New Addition to Curriculum Sparks Controversy

Parents question process that allowed book to become required reading for three freshman English classes.

'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' is the semi-autobiographical novel of author Sherman Alexie. The first-person narrative details the protagonist’s quest to take his future into his own hands, leaving his school on the Spokane Indian reservation to attend an all-white high school and combat the challenges that accompany his decision.

The coming-of-age tale earned Alexie the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but its content has also lead at least three school districts nationwide to ban or limit its presence in student curriculums.

And now it is the most controversial book in Westfield. 

The book – certain passages of which include graphic sexual, discriminatory and violent language – is required reading in at least three freshman English classes at this year. As parents have grown more familiar with its content, the voices criticizing the book – as well as the process that lead to it becoming part of the curriculum – have begun to grow louder.

“This book doesn’t represent the standards of Westfield High School,” parent Leslie Barmakian told the Board of Education at its Feb. 7 meeting. “This book is completely inappropriate.”

“I believe that we can do better,” parent Nancy Murray told the Board. “I’m not saying the book should be banned, but that it should be age-appropriate.

Opposition to the book has grown in recent weeks. An email circulated among parents last week, encouraging them to write letters to Superintendent Margaret Dolan and other faculty members expressing their concerns.  

“The issue is that there is some very sensitive material in the book including excerpts on masturbation amongst other explicit sexual references, encouraging pornography, racism, religious irreverence, and strong language (including the ‘f---‘ and ‘n—‘ words),” read the email, signed by parent Nancy Maurer.  

“Most parents were not aware of the content of this book, and many of the students were reluctant to tell their parents about it. There is now a growing public outcry by the parents to a) require teachers to notify parents of the content of this book and/or b) to remove this book from the required reading list.”

Maurer said the book has some merit and is thought-provoking, but also that it has placed many children in a “moral dilemma” because they are required to read it for school yet are reluctant to talk about the book with their parents.

Not all parents share such a sentiment. Board member Mitch Slater told the Patch that he read the book and that it is not only deserving of the acclaim it has garnered, but is certainly one he would allow his freshman daughter to read.

“It’s a great book telling the true story of an injustice,” Slater said. “I would gladly let my ninth-grade daughter read the book and I am not surprised the book won so many awards.”

At last week’s Board meeting, Dolan detailed the process that leads to books being accepted into the curriculum. Though neither Dolan or the Board said there is any plan to remove the book from the district curriculum, Dolan encouraged parents to send their concerns to teachers as well as to her.

“We do listen,” she said. “We understand that children are different and we respect that.”

In her email, Maurer explained that this is not an issue of censorship or of trying to have the book banned. Rather, concerned parents view the issue as one stemming from a parent’s right to have a say in what their child in required to read at school.

“To make this required reading for ninth graders, I believe, crosses a line that denies parents their right to make these determinations as to whether their children are mature enough to read this kind of material,” Maurer said. “Without notifying parents of the content of controversial books such as these, it also denies the right parents and students have of opting out of such books.”

Though they were particularly upset with the book’s content, the parents addressing the Board last week were most concerned with the way the district did not consult more parents when approving the book for its curriculum. The result was parents being shocked by the book’s language and students being unsure as to how to react to the material.

“This is our responsibility,” parent Anna Githens told the Board last week. “It’s not [the students’] responsibility to determine what they are to learn in the classroom.” She said that books, like children, are unique and must be assessed individually.

David Crenshaw said teachers and administrators have an obligation to include parents when deciding what books will be required reading.

“We are disappointed and disgusted with the decision to keep the book,” he said.

Crenshaw also read a few particularly alarming passages from the book to ensure the BOE and public knew what language was causing the

“The language is, quite frankly, offensive,” he said.

Dolan pointed out that it would be possible to single out passages of a number of books that – out of context – appear similarly gratuitous, but acknowledged that Crenshaw and the other parents have the right to oppose the book’s content.

“You have a right to disagree,” she said.

Near the end of last week’s meeting, Board President Richard Mattessich said that parents have had the Board’s attention throughout its decision-making process and said that the Board’s final decision had nothing to do with a lack of regard for public opinion. He also suggested that parents were perhaps not giving the district’s teachers enough credit for being able to take controversial materials – such as the book in question – and teach it in a way that enables students to learn valuable lessons from them.

“We have strong educators in Westfield,” he said. “It’s important not to lose sight of that.”


Gary McCready February 16, 2012 at 03:24 PM
I'm glad the parents are involved in their children's education (even if it was only after getting the email) and have voiced their opinions to the board, but it's also important that they realize that sometimes a leading district like Westfield can't wait for other schools to push the envelope bit to include such possibility controversial (and award-winning) books into the curriculum. I have not read the book, but as I did when I was on the Board of Education, most of the time you leave the point decisions like that to the professionals who can best make them. More importantly is the process that is used to incorporate materials into the curriculum - as long as it was followed, for either a single teacher's efforts or across the district, then I'm probably fine with it. Helpful, though, would be a list of books/materials (along with the areas they address) be published for each class on the website as possible so that parents can be prepared if they wish to discuss the materials with their child or teacher (who should be the first contacted) or administrators if they have a concern.
Laurie Woog February 16, 2012 at 03:36 PM
This is an award-winning book for good reason. I respect the teachers and their right to decide which books will be taught in the classroom. There are many reasons to include booksthat may contain some uncomfortable passages, including sparking honest and interesting discussions at home. The book was well-reviewed and well-known when assigned. After hearing complaints, I read it and still agree that its value far outweighs potential discomfort from some of the language or depicted situations. People are entitled to voice differing opinions, but we should remember that many books and plays in the curriculum contain material that, when written, may have been considered risque or inappropriate. That doesn't mean they are without value. Trying to remove material from the English curriculum - or engaging in prior restraint - is going down a slippery slope. I hope we don't go there.
Theresa February 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Embracing this book into the world of education is opening the door for more books with similar or more graphic content in the future. Where is the line drawn? No one has specifically discussed the educational benefits of the book. The purpose of school is not to impose itself on a child's personal familial beliefs, it is for education. The teachers rights are respected but what about the parents rights - the primary caretakers and taxpaying citizens?
Gary McCready February 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
And a few links for further considerations: NY times review http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Barcott3-t.html Author defending the book on the WSJ: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/ Personally, if it motivates my kids to read more, and consider alternative views, then I'm all for it. At some point (and yes, high school is about right for this) children should be "taught" to see through mere words to the thoughts behind them.
Theresa February 16, 2012 at 04:52 PM
And a few more links for a balanced commentary: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/protecting_your_family/book-reviews/a/absolutely-true-diary-of-a-part-time-indian.aspx Wall Street Journal article gives book poor critique: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html Website to visit if you are a parent concerned about this issue: www.pabbis.com (Parents Against Bad Books In Schools)
Gary McCready February 16, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Thanks Teresa; however, the WSJ article you mention actually slams the entire range of current young adult fiction, as to why our kids need to be exposed to such content, rather than comment specifically on the book. More interesting is the other "focus on the family link". Although one may not agree with that website's overall focus, it does list out possibly objectionable areas, and more importantly, questions to discuss. Those questions are exactly what what you want to start discussing in high school, especially if you care about pointing your kids in the right direction, and hopefully at least some are brought up in school. Once you send them to college, it is a bit too late...
Bill Maher February 16, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Gee (Mother) Theresa- What a shock that the word "FAITH" is written all over your Focus on the Family Website.....Perhaps President Santorum will start banning more books that do not meet your "faith based criteria".....Oh that horrible J.D.Salinger and disgusting Hemmingway- I can hear it now...... Let the Teachers and Educators do their jobs.
Theresa February 16, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Yes Gary, I have that under control. I am perfectly capable of discussing those issues with my kids without teacher indoctrination. Once again, this is about education, not intervention. I have kids in college and they are doing just fine thanks. About the WSJ article, although she slams the entire range of contents, she does single out a comment on Alexie's book. She also provides a very descriptive picture of the evolution of YA fiction over the last 50 years.
Joe Roberts February 16, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Mr. Crenshaw and the other members of the "Coven": It is easy to lose sight of the overarching function of our schools is to train young people to think for themselves. A few years ago The Supreme Court (have you heard of them?) said "The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth "out of a multitude of tongues, (rather) than through any kind of authoritative selection." Keyishian v Board of Refents of SUNY, 385 US 589 (1967) quoting United States v. Associated Press, D.C. 52 F. Supp. 362,372 (S.D.N.Y. 1942)
Kaiser Sosa February 16, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Is this an early April Fools Day joke? Are there really parents in Westfield that actually have nothing better to do than question a 9th grade book selection? I am blown away by this story and the insanity of these "holier than thou" people. I pity their kids growing up in that environment of this moral minority.
Hey February 16, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Theresa — Here is another interesting article that was enlightening to me. If you get a chance, you should definitely take a look at it. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/
Mariana February 17, 2012 at 05:00 AM
Hey - Why don't you check these out: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-06-22/news/0906210159_1_part-time-indian-absolutely-true-diary-ban http://www.news-leader.com/article/20100909/NEWS04/9090375/Stockton-book-ban-upheld-7-0-packed-public-forum
Anita Bryant February 17, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Just watched the video from the meeting- Clearly Mr.Crenshaw was just looking to tittilate the crowd by just quoting page 225 and nothing else. Shame on you sir. Clearly your superior morality and Santorum like beliefs don't belong here.
Gary McCready February 17, 2012 at 02:49 PM
Mariana, those are good articles, with very important points to how books should be chosen for schools: - the first article shows the process of choosing books, and what happens it the community requests a review. It's a good example of parents bringing an issue to a Board's attention in an appropriate way, and the Board taking some action on it. Each Board's set of actions may differ of course, but it is important that desires of the community be considered. Which brings us to the second story - Education in the US is basically local, with the Department of Education leaving it to the states to set (even low) standards, and those standards are implemented by the local community with leeway based upon each state's regulations. In the Stockton story, people in that community felt that too many bad words negated any other value the book had, and even though many boys did not read books at all, the concern was the content level was too low to start them reading (you all can figure out the logic of that one). It is their community standards, and I believe this line in the story says it all "They (kids) said, 'I left Stockton because stuff like that happens there,'" I hope Westfield never becomes a town like that - just see how many raised in Westfield return to Westfield, and even become teachers as a tribute to our educational system. But, please, continue to bring these issues up - maybe just better communication between parent/school/teacher/child is needed...
H D Thoreau February 17, 2012 at 04:08 PM
If you want your children to have a faith-based education that advocates one set of ideals which align with yours, send your children to private schools. The American public education system provides students a diverse examination of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the complexities inherent in humanity and society. In his 1951 ruling on Adler vs. Board of Education, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, "Where suspicion fills the air…there can be no exercise of the free intellect. . . . A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place of free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin." We need to expose students to a vast array of literature, politics and theories, so they can be informed citizens. Like it or not, students know these "vulgar" words already. Having worked in a high school for the last 15 years, I can also assure you that most students utilize profanity in the hallways, cafeteria, sports fields, and more. I think it is absolutely appropriate to demystify the perceived power of such language in classrooms with highly qualified teachers.
Ban Crenshaw February 18, 2012 at 05:05 PM
What an idiot this Crenshaw is! Perhaps he should home school and as he says call a spade a spade.... just watched tv 36 and wish they bleeped all of his ignorant and moronic speech..... Poor excuse for a man
Anonymous January 09, 2014 at 01:38 AM
Theresa February 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM "Embracing this book into the world of education is opening the door for more books with similar or more graphic content in the future. Where is the line drawn? No one has specifically discussed the educational benefits of the book. The purpose of school is not to impose itself on a child's personal familial beliefs, it is for education. The teachers rights are respected but what about the parents rights - the primary caretakers and taxpaying citizens?" I understand that parents have rights about what is taught to their kids, but it seems slightly ignorant for these parents to ignore the educational benefits of this book. Parents have to understand that their kids are exposed to this kind of derogatory language anyway. The themes in the book are themes that are existing in the world today and they need to be realized by the general public, not shunned. Teaching someone about something isn't necessarily encouraging it. For instance, there are many examples of racism in this book. Just because kids are reading this book, doesn't mean that they are going to go be racist toward Native Americans. All that the book is doing is informing a kids about current day problems. The other thing that is good about this book is that it gives numerous examples of how alcohol can be bad for you. All of the important characters that are killed are killed by alcohol. Even though I say all of this, I do think that there should be some type of age restriction. I think that the book shouldn't be taught to kids below the 8th grade, but I strongly believe that it should be taught to every kid in and above the 8th grade.


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