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Westfield BOE Backs Approval of 'The Absolutely True Diary'

Students say trust the teachers, while some parents ask for controversial book to be made optional reading.

Tuesday night’s meeting included a long-awaited presentation detailing a proposal to accommodate all district classrooms with twenty-first century as well as discussions of how to allocate recently-awarded . But emotions were at their highest when the Board and members of the public discussed the literary merits of a and the degree to which parents should have a say in determining the district’s curriculum.   

Board members, parents and students spent an hour sharing their opinions both in support and opposition of 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' a book that has been in the ninth-grade curriculum at since the fall of 2009 but has only recently sparked public discourse regarding its age-appropriateness and whether the novel should remain on the required reading list for certain freshman English classes.

Superintendent Margaret Dolan briefly described the process of how books are vetted and approved within the district before explaining how she and the Board handled a complaint it received about the book in December. She said a committee of faculty members and administrators was formed to look into the complaint and concluded that the book was appropriate in light of the district’s objectives, a position the Board affirmed last night. 

“We believe there are insufficient reasons being advanced to revoke the approval of the book,” said Board member Ann Cary, Chair of the Curriculum Committee. “It will remain as a choice for ninth grade teachers to use.”

Last night was the second consecutive Board meeting that featured a prolonged discussion on the book, which is a semi-autobiographical novel of author Sherman Alexie that details his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation and at a predominantly white high school. It was awarded a National Book Award in 2007, but has also been banned in some districts around the country. The book’s content – including passages of graphic sexual, discriminatory and violent language – has struck some parents as inappropriate for high school freshman, but the Board shed some light on how it sees the novel fitting into the district curriculum.

“We find that the book exposes our students to the culture and society of a Native American community, to socioeconomic issues, to the negative effects of racism, to the issue of educational inequality, and it is a perfect catalyst to discussions of anti-bullying,” Cary said. “The novel’s themes, concepts and issues are clearly aligned with the curriculum’s rationale, description and purpose.”

Unlike the Board’s last public meeting on Feb. 8, the majority of last night’s speakers commended the Board for its decision to keep the book in the curriculum.

“I don’t want [Westfield] to be the town 25 miles from New York City that removes books from its curriculum,” said parent . She said parents disapproving of the book should not have the ability to infringe on the rights of students to read and learn from the novel, which she described as “exciting and ground-breaking.”

Parent said it is not the responsibility of parents to control what their children are taught within the public school system, claiming that they have no right to expect teachers to seek parental approval and that such a system would be impractical.

“Would this be practical?” she asked. “Would it be desirable? Would [teachers] have any time to teach, or would they just be negotiating with parents?”

Four high school students also addressed the Board individually, each supporting the book and encouraging parents to allow teachers to handle how such material is taught. 

“Trust the teachers,” senior Brian Pollock said.

But parents opposing the book’s inclusion on the required reading list argued in favor of parents having a say on what material is and is not imposed on students. One parent referred to the notion of leaving the curriculum entirely in the hands of the teachers as “crazy, nutty stuff,” instead advocating a system where parental rights are respected. 

“Parents have a right to not want their children to be subjected to these segments,” he said, moments after reading a lewd excerpt of the book aloud and drawing criticism from the audience.

Those opposed to the book insist they are not advocating banning the book. Instead, they have proposed that students are given the opportunity to opt-out of reading it.

“We are simply asking the book be made part of an optional reading list,” said parent Nancy Maurer.

Maurer also referred to a letter submitted to the Board by a group of concerned parents on Feb. 13 which included a series of questions about the transparency of the book’s approval. It asked why students were required to purchase the book (rather than have it supplied by the district), why the Board was not more prepared to explain the vetting process at the Feb. 8 meeting, and why there had not been public notice regarding the special committee meeting where the book was reviewed.

Dolan had explained earlier – and at the Feb. 8 meeting – that it was a mistake that students had to purchase the book. She said three classes were reading the book at once and the district had only purchased enough books for two classes.

Board President Richard Mattessich also noted that it was a mistake that one class had to purchase the books, but otherwise approved of the way the Board followed the process and arrived at its decision.

“An issue was raised and we jumped on it,” he said. “I believe we came back with the appropriate response, and that’s the way [the Board] should operate.”

He also explained the public was not notified of the special committee meeting because such meetings are private and it would not be practical to provide notice for every committee meeting.

However, other parents continued to express disappointment with the Board’s handling of the situation.

“I don’t know why it took so long to get answers,” said parent Anna Githens, who filed a complaint with the Board in December.

“This is not about banning [the book],” Githens said. “It’s about being selective and the process leading to that selection.” She said she would like to regain the trust she has lost in the district system.

“We’ve crossed a new line,” said Githens, who specified that she was criticizing the process of assessing the book and not the district as a whole.

“I just hope we’re not lowering the bar,” she added.

The Board emphasized its receptiveness of parents’ concerns throughout the meeting.

“The Board takes parents’ concerns very seriously and we listen closely when parents come out to our meetings,” Cary said.  

Cary also provided details on the book-vetting process. First, a teacher brings a book to the attention of colleagues. A committee of teachers is then formed. Each member of the committee reads the book, discusses it and votes on whether to approve it. Books must be unanimously approved by these committees in order to be added to the curriculum reading list, she said.

The process was followed in this case, but Cary said the book was never added to the list. Consequently, the Curriculum Committee requested that at least four teachers be present on future vetting committees and that the supervisor of the language arts department determine the best timing for an updated list each year.

According to Dolan, about 330 Westfield students have read the book since it was first introduced to the curriculum in 2009. 

Sourpatch Westfield Woman February 29, 2012 at 10:22 PM
Hey Westfield Resident- I think Sourshoues did the name calling!
Another resident February 29, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Really Roberto? Why don't we ponder this quote from Judith Krug, director of the “office for intellectual freedom” for the American Library Association: “I get very concerned when we start hearing people who want to convert this country into a safe place for children. I am an adult. I want available what I need to see.” That intellectual freedom is really working for her! Not a surprising statement since the ALA has refused to change their policy despite a 2003 Supreme Court U.S. vs. ALA case that ruled overwhelmingly against their insistence to keep pornography on library shelves and available for everyone regardless of their age.
Liz Griesmer March 01, 2012 at 01:43 AM
There is a bit of misinformation regarding the current policy at Westfield High School. Our school allows an individual student to opt out of reading a book he or she finds inappropriate and choose a different book instead. Parents opposing the book who propose that "students are given the opportunity to opt-out of reading it" fail to realize such an opportunity already exists. This policy allows acknowledgment of concerns without imposition of a singular opinion upon a classroom of students.
Westfield resident March 01, 2012 at 04:23 PM
So that makes it right for someone to respond in kind?
dg March 01, 2012 at 05:15 PM
I wonder how the parents who want this book banned (and yes you are really getting banded if it is removed or made optional so lets not play stupid on this point) expect teachers to use any literature in their teaching if students are allowed to opt out of reading any book. Consider the impact of the effectiveness on our English curriculum. If you feel you have to control everything your child is exposed to, here's an idea - home school them.

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