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Choosing what Johnny can read

via The Associated Press

KENNEWICK, Wash. — The "f-word" jumped out at Jason Wood as he tried to read Catcher in the Rye. The religious Hanford High School senior knew the language would make the J.D. Salinger novel too onerous for him to wade through. So he approached his teacher, Marcie Belgard, with his concerns, and she assigned him Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter instead.

"Whatever benefits there were in reading the book, they weren't worth trudging through that much cussing," Wood said.

The scenario, though infrequent, happens every year in English classes in eastern Washington state. It's the reason school districts spend months selecting novels for their language arts curriculum — to minimize the incidence of unhappy or offended students and parents.

"Teachers want books that are thought-provoking. Some books are very flat," said Shelley Redinger, director of teaching and learning for the Richland schools. "But we're not here for shock effect."

The Richland School District is in the final stages of a two-year project to adopt new novels into the language-arts curriculum for sixth grade and up. The books are available for public review through Nov. 12. The Pasco School District will begin its novel adoption next month.

Washington school districts can develop their own procedures for adopting novels. In general, though, districts first assemble a group of teachers, administrators and community members to discuss dozens of books. Each person brings to the table ideas and research to support a book's value in the classroom. The committee also considers state academic standards and the maturity level of students.

The groups then usually whittle down the list by half. Those books then become available for public review and comment.

Next, a different committee of teachers and administrators reviews the feedback from citizens. Committee members may tweak the list. Next and final stop: school board approval and the classroom.

In some districts, including Richland and Pasco, teachers test the waters by reading an unapproved book before adoption, a process that happens every four to seven years.

Choosing books is not easy, teachers say.

"You always have to deal with the conflict between modern literature and community standards," said Don Wright, a long-time English teacher at Pasco High School.

English teachers want books that have literary merit and also will engage students. But engaging students means assigning stories they can connect with, usually contemporary fiction, which often contains more offensive language or social issues than the classics.

In Pasco, it's a particular challenge, Wright said. Teachers want members of the school's large Hispanic student body to read books they can relate to. But because a majority of Latino authors came to prominence in the past 50 years, the work is inherently more frank and controversial.

"You'd have to have such bland literature to meet every parent's requirements," said Kathy McGuinness, an English teacher at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick.

In Richland, for example, the selection committee fought for more than a year about including Kite Runner in the 10th-grade curriculum. In the book, which is about Afghanistan, one of the main characters is sodomized.

"It's really beautifully written, and in some places, it's been adopted statewide," Belgard said. "We sat down at the table and we really talked it out. ... But we had a parent on the committee who was just mortified. So we dropped it."

Belgard once assigned her students John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. She got so many complaints alleging profanity and sexuality that she hasn't had the energy to try again, even though the book has remained on the approved list.

But some books are worth fighting for, she said.

"When parents complain, I think, 'Is it worth it?'" she said. "Catcher in the Rye, for me, is."

The first time Belgard read the book, as a student, she did so under her bed because at that time it was banned at her school.

Though teachers often defend controversial novels, they also make it clear to students and parents that if the material makes somebody uncomfortable, they'll assign the student a different book.

At Kamiakin High, McGuinness and her fellow teachers got the anthology 100 Great Essays approved last year, though not without some dissension.

At issue: a racial epithet. McGuinness said teachers defended it because the word was in a piece by black author James Baldwin about how he felt the first time he was called it.

"How can you show racism without showing evidence of racism?" she asked. "I always use the analogy: If a painter [wants] to depict the ugliness of a slum, he can't pretty it up. He has to have the garbage in the picture or he wouldn't make his point."


Alabama school system orders teachers to label controversial books

Critics say requiring reading-list disclaimer — which warns parents of books that contain potentially objectionable material — invites censorship. 10.25.03

Florida school board rebuffs call to ban Revolutionary War novel
Minister had asked officials to pull My Brother Sam is Dead from classrooms, saying issue wasn't about censorship but whether schools should 'endorse the use of profanity.' 04.12.04

Washington school district strikes contested book from reading list
Federal Way superintendent removes Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress from ninth-grade curriculum after parents complain about novel's sexual content. 05.12.04

California school system bans ex-gang member's memoir
Santa Barbara Unified School District pulls Always Running from schools after parent complains about graphic passages depicting violence, sex. 11.12.04

Parent's complaint prompts book's removal from curriculum
Maine superintendent says committee is reviewing Girl, Interrupted to consider whether memoir is appropriate for classroom use. 02.09.06

Administrator pulls novel from literature class
Iowa superintendent hasn't read all of What's Eating Gilbert Grape? but says its sexual content is out-of-bounds for high school students. 11.25.06

Book censorship

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