Required Reading Talks Continue

first_imgAt Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, Books Criticized and Defended But No One Wants Book BanBy Muriel J. SmithRUMSON – After nearly three hours of comments, conclusions, expressions, and a few questions Board of Education President Lisa Waters referred the question of the controversial required reading list of books for junior and seniors at Rumson Fair Haven High school to the education committee and promised “this isn’t over, we’ll continue to talk.”At issue are whether “Cal,” by Bernard MacLaverty, and “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman should be required reading for students in junior and senior English classes, over the objections of parents who find them too sexually charged, too deviant and too mature for teenagers. The matter was brought to the board by a petition circulated by parent Siobhan Hogan and her husband, and signed by more than 300 parents who called not for banning of the books but for more leeway in determining why they had to be required reading for all students and asking for alternatives if requested.Because of the anticipated turnout for the meeting scheduled in the auditorium rather than the library and, following the board’s written policy for meeting procedures, parents had the option of notifying the board in advance they wanted to speak at the first of two regularly held public sessions.Board policy limits the first session to 30 minutes, however, because of the interest and large attendance, the board unanimously agreed to alter the policy to allow that portion to remain open as long as necessary.With an estimated 200 parents, teachers, interested citizens and numerous students in attendance, the first public session got under way after three students were recognized for scholastic achievements, ten teachers were recognized for attaining tenure and a scheduled two minute video and program explaining the school’s Mindfulness program was presented by the program’s committee.Even a sudden blackout and loss of electricity while the third of several dozen speakers was at the podium did not disrupt the meeting.Opinions expressed during the sessions ranged from defending the books as presenting real life to students in a safe, unbiased setting and with explanations of difficult situations in the hands of professional teachers trained to deal with situations to concerns that parental rights to introduce their children to specific situations at their own speed and in their own way were being taken from them.Elise Lawless, mother of three sons, two of whom are at RFH and one in grammar school, asked for a change in the RFH student handbook if the books continue to be required. She noted that if students used the language they are forced to read for the class, or put the rape and sexual situations they are forced to read online or in a casual discussion, they would face discipline measures. She further questioned why the books have been on the reading list for so many years, and urged the board to realize “the curriculum needs to change with the times” and “there are loopholes” in the handbook standards.Hogan reiterated neither she nor any of the petition signers is calling to ban the books, but rather alternative selections for children whose parents do not think they are ready or object to the contents. She further noted that in addition to the more than 300 signatures, there were many more parents who object to the reading, but are fearful of retaliation on their children by faculty through a lack of scholastic recommendations, selection on sports teams or other action by faculty with opposing views.At the second public portion, Hogan conceded she agreed with some opinions expressed, but pleaded with the board to listen to the parents who are “begging for a choice.”One parent counted the number of offensive words and the number of times they were used; another, who was a PTA president in the 1970s, urged concerned parents not to get excited, another called for a balance, while another called for “a middle ground.”Dr. Tracy Handerhan, the mother of two, one a student at RFH, who has also been the RFH principal since 2007, gained both applause and mild criticism when she read a prepared statement in defense of the reading program.She also read excerpts from letters she received from numerous alumni from more than 30 years ago through 2015, conceding most were from graduates now in their 20s. The excerpts, the principal continued, show RFH graduates “prepared to tackle complex works and engage in scholarly dialogue.” And both their comments and the fact they have taken the time to respond to their high school’s current situation have left her proud, yet humbled.“We could easily find other works that illustrate theme, allegory, plot, mood, tone, etc.,” the principal said. “However, our English Program at RFH transcends literary devices, vocabulary, and grammatical structures… to prepare our students for a global society, it is incumbent… to provide students with a deep understanding of the political complexities of our modern world. Despite the state requirement of a World History course, I believe the state required core curriculum for Social Studies is inherently ethnocentric… Through readings and book selections within our humanities courses we begin to hone a more balanced perspective.”Pointing to the fact both books depict “political oppression,” is a universal theme pervasive in our modern world, she said. It is impossible to watch the evening news without an oppressive headline.” Handerhan cited specific illustrations within both books which she feels strongly make them an important part of the curriculum, and explained her contention that “we are morally obligated to present complex works that are attainable and speak to the human condition. The removal of ‘Cal’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’ would substantially hinder our school’s efforts in attaining our community-crafted mission of “empowering students to realize their personal potential and fulfill their responsibilities as members of a moral democracy.”While she was applauded, the principal was also taken to task by the parent who pointed out since the statement was written and prepared before the meeting, it was indicative that “no matter what we say, there will be no changes. It’s mindboggling.”But it was English department chair Jack Shea, the teacher who has been in the RFH system for many years, who gained the most attention when he read from his own prepared statement in defense of the curriculum and his faith in it and his staff in the English and Social Studies Department.He described the process used in selecting reading materials, citing that first a need is identified, either to replace an existing work, or to augment works currently studied in that course raise the bar. The need is discussed by himself and the instructional team and if agreed upon, potential literary texts are identified and a shared reading/review process is started. Works are selected by their literary and artistic excellence, educational value, and potential to support the established curriculum and the educational goals of the school. Consideration is given to timeliness of issues explored, contributions to multicultural awareness and diversity, and the text’s potential to enhance the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills of students. Research determines if the work has received favorable reviews from national organizations and appears in the curriculums of other competitive high schools; college board standards are considered along with the grade and maturity levels of the students reading the text.Shea noted that Shakespeare has been viewed as a controversial playwright in some quarters, and he cited this school district’s not only defense but inclusion of Moisés Kauffman’s The Laramie Project, in the curriculum in another recent activity.That play, which focuses on the murder of a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was blocked by another County high school principal because of explicit themes and strong language which that principal felt had the potential to cause undue disturbance for the school and the community. Shea and Handerhan discussed the ban and the response it generated at all levels, proposed it, along with their reasons for supporting it to the Education Committee and confirmed their own professional capacity to carefully guide students through material that might be disturbing to some. The Education Committee agreed with the rationale and approved the curriculum.In a similar way, the two books currently being cited, Shea continued, “discuss truth of the human world, and “what better way to discuss it but in the classroom with well-trained, well-educated, sensitive teachers…?”Both books star ted as summer reading selections in their longstanding histories at RFH, he continued, and the fact they are now established, common texts across grade levels “speaks to the merit of these literary works.”Related Story, Oct. 10: RFH Parents Challenge Required Reading as Appropriatelast_img

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