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WHS Student Commends District for Reading Selections in Letter

Senior Brian Pollock said Westfield public schools teach "independent thought and not just regurgitation of the rhetoric of the consensus."

Earlier this evening, the Patch released a letter by Ms. Anna Githens of Westfield, accusing the Westfield Public Schools of exposing its students “to indecency and vulgarity” through Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.' And while I would like to thank Ms. Githens for voicing her opinion on a very relevant issue that has been more or less overlooked by our town community as whole, I cannot help but find fault in her conclusions.

'Diary of a Part-Time Indian' does not reflect moral deterioration of any sort. To the contrary, its inclusion in the curriculum only reflects our schools’ continued commitment to providing students with the most well-rounded, in-depth, and unbiased education possible: teaching independent thought and not just regurgitation of the rhetoric of the consensus.

Though Ms. Githens may conclude her piece by writing “it behooves teachers to heed [the parents’] advice,” as I begin my own, I feel compelled to write just the opposite: Trust the teachers.

In my four years at WHS, I have had the pleasure of studying under some of the most intelligent, dedicated, and talented educators our state has to offer; an exceptional crown in which English Department stands as a particularly gorgeous gem.

So while some may assert that our schools have fallen victim to an “overall deadening of the senses,” I can assure our town community that this is far from the case. And in fact, it is by using literature precisely like' Diary of a Part-Time Indian' that Westfield has been able to bring out the best in its students: critical thinkers, capable of looking beyond society’s “high standards” to the understand the people hidden just beneath - mankind at its most genuine, most open, most understandable; a beautiful treasure-trove of insight for students to explore.

And to those who would accuse teenagers of being too young and immature to handle such themes, I can simply write that such statements are unfounded. Certainly, some of us may chuckle at the word “d-ck,” and it’s hard not to watch some of the more profane gags on 'Family Guy' without breaking out into a laugh. But like all people, we understand when the time for fun is over and critical thinking has begun, and I can assure all critics that Westfield students bring that ethos with them to the classroom every day. The fact that some readers (and I am not referring to high school students) were unable to see past the profanity may only suggest that they themselves are not yet ready to deal with such themes. 

To them I say: our doors are open, and I would personally welcome your voices in our classroom as we discuss, debate, and analyze the very literature you find so reprehensible. Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something.

Brian Pollock

Westfield High School

Class of 2012

Dwight Englewood February 16, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Well stated. Brilliant response to pathetic letter by ignorant woman. To quote Mr.Townshend, "The Kids are alright"
Anna Githens February 16, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Dear Brian, First off, I would like to compliment your writing. I hope that you will continue to express your views with regard to matters of which you have a strong opinion. I also hope that in ten years time WHS is still producing high caliber writing such as yours. I just want to make sure that WHS is not lowering the bar. I also have a son who graduated from WHS last year who had a good experience during his time as a high school student. There are many exceptional teachers and students at WHS and the opinions in my letter are in no way expressing a blanket condemnation of teachers in Westfield. I am referring to the teacher, or small group of teachers, who introduced the book to the school a few years back. We are talking about an assessment of a book and the process used to determine the educational merit of that book, not the overall quality of the school. I have no problem with a student's decision to read the Alexie book as an elective, I have a problem with it as a requirement to ninth graders. It's interesting that you referenced Family Guy in your letter. That example provides the exact point I am trying to make. I think (hope) that you would agree that Family Guy wouldn't fit into the curriculum. If a teacher is establishing the foundations of English 101, such a choice would be at the detriment of a student's educational experience, hence my point about the Alexie book. (cont'd below)
Anna Githens February 16, 2012 at 05:55 PM
If Absolutely True Diary was made into a movie it would be quite similar to an episode of Family Guy. We are talking about education here, not entertainment. After all, ninth grade comes only once in a young person's lifetime - you don't get a second chance at this. With all due respect, a parent is the primary caretaker of her child and a taxpaying member of this community. Some day you as well will be a taxpaying citizen. Perhaps then you will see the world through the eyes of a hard working parent who wants a quality education for his or her child. As for me personally, I have been on both sides of the desk as a student and a teacher. I have taught students; and I have been a high school, college and graduate student, so hopefully I have learned something by now! All the best to you Brian, and good luck next year in college and in all your endeavors. Sincerely, Anna Githens
Andres February 19, 2012 at 05:23 AM
Dear Ms. Githens, If you believe that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has the same educational value as an episode of Family Guy, I really don't think you are fit to comment on the matter. Although sections of the novel may be offensive to certain individuals, it is important to view them in context. The Absolutely True Diary lends a perspective of life that is rarely considered by most people. It reflects upon the struggles and social difficulties that are faced by modern Native Americans. These issues are important to consider, as the Native Americans are important to American History and are often overlooked. Not only does the novel offer a rare glance into Native American life, but into society as a whole. Issues such as prejudice, alcoholism, and adolescence are discussed. I would hope that you could take some time to pick up the novel; hopefully you could see past the occasional vulgarity and learn a thing or two. If students are not urged to read such literature in an educational environment, they too may approach these importants issues with a narrow mindset. By teaching novels such as the Absolutely True Diary in high school, we are preventing the youth from acquiring a similarly ignorant perspective on critical affairs. Andres Chang
Anna Githens February 21, 2012 at 07:02 PM
Dear Andres and students, Sorry for the late response as we were away this weekend. Thank you for expressing your opinion on this matter. Unfortunately, after reading the letters sent by a few students, I believe that you have been misinformed or have not been given significant info that is relevant to this issue. This is certainly not your fault, however I would like to give you the right information. Yes, I have certainly read the book; if I hadn’t read it I would not be able to provide an opinion on it. It’s not that I don’t empathize with Junior’s plight; no child should have to endure the trials and sufferings such as those he endured. Rather my concerns lie with many comments that are laced throughout the book that I, and many other parents, find unnecessary and offensive. Again, I will say I am not into book banning, burning, or censorship. Censorship is un-American, however respect for one another’s beliefs, common decency, and religious toleration has always been the American way. It is my opinion, and many others, that this book crosses the line on those important issues. Thus, we have suggested that it not be required reading, rather it be optional reading. Our requests are very reasonable; we just would like more transparency. Anyone may pick up the book and read it if they choose on their own volition.
Anna Githens February 21, 2012 at 07:04 PM
(continued) This is also a ninth grade matter, not an eleventh grade matter. This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss it; I’m just clarifying that point, as it is my intention to give you the correct information. I have many concerns with the book, but I will mention a few here. For one, it is my personal belief that pornography is having a detrimental effect on families, marriages, relationships, children, and our overall society today. Some people may not agree with that, but it is a belief in which I feel strongly. The character Junior, a very likeable character, advocates pornography in a casual manner and provides the allusion that “everyone is doing it.” I believe it is very poor judgment to impose that on a 12-14 year old. Secondly, the character speaks of God in a very degrading manner and draws an illustration that mocks Jesus. My family and I take our faith very seriously. There is no reason my family, or any believing child, should be required to read or see that. Surely you could empathize with our point of view even if you are not religious. I’m sure it would be hurtful for you to imagine if it was your brother, sister, mother, or father in that cartoon. I wouldn’t impose that picture upon anyone. Religious toleration is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Anna Githens February 21, 2012 at 07:07 PM
(cont'd) I am in no way imposing my beliefs on anyone, nor am I suggesting that they are superior to anyone else’s; I am simply asking that others respect those beliefs that are shared by so many in this country. I am not the one making a controversial book a requirement in schools. I am simply asking that a student have the ability to freely choose or not choose to read this book. You mention that by teaching novels such as Diary we are preventing the youth from acquiring a similarly ignorant perspective. Many students in Westfield go on Immersion trips, to soup kitchens, volunteer to help the less fortunate, etc. In my opinion, the implementation of this book in our schools is not detrimental to a student’s perspective on life. I believe that parents, students, and religious institutions in this town are very concerned with the poor and the oppressed, and take this matter very seriously. For example, Confirmation candidates are required to do service hours in order to be confirmed. I feel that most students in Westfield are not in need of intervention or rehabilitation, they simply need an education.
Anna Githens February 21, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Many people have differing philosophies. I believe certain topics should be handled by parents and discussed within the family. I don’t believe that state funded institutions should impose their beliefs on young students. Many parents have good, communicative relationships with their children, and I believe this is the case is Westfield. I love the kids in this town and would never attempt to thwart their learning process or educational experience; I am simply a Mom trying to do my job. At the very least, I hope you agree that parents should always have a say in their child’s education, regardless of how you feel about the book. We have always had a system of checks and balances in this country. Let’s stop the unnecessary name-calling and work together. While there are many great teachers in our schools, no one cares more for a child than his or her parents. Sorry for the long response. Hope this clears up any confusion. Good luck to you in the future Andres! Sincerely, Mrs. Githens
Jan Kniffen February 21, 2012 at 07:57 PM
I knew it Anna! This was all a Faith Based, Religous Fundamentalist, Santorum like campaign to impose your own "faith" and belief system on our school district. Simple Answer- Catholic Schools. You finally showed your hand like Mr. "Im the Pope" Crenshaw did on television. Nobody is imposing pornography on 9th graders- What a ridiculous and ignorant statement. Way to go Andres, and Brian and Clara and Rosemary and Mrs.Rosen Chang. Find antother cause- perhaps you can hold a prayer circle to reflect on it.
Justin Cafiero February 21, 2012 at 09:16 PM
Is there anything wrong with making a decision based on faith @Jan
Justin Cafiero February 21, 2012 at 09:19 PM
However, ones faith should not be imposed on others and therefore no one is correct here. Parents should email the teacher if she feels it uncomfortable with her son/daughter reading a particular book, but that should not equate in the censorship of a book especially with such literary merit as this one.
Alex Ying February 22, 2012 at 02:10 AM
Dear Ms. Githens, I find that your constant condescension towards all of the students posting in this forum to be highly disturbing. At best, it is a distraction from the arguments you attempt to make, and at worst, illustrates the disillusionment you have regarding the issue at hand. In your own words: "I believe that you have been misinformed or have not been given significant info that is relevant to this issue. This is certainly not your fault, however I would like to give you the right information." To make the assumption that we, students, are incapable of conducting our own research and learning about the situation ourselves is incredibly demeaning and does little to convince others of the validity of your argument. Now, regarding the issue itself, I cannot emphasize how strongly I believe that literature can be a highly effective tool in education. Much of the power of literature comes from the context in which the details are presented. (1 of 3)
Alex Ying February 22, 2012 at 02:10 AM
To use another famous and highly acclaimed piece of literature as an example, Mark Twainuses the N-word hundreds of times The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Does that immediately make it a racist work or unacceptable for use the classroom? Of course not, and that is because of the context and manner in which it is used. The use of the N-word creates the setting and atmosphere within which the story is told. Twain then elegantly turns the contemporary racist stereotypes on their heads and satirizes the culture of Antebellum America in the South. The black slave, Jim, is one of the few characters who isn't morally corrupted and is demonstrated to be more gentlemanly than any of the white characters within the novel. Twain is able to turn the racist slur into a weapon against the stereotypes associated with it. Sherman Alexie's novel is a similar case. While there may be vulgarities and obscenities that offend the sensibilities of some, the overall effect of the novel hinges upon their inclusion. The use of the N-word in Huck Finn goes very far in impressing upon the reader the hostility of whites towards blacks in the South. In Alexie's case, the inclusion of possibly offending details creates a much more complete and compelling image of the Junior's experiences, making the theme clearer and message that much more powerful. (2 of 3)
Alex Ying February 22, 2012 at 02:10 AM
The argument that Alexie's novel has little educational merit because of the inclusion of possibly offensive details is a very closed-minded view which does not take into account the context or the presentation of the material. It is the very inclusion of that material which transforms what might otherwise be an ordinary novel about coming of age and overcoming obstacles into a great literary work which has the power to change lives and provoke in depth thought about the problems that all people, not just teens, face in society. Alex Ying (3 of 3)
Ed Han February 25, 2012 at 08:15 PM
@Anna Githens Hello, let me first apologize for the ad hominem posts that some people have posted towards you. They are not very fair, since everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and you have been handling this in a very respectful manner. However, I have an issue with a few things that have been said. "You mention that by teaching novels such as Diary we are preventing the youth from acquiring a similarly ignorant perspective. Many students in Westfield go on Immersion trips, to soup kitchens, volunteer to help the less fortunate, etc." And I agree with this, however there are just as many people who don't. One should not need to extra-curricular activities to learn about society when they attend a school as fine as WHS, where they can be educated there. It would be unfair to say that such an enlightening book such as this one should be removed because there are some students who take said activities. Thus, I do believe that it would be detrimental (or harmful at least) if this book was removed from our schools. In reality, there are many students in WHS that are oblivious to many aspects of life that this book touches upon. In addition, I would say that said extra-curricular activities are not sufficient in covering what this book does. In no ways am I demeaning their importance; it is just that I believe that they each touch upon different things (thus said activities don't cover some important things found in the book). Your input is greatly appreciated!
Student March 01, 2012 at 12:28 AM
Mrs. Githens, I'm a student at WHS and while I respect your opinion (everyone is entitled to one), I would like to point out that "Absolutely True Diary" is not required reading. All students are able to opt out of reading any book and receive an alternative assignment.

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