School Board approves Core Literature

In recent months, the CVUSD school board has debated allowing new literature into the high school curriculum. Controversy over the “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” a novel by Sherman Alexie and recipient of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, has led to many parent, teacher and student claims of unjustified censorship and “book banning.” On Aug. 15, the board congregated for the third time to discuss the book, which was nominated to be added to the district’s Core Literature list by a group of 32 educators, administrators and counsellors for 9th grade use.

“I’m inclined to call the vote here,” Betsy Connolly, board member, said, breaking the argumentative banter that had bounced between the five CVUSD representatives for the last hour and forty-odd minutes. A ripple of applause pulsed through the audience, many of whom had already been anticipating a decision for four hours.

The book was first presented as a topic in June, and pushed back twice before the most recent meeting. Conflict ignited the July board meeting when the book was disincluded from the Agenda and no board member could directly articulate why.  “We were told that if we didn’t approve it in June it would be too late by August to plan it into the curriculum… we had taken that decision away from (the teachers),” Pat Phelps, board member, said; approving the book so late in the summer would leave teachers considering the book for their classes with virtually no preparation time.

With the meeting time limit impending, the book was finally accepted with a four-to-one majority vote. However, there exists a blatant divide between those who believe the book will be a valuable asset to the curriculum and those who insist that it is inappropriate for freshman students.

Some board members favored including an “opt out” alternative which would require that students get a parent signature before reading books in class that contain mature topics.
“The government should not force a child to read an obscene book. Forcing a child to read an obscene book is psychological child abuse,” President Mike Dunn wrote after the motion had passed. Although he declined to comment on whether he read the award winning novel, Dunn emphasized that he believes it is full of  “cultural insensitivity, anti-familial themes, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex, profanity, masturbation and bullying.”
“Put yourself in the role of a parent,” John Andersen, board member, said.  “You have determined what you believe is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad… Now, the education ‘experts’ want to teach your children values or morals that are antithetical to what you believe.” The “experts” on this occasion refer to the committee in charge of the analytical recommendation process for the district reading lists. Andersen emphasized that it is often easy to trust “experts” that align with your own value system.
Mandy Jacob, parent and community member, spoke at the board meeting in opposition of the novel’s incorporation. “I’m married, and I had to close my eyes at half the stuff I was reading,” Jacob said. “We’re on a slippery slope here… Does my fifteen year old (really) have to hear about masturbation and discuss it?” asked Jacobs. She along with several others who objected to the board decision returned to speak about issues concerning the matter at the most recent meeting on Sept.

Board members Sandee Everett, John Anderson, and most vehemently, Mike Dunn, insisted that the value of the novel does not outweigh the impact of its explicit sexual content.
President Dunn has also voiced his persisting concerns over possible negative effects of the book on school populations.“Our public school enrollment is declining while Oaks Christian High School enrollment is increasing… This obscene book is one reason,” Dunn said.

Betsy Connolly, on the other hand, was in favor of the book’s incorporation. “Our job is not to tell teachers which books would be great for ninth grade students to read… how would you know that, you don’t teach English,” Connolly asked, directing the rhetorical question at Dunn. “How would you possibly substitute our judgement for the judgement of teachers?”
Many speakers agreed with Connolly that the book would be a valuable asset to the curriculum. John Cummings, community member, spoke in defense of the book in question. “Mr. Alexie’s book offers important lessons about tolerance; it teaches about learning and improving oneself even in the face of enormous obstacles,” Cummings articulated. “The mainstream of this community’s parents and citizens will not stand for members of this board censoring our school’s curriculum.”
Many students, teachers and parents shared common ground on the necessity for the board to accept the book. Shreya Chattopadhyay, recent NPHS graduate, recalled her experiences in English classrooms in high school. “All I really wanted to tell the board is to encourage you to trust your teachers and to understand that diversity is never something that we should shy away from. I can only hope that books like this, that increase perspectives, can help make this place a better one.”  

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