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
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
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 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
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."