Parents deserve to know what kids read, officials say
High school parents need to be informed before their children are asked to read controversial material. That was the word from Deputy Superindent of Public Schools Dr. Mary Ellis, in the wake of questions about “The Bluest Eye.”
The issue came to light after parent Robin Bayuk came to the Nov. 1 school board meeting and asked why a book that graphic was required reading. In the novel, a passage describes a father raping his 11-year-old daughter in detail. Other passages describe incest and child molestation.
“What the parent read at the board meeting was blatantly offensive,” Ellis said. “Is it an appropriate book for everybody? Absolutely not. One must be cognizant of your audience, tone and purpose. We hope people would use common sense.”
Ellis said she wouldn’t criticize either teacher at Sun Valley or Marvin Ridge for using the book, but feels the district could have done a better job in letting people know what was going on.
“I think we probably could have handled it better,” Ellis said. “This same type of thing raised its head with R rated movies. We had to send a note to parents, letting them know what their child would be watching in class. I’m looking over the final draft right now of a similar letter for books.”
The question for some parents, however, is how a book as graphic as “The Bluest Eye” made its way into a Union County school in the first place.
In speaking with Union County Weekly earlier, Superintendent Ed Davis said the book was part of a list generated by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
When queried about the state’s list of recommended books for high school students, Vanessa Jeter, director of communication and information services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, initially said the department did not have such a list.
“There really isn’t a state-recommended list,” Jeter told Union County Weekly. Selecting books is a local function, she said, and state officials generally pointed curriculum directors in local districts to websites for the College Board and the national Common Core curriculum, which North Carolina is in the process of adopting.
“Those sites generally pick authors and books as examples of the level of complexity that students will need, but local school districts have the freedom to choose.”
To her knowledge, state officials also did not keep records of complaints about particular books “because it’s a local choice,” Jeter said,
But on the state education department’s website, state officials do offer lists of books appropriate for each level of high school English. “The Bluest Eye” appears on a list of 200 books appropriate for English III classes.
Morrison’s book isn’t among those listed as the “Top 26,” but one of the remaining 174.
When a reporter asked Jeter about the English III book list, she said she had found it also. She said she would ask state curriculum officials if they have had any complaints about “The Bluest Eye” and if they keep track of complaints about any books.
Jeter did not provide information by deadline.
Offering a choice?
Dr. Ellis also acknowledged the email, sent Aug. 1 to Marvin Ridge IB program students which highlighted “The Bluest Eye” as one of three books the group would study during this semester. While the email told students to purchase the books, Ellis said it’s supposed to be an option.
“They put three works in the list, knowing the student will pick two of the three,” Ellis said. “That’s done for a case like this, where someone is offended at one choice. It gives them an option.”
The other two books included for this semester were “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller and “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko. The Marvin Ridge IB program held an assessment meeting Monday, Nov. 7, discussing this and other issues. Ellis said she feels this could have been handled quicker if the teacher and principal had been notified.
“Had we known about this, we would have addressed it,” Ellis said. “You don’t know what you don’t know. I think parental oversight is a good thing. We just didn’t know there was a concern until the board meeting.”
Ellis said there’s a difference however between college prep classes and the International Baccalaureate program, where students actually get college credit.
“By the time you’re a junior and senior, our job is to prepare you for college,” Ellis said. “These IB classes are college level classes. While I’m very concerned about that being taught in a college prep class, maybe it’s ok for the IB program.”
She pointed to the fact The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn were once considered too controversial to teach, but now are considered classic books.
Parents however say that’s missing the point. It’s not the topic that’s the main issue, but rather the graphic descriptions.
“I am quite certain that most parents would not want their high school students reading such material,” Stallings resident Terri Dunn said. “I discussed this last week with my daughter, a junior at Porter Ridge High School, and she said she could not imagine her teacher wanting to deal with that material based on class discussions they had involving much less explicit content in books such as the Crucible and language used in Huck Finn.”
If a book that explicit had to be taught in high school, Dunn said, it should be for seniors who are 17 or 18 years old.
“It is very graphic in nature and made me uncomfortable to read much less to think about having class discussions on it.”
Ellis said she understood the concern, adding that as a parent of a Piedmont High student, she would fight for her kids as well.
“We will make parents informed, that’s the best thing we can do,” Ellis said. “That’s not too much to ask.”