Archive for Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Book’s appropriateness in class questioned

September 17, 2003

Lori Krysztof doesn't think "We All Fall Down" is appropriate reading material for a freshman orientation class at Baldwin High School. In fact, she would like to see the Robert Cormier novel removed from the curriculum.

"As a parent, I had concerns," Krysztof, the mother of a Baldwin freshman, said. "I was very shocked with the contents of the book.

"But I did not ask for the book to be banned. I asked for the book to come out of instruction."

Which is exactly what happened last week. After Supt. James White received a request for consideration of instructional material and a list of "We All Fall Down" excerpts from Krysztof last Monday, he removed the book from the classroom curriculum.

"It doesn't look to me like something the kids should be reading at the freshman level," White said.

At last week's monthly meeting, the Baldwin Board of Education decided to read the novel before making a determination on the book. A special meeting to decide the book's place in the classroom has been set for 7 p.m. Monday at the district office. The district's policy regarding challenged books is also expected to be examined. The meeting happens to be during Banned Books Week, which runs Saturday through Sept. 27.

In the classroom

"We All Fall Down," often found in the young adult section of bookstores, examines a number of teenage issues such as alcohol abuse, divorce and peer pressure. It uses explicit language and sexual references.

Cormier's novel made the American Library Association's "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999" list at No. 41. Two others by the same author made the list as well -- "The Chocolate War" at No. 4 and "Fade" at No. 55.

Until last Monday, Joyce Tallman was reading "We All Fall Down" aloud to her freshman orientation class as a learning tool.

Tallman said the purpose of the freshman orientation class is to introduce students to study skill strategies, reading strategies and issues students deal with in their social lives such as peer pressure, stress and substance abuse.

She said "We All Fall Down" covers many of the issues the class learns about and discusses.

"The book incorporates issues teenagers deal with on a day to day basis," she said. "It's real life."

Tallman, who has used the novel in her class for three years, said a list of books that could be read throughout the year are sent home with the students at the beginning of class. The books are read by the students in small groups and during silent reading. Tallman also chooses two books to read aloud to the class.

She said by reading aloud to her class, it helps the students, especially the lower level readers, with their reading comprehension and listening skills.

"It gets the kids excited about reading," she said. "It motivates some kids to read."

She said she chose to read "We All Fall Down" aloud because of how well it related to the class.

"I picked books I felt would create discussions, which is what the whole class it about," she said.

But at no time, Tallman said, were students forced to listen to the novel. If the students did not want to read the book, she said, they could chose another novel from the list and read it elsewhere during the class.

"They do have options," she said. "It's not a forced issue. When I started teaching this three years ago, I was told students could opt out. So they do have options."

Krysztof said her daughter chose to opt out and read another book instead of listen to "We All Fall Down."

"I called the teacher with my concerns and she said my daughter was welcome to opt out," she said. "I thought that was appropriate and I didn't have a problem with that."

Policy grayness

But Krysztof said after reading a copy of "We All Fall Down," she didn't think the book should be used in the class. Because she had already talked to BHS Principal Allen Poplin about her concerns with the book in the spring of 2003, she said she filled out the request for consideration of instructional material and, along with a list of excerpts from the book, delivered it to White. She also sent copies of the excerpts to all of the Baldwin Board of Education members.

Curriculum Director Connie Wehmeyer said both she and White discussed the consideration request and how the review of the book fit into district policy.

"We looked at board policy. It's kind of gray in exactly what is media and what is instructional material," Wehmeyer said. "There are some gray areas in board policy the board needs to address."

In board policy, under the challenged materials section, it states a committee will be formed to review the questioned materials if they are part of a library or media center collection. Wehmeyer said the policy does not state clearly what course should be taken in reviewing the materials if they're used in classroom curriculum.

White said because board policy didn't cover Krysztof's challenge, he made the ultimate decision about the book.

"If there's no policy, the issue becomes one the superintendent has to make a judgment call on," he said. "I'm the gatekeeper, so to speak, of curriculum."

Both White and Wehmeyer said they had read the excerpts, but hadn't read the entire book before making a decision to remove it from the class.

They both also said the book was removed only until the school board, which was meeting later that night, could make a final decision on the book.

"We had to determine if this is the best instructional piece to meet the learning objectives of the class," Wehmeyer said. "We're looking at trying to do the right thing.

"We're not here with the intent to ban the book. It's not a censorship issue as a lot of people are thinking that it is," she said. "Our guiding question is the appropriateness of this as a learning tool."

White agreed the district's goal was not to ban the book from the school.

"The book is still in the library," he said. "This is strictly a curricular decision.

"My initial reaction would stand at this point," he said.

Not a decision for the board

But Board Member Stacy Cohen doesn't think White made the right decision.

"I'm concerned that the superintendent would pull a book without even reading it after a parent complaint the very same day," she said. "One or two parents should not be allowed to dictate what the rest of the school can read."

Because the book was pulled from the classroom, Cohen, a former English teacher, said, it limited other students' chances of finishing the book that was already started.

"The school's library copy is checked out. There are very few copies available," she said. "This book is not easily accessible for these students. So essentially the students had a piece of literature cut off from them."

She said she was also concerned board policy didn't seem to address challenged instructional materials as it did challenged library materials.

"I think the board should adopt a policy and follow that policy," she said. "It's not whether I think the book is acceptable or whether Mr. White thinks the book is acceptable, it needs to go through proper procedure as a complaint."

"I don't think we should be voting on this book. I don't think it's proper procedure," she said. "I think we are setting ourselves up for a potential lawsuit."

Wehmeyer said she thought the issue had been handled appropriately.

"We want this decision to be handled right and in the best interest of our kids," she said. "This wasn't a decision made on a whim. In this case, I believe that policy was followed."

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