Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Use the whole book or find a different one

I originally posted this on a librarian list, but it is relevent to my Idealism post from last year and expresses my feelings about the whole topic a little bit more clearly, if not necessarily more eloquently.

Two parents brought me books this week that their 11th grade sons are reading in English. One is on a "pick one of these 5 books" list, the other is required reading for the class. The first book is Water for Elephants. The second is Memoirs of a Geisha. Both have pretty explicit sex scenes. They wanted my opinion. Both parents were told by the school that the principal has read the books and approved them, that they have been approved by the school board, and that they are college level courses that therefore have more mature themes.

I had a similar issue with my own son last year with Ragtime, and I told both parents the same thing I told the teacher at the time. My problem isn't with the scenes in the book. My problem is that they admit outright that they don't discuss them. Um, in college they would. They'd talk about exploitation of women, both historically and today. They'd talk about how the language used pulls the reader out of the scene (the use of anatomically correct words in the middle of a striptease) to become a more critical observor of what's happening in it. Instead, they pretend the scenes don't exist and don't help the students deal with any emotions that might be evoked (like the teen who went home and told his parents he'd been learning about the meaninglessness of life (The French Lieutenant's Woman) and was now trying to figure out a painless way of ending it all).

What a great opportunity to have a school counselor come in and discuss the fact that things in books and the news can trigger emotions that can be confusing and talk about ways to deal with all of that. Instead, they just moved on to another book, totally oblivious to the impact that book had had upon this young man. I'm certainly NOT saying that they shouldn't have read that book. If they hadn't, the boy might not have gone to his parents in time to get help. But what about all the students who don't know where to turn when these things happen?

I don't want those parents to demand that the books be removed from the curriculum. I want them to demand that they be used to teach and discuss and open minds. Rather than hoping that most parents won't bother to read the books, I'd like to see the school invite the parents to be part of a book discussion held some evening so that they can see that the books do have something to offer besides lurid sex scenes.

I also told both parents that if the schools aren't discussing those scenes with their children (and they aren't - they tell them to turn the page if something disturbs them), they should do so themselves. What a great opportunity to share your own morals and outrage and sadness, etc., in a nonconfrontational, nonpersonal setting.


CC said...

Interesting. Teachers more or less represent the Dept. of Education though. Government bodies shy away from discussing morality and I guess for a teacher this would be a tightrope to discuss such scenes. I can understand why they don't. Personally, I think it would make more sense to choose a book that doesn't put the teacher at the disadvantage of not being able to discuss all aspects.

Thanks for blogging ;)

gnaed said...

Exactly my point, CC. Don't use that book if you can't discuss the whole book, especially if it has the potential for leaving a student feeling disturbed or confused. Have the Health teacher or the school psychologist come in and talk. What a great way to make the book cross-curricular.