our curriculum objectives. If the book students read or the video clip they watch is "controversial," then that is just a magnified learning opportunity--as long as teachers are aiming at the curriculum targets with its use, know their students well, and work in tandem with parents in sensitive fashion. No new regulation will make this happen. Consistent respectful discourse and learning by all parties--students, teachers, parents, politicians--will.

CommentID: 29626

12/16/13  2:41 pm
Commenter: Rebecca Hodell

Objections to objectional content identification

While the motivation behind the changes to 8 VAC 20-131-70 is admirable, in practice the changes are unreasonable.  Clearly, it is important for parents to have input about their children's reading.  As a teacher, I always try to be clear about the content of any novel my class is studying as a whole.  However, it would be impossible for me to predict what might be offensive to each of the families represented in my classroom.  

Additionally, my students read independenty from a wide variety of texts.  This practice is supported by educaitonal research as being the most expeditious route to comprehension, vocabulary, and writing fluency.  For me to alert parents to every book that might have something that someone might find objectional, would seriously curtail my students' freedom of choice.  Instead, I tell parents that their students have choice and that they should discuss their family's values with their children so that the students can make choices that are in line with their parents' expectations. 

Finally, good practice also dictates that I should adjust my teaching and materials to suit my students' needs.  Occasions arise in which I bring instructional materials to class that I had not intended to use at the beginning of the year.  While I always try to choose literature that I believe to be widely acceptable, I cannot guarantee that no one would object.  Also, I would not be able to list such materials on a syllabus because I find them in response to my students needs. 

The same problem would arise when I bring current events and non-fiction journalistic writing to class.  I cannot know in advance what news articles will be written, just as I cannot know whose parents might object to the materials. 

My concern over this proposed amendment is that it is, in practice, impossible to know what others might find objectionable.  Yet, the amendment puts the burden of this impossible prediction on the school and on the teacher. 

CommentID: 29627

12/16/13  2:45 pm
Commenter: Sara Voigt, SCPS


The passing of amendment 8VAC20-720 would be detrimental to teachers and students.   The very foundation of literature rests in the interesting conflicts that revolve around timeless characters that class after class of students read and fall in love with.  Often time these conflicts could be deemed as offensive, depending on one's definition of offensive.

What is to say what is "offensive"?  What is offensive to one, is not offensive to another.   Parents already have the right to request that a child not read a particular piece of literature.  Accommodations are made by the teacher for these requests.  So, I do not understand how this practice does not address the issue being addressed in 8VAC20-720.  If a parent does not want his/her child to read a literary work, then they have that right.  However, to take the opportunity from another student to be exposed to literature just because one parent deems it "offensive" is ludicrous. 

The term "offensive" is subjective, therefore making it impossible for a teacher to list everything that may be offensive to a parent or guardian.  Please do not pass 8VAC20-720.  There is no good that could come from this.

CommentID: 29628

12/16/13  3:15 pm
Commenter: Shannon Llewellyn, English teacher, Brookville High School, Campbell Co.


As a public school educator AND mother of two elementary-aged girls, it horrifies me to think of what regulation like this will mean, not only for my job, but also for my daughters' future education. Thomas Jefferson created the public school system in order to prepare young people to become good citizens. How can we claim to be doing so, when we let unreasonable fear, narrow-mindedness, and mistrust (of the few) guide our actions? This is a classic case of the squeaky wheels getting the grease, and it HAS to stop!

Students need to be exposed to real life, and legislation like this will limit their opportunities to learn about and discuss real-life issues that affect them, now and in the future. If parents can't trust the judgement of their children's teachers, then they should enroll them in private school or educate them at home.


CommentID: 29629

12/16/13  3:42 pm
Commenter: Mary Doss, HCPS

Undue Burden

This regulation imposes an undue burden on teachers.  Not only are we supposed to read parents' minds on what may or may not be controversial, we are also supposed to have planned out any scrap of material that we may or may not use throughout the course of the year.  Then, if a parent objects, we will then have to plan and grade another activity for that student that still meets and covers the standards from the original activity.  

Teachers already work to keep in contact with parents.  In fact, HCPS has an entire website devoted to keeping parents involved in what is going on at school.  Teachers update HCPS Link to keep parents in regards to what is going on in the classroom.  

I feel this is a case where the DOE is bringing in a tank to destroy a "problem" that could be solved with a water pistol.  The regulation itself states that there are already policies to deal with controversial topics in some places.  Why not simply require those without a policy to create one instead of forcing the entire state to use an unfair policy?  

Teachers are qualified to teach.  We have training in our content as well as educational training that covers topics such as educational psychology.  Teachers are aware of what is and is not appropriate for their students' grade level.  Furthermore, if a controversial topic is introduced, the desired outcome is usually to help students develop the skill set they need to approach, evaluate, and judge ANY topic.  Controversial topics are ideal for developing this skill set because it forces the students to not only identify author bias but they must also identify personal bias.  I am sure everyone realizes (especially in this age of information) how important it is for students to be able to identify objective information and to identify bias when present.  Sifting through a glut of information efficiently is a necessary skill for the future.  

Maintaining student interest is a challenge for all teachers and one of the best ways to do that is to use material in which the students have an interest.  Students are often interested in what's happening NOW and a teacher who has had to plan out and get approval for every word he or she will use, will miss the opportunity to use text regarding current events.  

Again, the target of this regulation is too broad.  If there have really be a number of serious complaints and those complaints have been justified, why not censure or reprimand those bad actors instead of punishing and limiting every teacher in the state of Virginia?

If the ability to make decisions and create continues to be stripped from teachers, you will lose the good teachers.  They will either teach elsewhere or leave the profession entirely.  

CommentID: 29630

12/16/13  4:08 pm
Commenter: Ben Sellers, Stafford County Public Schools

A chilling effect on education

I am both a journalist and a teacher by trade. The term "a chilling effect" is often used in reference to restrictions on the First Amendment, such as prior government review or forcing journalists to reveal their sources, that might not technically abridge free speech but would aid in the abridgment of it. The courts have almost always sided with proponents of free speech and ideas where the "chilling effect" is involved.

I can only assume (although this site seems to be put out by the same folks who designed the ObamaCare site), that the new law proposes to require parental consent for any and all controversial material. Judging from the prior comments, this law evidently offers no clear definition for what defines "controversial." Thus, the result will be only to have a chilling effect on education in general and deprive all students of developing essential critical-thinking skills that may only come from having their beliefs and perceptions challenged. 

We all could cite countless examples of stupid, needless, detrimental censorship in schools and other places. Maybe someone thinks teaching Thoreau or Martin Luther King's speeches is offensive because it promotes civil disobedience. Some may think To Kill a Mockingbird is racist because it uses the "n" word, or others because it promotes an agenda they disagree with. What recourse will there be to challenge those objections?

Are we instead to place our faith and good judgment in the Virginia Department of Education? Let's keep in mind that this is the same government bureaucracy that sanctioned segregation in schools until the 1970s. Are they now the arbiters of good taste and morality? Or perhaps it's the parents, many of whom allow their children to hop on Twitter and Snapchat and post with impunity the most unbelievably obscene material out ther. But God----excuse me, secular, pantheistic, nonpartisan entity---forbid that we should allow teachers to promote standards that would impact students' ability to feel good about themselves. 

Or perhaps someone decides that teaching about government/societal censorship itself (a la Brave New World1984 or Fahrenheit 451) is offensive. In those books, the the ruling dictator or oligarchies use sex, drugs and violence as means to suppress any independent thought. It's offensive, and also totally true-to-life, but we don't want to have our own kids think taboo things that might be considered "controversial."

It is understandable that the D.O.E. and political entities may want to pander to constituencies by yet again scapegoating teachers. Despite the fact that teachers are all college-educated, many with multiple degrees, and are in one of the few professional trades that requires a renewed certification every few years, their good judgment isn't deemed good enough for our students. However, there is a reason that we have both free speech and public education in our democracy, and that is so we have a free-flowing exchange of ideas that promote good decision-making. 

If you add more pointless paperwork to the teachers' duties, some will recoil and abandon any sort of teaching that involves critical thinking---the cornerstone of which is dissention of ideas. Others may just leave and go to a state where better salaries and policies exist. And the teachers who care the most will ignore the red tape and continue to do their jobs as usual, leaving the schools and school systems liable for noncompliance. 

The end result will be that Virginia's students lose out, and by extension, so will its future. 


CommentID: 29631

12/16/13  4:22 pm
Commenter: Lewis Bauer, Charlottesville High School

Please keep the floodgates closed.

Like all teachers, I value an open line of communication with my students' parents. This of course includes being transparent about what texts and materials we will use in class, and about how we will use them. However, to include the suggested language in 8 VAC 20-720-160 would be ill-advised and potentially dangerous to the free practice of education in our state. The issues raised here are not about the relatively minor effort required to send letters home, but rather about the vague and slippery nature of the concept as a whole.

Who will determine what is to be considered sensitive material? Will this be the responsibility of individual teachers or administrators, or will it be handled at the building level or division level? Will VDOE need to issue directives or guidelines regarding which topics or texts warrant a cautionary letter home? What happens when a teacher, administrator, or department is out of compliance with murky sensitivity criteria? Will parents have the right to demand alternate texts or assessments, or to insist that their child be removed from a particular teacher's classroom?

Whether the repercussions are felt at the building, division, or state level, this revision to the VAC smacks of censorship. That is, it leads to a parade of capricious decisions about what avenues are appropriate for teachers to use in accomplishing student learning objectives. Is the entire Civil War a sensitive topic? Macbeth contains a great deal of violence; should we ban it? Are the Berenstain Bears books overly patronizing or moralistic? Is someone insulted by the current teaching of the English alphabet, which prioritizes Latin orthography at the expense of Anglo-Saxon runic characters? The concept of 0 (zero) as we currently use it most likely emerged from Indian mathematics and natural philosophy - does that mean we're preaching Hinduism in the math classroom?

"Those are ridiculous examples," some might say, "no one with common sense gets worked up over runic derivations or the Berenstain Bears." Unfortunately, when it comes to the exercise of free speech via education, deferring to "common sense" is not an option: it will make the classroom a place where EVERYONE with an axe to grind can derail any aspect of the curriculum they find unsuitable.

To avoid creating a situation in which everyone is walking on eggshells at every turn (which makes true learning impossible), it is imperative that the state Code maintain neutrality when it comes to what is and is not sensitive or appropriate. Ultimately, education is the enterprise of teachers and students tackling tough questions together. Teachers, students, and parents need to be trusted to handle these occasionally rocky transactions on their own terms.

CommentID: 29632

12/16/13  9:10 pm
Commenter: Donna L. Shrum

Removing the last shred of trust in teachers

The other day, one of my eighth graders asked if she could read me something: “Would you like to see this movie with me?  It’s about a man’s wife and children who are brutally murdered by a serial killer.  One physically handicapped child survives.  In a horrible twist of fate, this handicapped child is kidnapped and taken halfway around the world.  The father embarks on a daring journey to get him back.  He is assisted in his quest by a mentally disabled woman.  Do you want to see the movie?”  I replied, “Of course not!”  She giggled and said, “It’s called ‘Finding Nemo.’”

Her joke came to mind when reading the proposed amendment of 8 VAC 20-720. “Sensitive” and “explicit” is often in the eye of the beholder.  When parents entrust their children to our classrooms, they are trusting us to make the right decisions regarding the material used in class.  8 VAC 20-720 says that trust is completely gone.  This amendment originated because of a very mature novel assigned in a senior literature class.  The expectation has always been that each student is mature enough to choose to opt out of particular reading material, and parents can also make the decision on behalf of the student.  In that situation, the offending novel had won the Pulitzer Prize, and this author has been awarded the Nobel Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Certainly, the international community deemed this author’s work worthy of study and reading, and the teacher made a rational choice to include it as material for college-bound young adults.

The change would add that instructors must provide a copy of the syllabus for each of their child's courses, “including a notice to parents about any sensitive or sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.”  Rather than continue in the implicit contract of trust between teacher, parents, and children, this amendment places an undue burden on the instructor to comb through every possible work that will be used during the year and identify anything that could be interpreted as sensitive or sexually explicit.  No more current events—they can’t be identified ahead of time, and reading about school shootings, for example, is a sensitive subject.  After the teacher sends home the notice, then an undue alarm and burden is placed on the parent to comb through each reading to see if it passes muster.

This amendment is one step from parents simply choosing what teachers are allowed to use in class—but, of course, each parent must be in agreement.  I won’t be surprised if this amendment is put in place, because it will say that I have no professional judgment, no control over what I choose to teach to prepare my students to understand the world in which they live.  If it passes, perhaps parents will be good enough to get together before school begins, decide which material is acceptable to all of them, and put it in a packet for me.  Then perhaps the VDOE will put a webcam in each classroom so parents can check during school hours to make sure that we aren’t teaching anything sensitive or sexually explicit, because we surely can’t be trusted.  It will be a relief when we get to the point where the parents and administrators dictate 100% of what will be taught in the classroom, because teachers will no longer need to train or continue professional development—what would be the need when what we teach will be completely dictated by others?

CommentID: 29635

12/16/13  11:42 pm
Commenter: Jennifer Horne, Charlottesville High School

"Controversy" in the 21st Century

Thank you for allowing me to share my opinions on this proposal.  I first must say that I agree with many of the already posted comments - that the term "controversial material" in and of itself is a slippery slope into a subjective clawing away of quality education.  The vast and various nature of lessons that could be deemed "controversial" is reason enough to dispose of this idea.

I would also like to present a 180 degree turn from the proposed amendment -  I would like to see an increase  in the controversial material presented in our public schools.  In today's society, the ease with which a child may gain access to the "controversial" - be it reprehensible language, sexuality, violence, attempts at religious indoctrination, manipulation, confabulation - is  undeniable.  As the parent of a 14 and 10 year old, I am constantly amazed by all that they "know".  Though usually it is a positive awe, there have been times that I've stuttered out a, "Where in the world did you hear / see that?!"  The bus.  A slumber party.  Youtube.  Google.  The hallway.  The bathroom.  TV.  The public in which our public schools are embedded is not quiet.  It is not slow.  It is not discerning or careful or gentle.  Yes, I would like to be the one with whom my own kids talk to about the "controversial" that they encounter; however, as I cannot be ever-present in their lives, I like to think that the schools, in which they spend so much time, are equipped to positively respond to their quesions and concerns.  When schools actually introduce kids to what might be deemed controversial, they are inviting discussion and dispelling fear.  For a school to expose a child to Hitler, or Shakespeare, (yes, most of his plays are quite "controversial"), or Freud, or racism, sexism, religion - is not an act of persuasion or exoneration.  It is the simple act of having a discussion.  Of answering and asking questions.  Of sating curiosity.  Of initiating understanding.  Isn't that what we are here to do?  Isn't that education?  

I just finished reading Of Mice and Men with my 9th graders.  We had a discussion about how this was the 2nd most banned book in the US.  One of my students said that if he had picked this book up on his own,  he would have thought that Steinbeck was a racist who liked to cuss a lot.  He said that reading and discussing the book in class made him understand  the book, and Steinbeck's message in a way he wouldn't have going it alone.  He then said that it was, "probably, like, the best book I ever read, ever." 

I realize that the proposed amendment is not overtly about "banning" books and disallowing specific lessons; however,  its message is clearly about restriction and restraint.  As both a teacher and a parent in the 21st Century, I feel that this is a backward move for our Virginia educational system.


Thank you for your consideration.

CommentID: 29636

12/17/13  9:33 am
Commenter: Margaret Thornton, Charlottesville High School

Strengthen Schools and Give Students Choices

Many of my students, who are about to enter college or the workplace, do not like to read. Somewhere, something happened to them that turned off the curiosity switch that every human is born with in the on position. They come into my classroom telling me, subtlely and overtly, that English class is not a place they plan to succeed. 

Friday we began class as we always do: reading a book of our choice. Everyone was quiet. Nary a cellphone was out. I had on my hands a gaggle of anti-readers turned readers. Why the change? Because we give them choices. We give them a space where they can explore and ask questions and wonder. I cannot send home a syllabus with every book that a student might choose to read any more than I can name every star in the sky. And I shouldn't have to. School is a safe place to fall down, get back up, question why you fell in the first place, and keep going. Giving students and teachers the opportunity to make choices about their interests and questions will strengthen public education in the Commonwealth. 

Parents who are involved enough to talk to their children and teachers about what they are reading will also help stregthen our schools. This proposed change takes away everyone's agency to do that. Please reject it. 

Thank you for your time. 

CommentID: 29637

12/17/13  10:11 am
Commenter: Mindi Kaleto -- Loudoun County Public Schools -- 7th Grade History Teacher

"Sensitive" Is a Very Relative Term

This law would be impossible to follow!  I have almost 150 students....there is no way for me to determine what 150 sets of parents would find objectionable.  I would pretty much have to give parents the entire text because what I might think is perfectly appropriate might be "objectionable" to someone else.



CommentID: 29638

12/17/13  10:21 am
Commenter: Jay Dodson, LCPS

Ban ALL reading ...

Wow!  This seems ridiculous!  I'm willing to bet that every passage is offensive to someone, so we may as well ban all reading material, or notify parents every time our students read something.  Isn't this the parents responsibility ... that being to monitor what their children read.  It's not like we are reading the Bible (God forbid) in public classrooms.  As if teachers don't have enough to do or worry about in this day and age, the State Board of Education is giving them yet another.  This is very sad.  Teachers sure aren't in the profession for the money, and pretty soon all of the regulations, rules, etc... will be the reason to leave.  

CommentID: 29639

12/17/13  10:25 am
Commenter: Deborah Rice, Loudoun County Public Schools

What is sensitive?

As a citizen and as a teacher, I am concerned about this new rule. Who determines what is "sensitive?" Is a book discussing the use of magic or with witches sensitive? Is a book which contains bullying or an accidental death sensitive?  It is to some people. I don't think it is practicable for teachers to inform parents what might be sensitive because we don't know what each parent thinks is sensitive. For some parents, it may be an incidence of sexual activity. For others, it may be drug use. It may be a discussion of religions other than the one the parent practices. Maybe a parent wouldn't want his/her child to learn about incidents of genocide or the Holocaust. All are sensitive comments, but students should learn about them. Teachers are trained and know how and who to ask to find age-appropriate resources for our students. Please trust us to do our jobs and educate our state's children!

CommentID: 29640

12/17/13  10:29 am
Commenter: T. Rossi, Teacher

Sensitive material?

This is ridiculous and trivial.  The parents should have some responsibility to be proactive about what their children are reading, and sensitive material is so vague.  Who is to say what is sensitive to one person vs. another??  The legislation should instead read that parents can come into the school and look at the textbooks if they like!  Yet more silly and busy work for highly qualified teachers likely to push more out of the profession.

CommentID: 29641

12/17/13  10:43 am
Commenter: Matthew Uselton, BCPS

Reject the amendment.

There are two issues at hand with the amendment concerning notification of sensitive and sexually explicit materials. The first is the definition of "sensitive". To what degree and to what subjects are we assigining the term "sensistive"? Murder, violence, infedelity, the supernatural, LGBT issues, race--all of these can be deemed "sensitive" in nature because of their ability to cause discomfort in an audience. To which I say, good. As we create citizens of the world, students must be able to move beyond their comfort levels and learn to address and solve sometimes delicate problems. Do not discount the benefits of making our students deal with tough issues, and where better to do that than in the safety of an intelligent and well run classroom.

That leads to the second issue at hand, the trust of teachers to know the audience they are teaching and to choose texts that speak to the needs of their students. I cannot think of a single teacher that ever said, "I will teach book X because of the shocking sex scene." Teachers have an inherent sensitivity to thier students, and strive to provide them with the BEST possible texts to better help them understand themselves and the world around them. Please trust your teachers to make the right decisions for our classrooms and do not simply hinder us with more red tape.

CommentID: 29642

12/17/13  10:57 am
Commenter: Sandra Hood, middle school

reject the ammendment

This type of ammendment is based on subjective judgement. What are the parameters of sensitive? Who will decide this? Please use common objective sense and do not pass these changes.

CommentID: 29643

12/17/13  11:03 am
Commenter: Anita Clayton, University of Virginia

Censorship and restrictive measures don't help our children

This is a clumsy attempt at censorship.  Where does it end? Instead, what is needed is open communication, between children and parents, between students and teachers, between individuals and the world.  Young people don't learn to be open to new ideas, to think through issues, or to become good citizens if we allow a few individuals to control information. Students are exposed to massive amounts of unfiltered information (much of it objectionable) via the media, the web, and out of the mouths of their friends. Please trust educators with the content of books.  Don't codify unreasonable censorship.

CommentID: 29644

12/17/13  11:27 am
Commenter: Carol Wenger

Reject this amendment

Sesitive material is too vague. 

CommentID: 29645

12/17/13  11:51 am
Commenter: Douglas McDowell, University of Texas at Austin

Fahrenheit 451 coming true in VA?

I recieved my elementary education in Virginia public schools and sadly I can't say I'm surprized.  I believe that this ammendment is merely another way for the government to control and brainwash it's youth.  They fear a public that thinks for itself and questions their leaders.  It is much easier to control a public that is taught to memorize and obey rather than teaching skeptisim, problem solving and seeking out more than one side of the story.  Many of the great ideas in this world are considered controversial by the government because they teach exactly that.  The greatest teachers I've had were frustrated with the confinements they had to teach within and this new law merely discourages more college students from becomes teachers in VA.  Is this what the government wants?  It sure seams like they would rather eliminate the great teachers from the equation and employ only the teachers they can easily control. Regardless of what the textbooks teach or what lies we must tell in order to recieve A's, our best teachers will find ways to EDUCATE our children. They don't do it for the money or the incintives; they do it because they believe in our youth.  We need to enable our teachers and disable our politicians and maybe then our country will be a place that I'm proud to be a citizen of.

CommentID: 29646

12/17/13  11:53 am
Commenter: Laura Haft

Reject this ammendment

The definition of potentially sensitive and controversial materials is overly vague and it's not the place of the state to make such restrictions on classroom teachers.

CommentID: 29647

12/17/13  11:54 am
Commenter: J. Eisner, teacher

Backhanded Censorship

"Censorship ends in logical comepleteness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads."  -George Bernard Shaw

The proposed changes to the existing legislation that governs the use of text in classrooms is attempting to  place the role of the parent on the classroom teacher once again!  Educational professionals choose reading material for students that emphasizes the theme of their lessons, relates their teaching to real world situations, or highlights exemplary journalism.  They do not choose material that is inflammatory in nature.  It is the parents responsibility to be aware of what their children are reading and to review the material.  Teachers cannot be responsible for what every individual parent may deem 'sensitive.'

CommentID: 29648

12/17/13  12:16 pm
Commenter: Monica Carra, Counselor

Reject this amendment!

This is another example of an education system based on our distrust of educators and a ridiculous policy amendment that tie the educator's hands rather than empowering them with the freedom to run their classrooms.  It is the parents responsibiity to determine what they deem "sensitive material" to their family and opt out of that part of the curriculum!

CommentID: 29649

12/17/13  12:46 pm
Commenter: Gurkamal Gill High school

defeat censorship

I ask that you consider your favorite books, poems, teachers.  How many of them were controversial? This amendment seems benign and reasonable to disclose such “subjects” to parents, but as we sit and think of all we assign in high school, I literally cannot find a piece that would not need to be reported. I would posit that all good literature, speech, and expository writing has an element of controversy.  I can understand a student’s/parent’s need or right to, in some situations, request an alternative reading assignment and this is certainly accomodated when needed.   This new amendment will undoubtedly encourage and most likely lead to systematic regulation of what we read in class, what we put in libraries, and what kids learn. As a parent and educator , this causes me great anxiety. 


I have always wanted my children to read, experience, and learn to empathize with others.  I want them to read age appropriate literature that teaches that bullying is wrong but so is turning a blind eye; that people are entitled to their own beliefs; that from terrible situations comes redemption, renewal, love; that thinking, writing, and speaking is powerful; that he is not alone in the world.  The list goes on and on.  These are the lessons that literature and other professional writings that are deemed “controversial” and/or “sexually explicit” teach.  I can tell you that teachers do not choose books for these qualities and never choose the more controversial readings without careful consideration of age appropriateness. 

Finelly I wanted my own children to be college ready and be able to deal with controversial material that they may be exposed to even if it is not something they like.   This level of censorship is not warranted.

CommentID: 29650

12/17/13  12:52 pm
Commenter: Elizabeth Morris, English Department Chair JRHS, CCPS

Please Reject the Amendment

The Virginia Reading and Writing EOC SOLs require students to read and analyze non-fiction and persuasive texts.  Many examples of these of these tackle controversial topics.  However, it is critically important that we teach students how to effectively write and respond to and about topics that trigger emotional responses.  It is an important 21st century skill and one that can help them as leaders, employees and citizens. 

Furthermore, as an instructor, it is nearly impossible for me to guage what every parent or student could find objectionable.  However, instructors provide  list of texts for teachers and students every year.  I believe parents are responsible for investigating texts they may deem objectionable and to speak with their student and instructor regarding their concerns. 

CommentID: 29651

12/17/13  1:05 pm
Commenter: David Loughran, Teacher

Reject with prejudice

More and more research shows how important it is for student's to choose their own books to read. This improves fluency, literacy, and fosters a love for reading.

As this law reads, it would eliminate the ability for student's to choose a book from a teacher's shelf unless the teacher had read it and could vouch for it.

Furthermore, teaceher's are professionals who have experience and expertise. We should trust them to help our children get closer to books, not try to defend our children from them.

CommentID: 29652

12/17/13  1:06 pm
Commenter: Rodney Bennett, educated citizen

All education is controversial, and critical.

Points of view are often different.  Thank God.  Education (and democracy) relies on the free exchange of these points of view.  Therefore, controversy is expected; it is a given.  To keep a student away from controversy is to deny education.  In this way it is also a fetter on good citizenship.  The onus should remain on parents, NOT teachers, to censor their child's education.  This ammendment should be struck down.  In leiu, please consider giving teachers a pay raise.  

CommentID: 29653

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

12/17/13  1:23 pm
Commenter: Freyja Bergthorson, parent

Reject this ammendment

As a parent, I recognize the importance of my children being exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opinions.  When I send my children to school, I hope that their minds are being broadened, and that they are learning to think critically, and become informed citizens who are capable of making their own decisions.  

It is my job as a parent to have discussions with my children, and to help them learn to understand the ideas of others, even those they might find offensive, or which bring up 'sensitive' issues.  It is not the job of teachers to notify me of 'sensitive' information, but to broaden the minds of my children and help them to learn to think critcially for themselves -- something they can not learn to do well without engaging with content that some may find sensitive.  

Please reject this ammendment & protect the minds of our children from those who would seek to impose the blinders of censorship upon them.

CommentID: 29655

12/17/13  1:29 pm
Commenter: Peter Hardin, Retired Teacher

8 VAC 20-720

I urge defeat of this amendment as unnecessary.  It is the classroom teacher who should be the arbiter of determining appropriate and meaningful implementation of "sensitive materials."  I see several relative issues couched in this amendment. First is the slippery slope of censorship which should be in no way tolerated.  Time and again the culture warrors have attempted to ban educationally valid literature. I encourage you to read Inherit the Wind or Fahrenheit 451 as primers on this subject and to refresh yourselves with the First Amendment to our Constitution. Second is the degradation of the teacher's professionalism. It is he or she who must deliver and accommodate the curriculum in the most effective manner. The teacher is the one who knows the students needs and how to meet them. Bureaucratic meddling which inhibits the teacher's judgement provides poorer education and a decrease in academic rigor, already in decline. Third is the perception of some moralistic agenda which has already produce a divisory and demagogic legislature to the greater detriment of the Commonwealth. I see no reason to implement this amendment.

CommentID: 29656

12/17/13  1:50 pm
Commenter: Pete Mercier, High School

Opposition to this Ammendment

This proposal is logical in theory--allowing parents and students the opportunity to use alternative assignments and resources in place of those possibly deemed explicit, overly graphic, or otherwise offensive is a fair accommodation to be included in all schools' policies.  However, the board and legislative bodies fail to realize the potential pitfall of such an action--in order for schools, most of which are overburdened with data entry, recovery, analysis, and input, to ease the potential burden of such a policy, it is believed by many educators and administrative professionals that school districts will simply create "banned books lists" in order to avoid the logistical problems that may accompany such a policy.  Parents with the power to choose every piece of literature their child(ren) read(s) may become a thorn in the side of academic agendas, creating backlogs of paperwork for teachers and schools alike while making instruction all the more difficult for teachers.  Instead of teaching 140 students about one literary masterpiece, English teachers may have to teach 80 students about one work, 35 about another, and the final 35 of yet another work.  This is unfair to teachers who are already dealing the pressures of ensuring that students are ready for SOLs,  have met graduation requirements, and have learned how to read, write, and function as adults in the collegiate and professional world.  

I urge the Board and Legislature, in all of their good interest, to deny this proposal.  Please, teachers and those who work with students every day really do know what's best for students.  Parents and teachers working together for the betterment of our future is absolutely imperative for not only the success of our students, but for the success of our communities, state, and nation.  I applaud your efforts to ensure that schools and parents work together, but this mandate is as likely to bring about more problems than solutions.  I do believe that schools should work with students and parents--if parents believe that a curricular resource is offensive, they should have the right to request an alternative assignment for their child.  However, this idea should be placed back in the think tank for further review, evaluation, and restructuring.  

Thank you.

CommentID: 29657

12/17/13  2:07 pm
Commenter: Jeannie Pfautz, Charlottesville High School

8 VAC 20-720

I wholeheartedly agree with so many of the comments already posted here.  Most importantly, this amendment would take away student choice in reading, which is absolutely critical.

This recommendation is inappropriate on a variety of different levels.  The rationale behind it is to protect parents and their children from potentially controversial material in the classroom.  However, what this regulatory action will actually do is create a mountain of paperwork for teachers, schools, and districts.  I can’t imagine the length of an average classroom syllabus if teachers needed to include “a notice to parents about any sensitive or sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials”.   The syllabus would possibly be the length of a book itself.

While I believe strongly in keeping the lines of communication open with teachers, students, and parents, this regulatory action will do no such thing.  Parents are very capable of discussing any concerns they have about specific reading materials with their children’s teachers.  They do not need a lengthy syllabus from each class discussing any “potential” problems.

Please do not pass this amendment. 

CommentID: 29658

12/17/13  2:34 pm
Commenter: Michelle Davis, Page Middle School

"Controversial" Classroom Materials

It's wonderful when parents are involved in a child's reading any age. The benefits are too many to list, but teachers know them well.   And we are so thankful.

As an 8th grade English teacher, most of the writing that we cover has a conflict.  Some of those conflicts could be seen as controversial.  What is controversy though?  As I reflect on the stories and materials that I use in class, labeling them as controversial becomes problematic.  

In tagging authors' works as controversial, I am placing judgments on literature based on my own standards.   This will likely point a finger right back to me eventually.   In my haste to get together a friendly September parent note home...all about controversy...what if I miss something?   What if a teachable moment comes up in the news that students want to discuss or research?   What if teachers don't agree on a selection's "controversy factor"?  Is this the tone I want to set at the beginning of the school year?   As an 8th grade teacher I know that listing all of the "controversial" content in September likely guarantees that strong readers will read those selections by October.   Sometimes pointing out elements of "controversy" can spoil plot points too.

Much of the reading in my course is self-selected independent reading based on interest and reading level.   Because of this, I rely on students and parents to make shared decisions regarding appropriate texts.   Whole class novels are not as common in my classroom, but I smile to think of how many children read The Outsiders for the first time with me.  This is a novel that I use with all students, adding in supports for children who need it while advanced readers may read it independently with a critical eye for craft.   You've probably read it too.   There's smoking, drinking, stealing and fighting.   There's gang violence.   The most loved character of the book knifes someone...and that child dies.   But those of us who have read this young adult classic know that it's much more than its controversial content.   For so many reluctant readers this is the novel that turned them into eager readers.

S.E. HInton wrote the story as a teenager for the simple reason that there weren't any realistic teen novels in her library that she wanted to read.   Remember the popular film?   Francis Ford Coppola made that film happen because children asked him to!   Part of our reading lives, especially for teens, is deciding who we are and who we aren't.   These big ideas are often explored through "controversial" material.

I am so lucky.   I am.   Since 1999 I have been blessed with students and parents who value what I do in the classrom.   I am always open to switching a class novel out for a family who does not think that a child is ready for the content.   Adding this promosed amendment to what I do for children will create more work and trouble than is necessary.   I am always open to parents' concerns....and students' concerns.   Perhaps the intent of this amendment is rooted in parents taking an interest in their child's education, but it seems to place an unnecessary burden back on the classroom teacher.

I would encourage all parents to develop positive relationships with their children's teachers and ask about class novels.   Parents with access to the internet can use Amazon to easily access a variety of critical or user reviews indicating the major plot points of the stories.   Virginia also allows students to take courses online or at home, providing more control over class content and the ability to tailor coursework specifically to a single child's emotional readiness, reading ability, interest and maturity level.

Thank you for understanding that I spend a lot of thought in choosing books that are age-appropriate to support the Virginia Standards of Learning.   I hope that parent concerns can be handled on an individual basis instead of passing an amendment that would affect all Virginia teachers and ask us to give quality reading materials unnecessary labels.

CommentID: 29659

12/17/13  2:49 pm
Commenter: Carol McGann

Please don't pass this amendment. Trust teachers to make the right decisions while teaching

CommentID: 29660

12/17/13  3:07 pm
Commenter: Chuck Miller English teacher in a Virginia public school

Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials

As an ordained Baptist deacon currently serving on the active deacon board of my church and as a teacher in a Virginia public school with 37 years of classroom experience,  I think I can offer a unique perspective regarding The Virginia Board of Education’s proposal to add the following language: “including a notice to parents about any sensitive or sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course,” to Item B.1 of section 8 VAC 20-131-270 of the Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia.  I can appreciate both the mindset of the parents who may have lobbied for such language to be included in the accreditation standards and the point of view of the teachers who would be affected by this action.

I strongly believe that teachers should establish a dialogue with parents regarding the books their children are reading and why they have been selected, and I try, as best I can, to keep the parents of my students informed about the works we are studying in class.  However, I also believe that no good can come from inserting the language noted above into the standards of accreditation.

The language is arbitrary at best and open to a myriad of interpretations and misinterpretations by those who may have little or no knowledge of why a text has been selected.  When such terms are applied to a literary work, the educational value of the work is overshadowed by the fixation on a single aspect of the work taken out of context.  Under such scrutiny, even the Bible, a text which I suspect many who support this measure hold dear, would not pass muster.

A literary work is more than the sum of its parts and should be regarded in its entirety.  To do otherwise is not to truly appreciate or understand the work, its purpose, or its place in the curriculum

CommentID: 29661

12/17/13  3:16 pm
Commenter: Kelly Wolfsheimer Chesterfield County Public Schools

No to Amendment Re: Controversial/Sensitive Materials

A parent is a child’s first teacher—as it should be.  But a parent is not the only teacher who guides that child.  Every person that child encounters, every book that child reads, every piece of music that a child listens to, or a work of art that a child gazes upon develops the framework for that child’s education—the framework for the person he or she is to become.

As a teacher, I take that task of exposure seriously. I am the gatekeeper for this world—the one who filters what your students see, hear, read, think, and debate. My job is to develop your child to become the independent readers, the critical thinkers, the parents of tomorrow.  I spend hours reading critically, thinking about how to best engage your child, to engage his/her brain, to spark that motivation to learn. I develop plans with each child in mind. I take into account the maturity of each student, the dynamics of each class—where each student is and where I need to take him/her.  I have already anticipated those “rough spots”—that word, the giggle, the blank stare, the questions. My classroom is the safe spot—the place where your child can learn, debate, question. To learn from each other, from me—but mostly from themselves. To know what THEY think and why.  I think of your children constantly.

I ask that in considering this amendment that you place your faith in me as an educator, as a parent, to use my judgment. I invite you into my classroom, to become a partner in your child’s education—not a passive bystander, but a partner.  But do not tie my hands with more bureaucracy with an impossible task, to know the minds of every parent. Send me an email, schedule a conference, come in, sit and watch—or participate. But have faith in me. I will not fail you.

CommentID: 29662

12/17/13  3:29 pm
Commenter: Laura Currier, teacher and parent

Reject the ammendment

The proposed changes to the existing legislation that governs the use of text in classrooms is placing a large burden on teachers to make subjective judgment on what they deem would be "sensitive material."  If parents are largely concerned at the type of material used in classrooms will be age inappropriate than they should home school their children and let public educators use their professional judgement without having to gain "permission" from every parent regarding what their child will read in their classrooms.  The public has access to curriculum materials/standards/syllabi and can see what their children will be taught.  Teachers use their highly educated professional skills to choose text appropriate for their individual curriculums. Teachers cannot be responsible for what every individual parent may deem sensitive.

CommentID: 29663

12/17/13  3:39 pm
Commenter: LCPS


This is absolutely ridiculous. I have been a teacher for almost 35 years, and every year more and more gets taken out of our hands. How much more do we have to endure by the people who are deciding this stuff. An educated teacher knows the curriculum and what needs to be taught, but every time we turn around, things like this are added. Absolutely ridiculous! I am appalled by this atrocity to our educational system!

CommentID: 29664

12/17/13  6:48 pm
Commenter: Katherine Mann, Central High School

Don't force teachers to include sensitive materials in syllabi

Teachers need to be trusted to use their judgement in the classroom. The words "sensitive" and "controversial" are up for interpretation, and such materials are useful in a classroom precisely because they provoke different viewpoints. The proposed amendment forces teachers to do more work, plan so far ahead that we can't change lesson plans without prior approval (at the beginning of the semester, no less), and is a perfect demonstration of how we are not trusted by parents or legislators. When it comes to controversy, teachers are not the problem. We are merely the facilitators of intelligent discussion and people encouraging critical thinking in young minds. Please treat us as the professionals that we are. 

CommentID: 29665

12/17/13  6:49 pm
Commenter: Brandon Traner

Reject Amendment

As a high school teacher standing in the halls during class changes and working with these young people every day, I am not sure that what is offensive to some parents would even cause a student to bat their eyes. They have all seen an MTV music awards show after all. Most have become numb to sexually explicit material or material that may be offensive because of social media and the need for artists of all types to push the envelope in order to be original and the next big thing. Shouldn't we be encouraged by the fact that they experience this literature and these issues in the safe enviornment of the classroom with educated individuals that can help them bounce their ideas around or get answers from? I am a math teacher, who is not as well read as he should be, so forgive me for not being eliquent, but I know I do not have all the answers and definately need help with exposing my son to different view points so he can form his own decisions and become a well rounded individual.  Trust us teachers to know and do what is best for the students.  Some of us spend more time with the kids then the parents do and know how to approach subjects with the individuals that we have had the time to develop trusting relationships with. If there is an issue, handle it on an individual basis.

CommentID: 29666

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. 


CommentID: 29667