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Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
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Department of Education
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State Board of Education
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Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions [8 VAC 20 ‑ 720]
Action Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
Stage NOIRA
Comment Period Ends 1/15/2014
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1/15/14  5:37 pm
Commenter: Millie Davis, National Council of Teachers of English

NCTE Opposes Resolution Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
 

Virginia Board of Education
BOE@doe.virginia.gov

Dear President Foster, Vice President Beamer, and Members of the Virginia Board of Education:

It has come to my attention that a Resolution Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials in Virginia’s public schools is being considered by the Board and is currently available for public comment. The National Council of Teachers of English opposes the resolution. 

The Resolution Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials would undermine existing school policies that provide for the selection of instructional materials by qualified professionals, such as teachers and librarians, and along with public review, as well as disregard the merit of particular texts by reducing their educational value to a list of descriptors that in no way represent either the purpose of the text or the reason for its selection. Please feel free to share this letter with other interested parties in your agency and around the state.

NCTE is a nonprofit professional organization of 35,000 members and subscribers. Our members are dedicated to improving the quality of literacy instruction and learning at all educational levels, a purpose we’ve held for over 100 years. We have more than 85 regional, state, and local affiliates with a total membership over 18,000, including the Virginia Association of Teachers of English (VATE).

To get to specifics, texts that are selected as instructional materials must be considered in their entirety. It serves no purpose for anyone to focus on individual words or actions in a text because the language and situations in a work—in any text under study—must be seen in the context of the entire work and in why it was chosen to promote student learning in the classroom. Focusing only on particular words, passages, or segments of a work distort its ethical and literary value. In fact, when individuals focus only on aspects of a text that are offensive to them, the author's broad moral vision, total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignored. Unfortunately, there is shock value in isolating and listing selected passages from a book; but this does not reveal anything about the fundamental message or theme in a work and it certainly does not provide insight into its educational value or its literary quality—the very reasons why it was chosen as part of the curriculum.

NCTE uses the term “red-flagging” to describe the labeling of texts that the resolution proposes and we have a strong position against this unfair rating of books, NCTE Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books (http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/rating-books ).  As the position says, “red-flagging” is a “slippery slope” on the way to censorship. In addition, this position notes,

"NCTE believes that literature is more than the sum of its parts… NCTE encourages schools to provide rationales that explain how and why certain books are used as well as the pedagogical purposes these materials serve instead of relying on a system of warnings that, in fact, discourages wide reading.  Dialogue between teachers and parents regarding materials used in the classroom fosters trust, cooperation, and a more complete understanding of how texts are used to meet educational goals."

In our experience with school curricula, we at NCTE have found that there are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. If literary works that are duly selected by teaching professionals are removed because the works offend particular individuals or groups, there will soon be little or no literature left to teach in our schools. Further, it would be wrong to assume that sexual references, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are being endorsed by the author, the teacher, or the school. In fact, classroom study provides a fertile ground for students to interpret surface aspects of literature and to exercise critical thinking as they discuss the characters and issues in a work.   In addition, as I’m certain you know, courts have held that students have certain legal rights to receive information, even if controversial, and schools and teachers have an obligation to teach controversial material even when they  find it objectionable.

Certainly, NCTE supports the right of parents to guide their own children’s reading. In fact, the Council recommends that a good school policy provides students whose families object to a text used in a classroom with an alternative text to read.  Instructional materials are selected to meet the curricula and standards of the school and state.  In fact, schools use selection policies similar to NCTE’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs (http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/selectingelamaterial) to insure that instructional materials not only meet curricular and standards criteria but that they also take into consideration materials that meet the needs of their students.  In addition, these policies ensure public involvement along with professional guidance as materials are selected.  The selection process should be complemented by a reconsideration process such as the one outlined in NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read.

It seems, though, that foundational, sound educational policies like those mentioned above have been side-railed as vocal members of the state with objections to certain texts have lobbied for a statewide policy that ignores the fundamental principles of the freedom to read, the fact that a text worth teaching is much more than the sum of its parts, the processes and procedures in place for establishing curriculum in schools and the selection of texts to support it and for handling complaints against it.

NCTE strongly encourages the Virginia Board of Education to defeat the proposed resolution.

Please feel free to contact me if NCTE can be of further assistance.
 

CommentID: 30819