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Racy book attracts controversy at Arizona high school

September 14, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
When is a book too racy to be taught in a high school English class?

Apparently, a parent pulled her son out of a sophomore English class in Sierra Vista, Ariz., after the teacher had the class read aloud a sexually explicit passage from Cristina Garcia's award-winning book "Dreaming in Cuban."

I am familiar with neither the book nor the author, but a reader e-mailed me the passage in question, which is indeed sexually explicit and includes both rough language and references to mild S&M. She also emailed me a list showing the book on a Common Core State Standards Initiative book list for 11th graders.

When I spoke with the principal at Magic City Campus this week, he told me that local schools retain control over curriculum under the Common Core. A local committee also reads and makes recommendations about new books that are placed in the school library. That's quite likely the policy in other school districts across the state. I have my doubts that "Dreaming in Cuban" will ever be taught in a North Dakota high school, though apparently there are broader concerns that it is on a Common Core reading list for high school students and might be used in some schools without parents being aware of the content.

As I told the reader who first emailed me about the controversy, this sounds like the type of book that might be used by teachers in a contemporary literature class or those hoping to engage a class of immigrant students or perhaps students who have had difficult life experiences. The book was being used in a sophomore English class at the high school in Arizona, though it is listed as having an advanced reading level, so maybe it was being used in an honors English class.

Based on media reports, the high school administrator in the Arizona high school pulled the book after the parent raised objections and said the district would have required the teacher to offer an alternative option if they had known more about the content.

Garcia, the author, told the AP that Sierra Vista students shouldn't be deprived of a "broader, cultural experience" and she is willing to visit the school and answer any questions.

Personally, I think the author Garcia makes a good point. A good education should include the opportunity to read and discuss material that is challenging and unfamiliar, that makes students think about other points of view. Garcia's book, published 20 years ago, seems to hold literary merit, based on all the reviews. It may well be appropriate to use this book and others with sensitive content with mature high school juniors and seniors, many of whom I suspect have read far more explicit material on their own time.

What do you think of the controversy?

Update

For those who might be curious, other "exemplars" on the 11th-12th grade Common Core "stories" reading list include: Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"; Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote"; Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"; Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"; Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre"; Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"; Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"; Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron"; Herman Melville's "Billy Budd, Sailor"; Anton Chekhov's "Home"; F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"; William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"; Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms"; Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"; Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths"; Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March"; Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake."

Most on the list are pretty standard texts in an English classroom. In high school alone, I read at least a quarter of the books on the list and read several more as a college freshman. The list was compiled with consultation with teachers. No schools are actually required to teach the exemplars. To quote the standards: "The following text samples primarily serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list."

 
 

Article Comments

(55)

namexxx

Sep-16-13 11:20 PM

A "class of immigrant students"?

It is not possible to be any more culturally incompetent.

Sep-16-13 11:00 PM

Many books are nominated for and receive awards. That does not mean they are age appropriate for high school students.

Sep-16-13 10:58 PM

I certainly do have an informed opinion. My views are informed by Plato, Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, the Dali Lama, Confucius, Steinbeck, Hopkins, Yeats, Auden, Milosz, Thomas McGrath, Studs Terkel, my grandmother, her mother, my father, my revered high school teacher Mrs. Strom, etc. etc. --none of these individuals would condone or promote this tawdry, banal writing. And they are correct.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 10:19 PM

If you haven't read the whole book, you do not have an informed opinion. The book in question was a National Book Award finalist, so many did not agree with you. As for the Common Core, it was developed with the input of educators.

Sep-16-13 10:09 PM

I don't go in for Garcia's cheesy, poorly constructed writing style. I am in the middle of a Nobel laureate's (Coetzee) novel, along with "Of Human Bondage" a great classic, plus a couple of Kundera novels, racy yes, but not appropriate for high school readers. So, I will certainly forgo the kitsch and sloppy writing of the author in question for now. Just as with art, a sliver of the imagery suffices to know if it suits one's taste. I strive to live on a higher plane of regard. The Garcia passage is enough to tell a sensible person that it doesn't belong in North Dakota school curriculum. And parents who want their children to read Garcia need to pay for this book, not the tax payer. It's not appropriate to ask those with higher literary standards to support the perversions of the Common Core advisors.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 9:34 PM

Whether or not it is appropriate can and will be decided in local school districts. People have different opinions considering aesthetics, literary merit and appropriateness of subject matter. As to the emotion expressed by the characters, I don't know what their relationship actually is supposed to be in the book, but I think the scene could be given different interpretations. Different communities use language that is considered derogatory in other situations as terms of affection. I'd suggest you read the book before commenting any further.

Sep-16-13 9:16 PM

"Dreaming in Cuban" is not age appropriate, plain and simple. Teachers have no explicit right to teach graphic sexually explicit material to children, not even in high school. This offensive content is not protected speech. If this text is taught, then nothing is off limits. And taste requires that some things are off limits. Literary standards need to apply. Not everyone with a pen and a graphic sex scene needs to be embraced by the Common Core elitists whose tastes are perverted. I do not see how anyone, including a blogger on this site, can say the man in this scene treats the woman affectionately? Are you kidding me? S&M and degrading speech is now a sign of affection? What planet did this lack of aesthetic judgment develop on?

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 8:11 PM

As for the depiction of sexuality in the excerpt I read, I don't necessarily read it in the way you did. It appears to depict two young people who have consented to the encounter, though many people would find what they are doing distasteful, and who enjoy what they are doing. The man expresses affection, albeit using rough language. I'd have to know more about the two characters and the plot of the book to put it into context.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 8:03 PM

Once again, there are no schools in the state that are planning to teach this book that I have heard of. Local school districts exercise control over curriculum under Common Core. Parents who object would have the opportunity to express any concerns they have at the local level, as apparently happened in Arizona. I will not comment further on this particular book without having read it in its entirety, but it is clearly a book that is considered to have literary merit and there are undoubtedly some teachers who feel it would be worth teaching to a class of high school juniors and seniors for a variety of reasons. In such a case, I think students or parents who object ought to be offered an alternative assignment, but the teacher should go ahead and teach the book to the rest of the kids. Parents who object should not get to prevent the rest of the kids from reading the book in class.

Sep-16-13 6:52 PM

But Andrea, most parents I know do not want to read this type of sexually explicit sado-masochistic stuff themselves, let alone condone it for their children. I've sent the questionable passages to many educators and parents over the weekendd, and not one wants to engage with this text. Some people, believe it or not, think that portrayals of sexuality for teens should involve love, caring, and sensitivity to the "other" and find the promotion of sado-masochism off limits for teens. Do you think there is no innocence left in this postmodern culture? I certainly take your point about drawing attention to a book and increasing the interest by publishing a blog about it, for example, and even though you and I differ in our opinions, I certainly respect your interest in the subject, and your own observations are always astute and thought provoking.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 5:25 PM

That sentence should read "sexually explicit material" in the comment below.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 5:24 PM

If their kid is reading "Dreaming in Cuban" and they object, it would make the most sense for the parents to read the book (or any other book they object to) and discuss any concerns they have with the child. Forbidding kids from reading certain books, particularly high school students, is probably not going to be terribly effective. By calling attention to sexually explicit books in this book and in "The Bluest Eye," those who object have likely ensured that hundreds more kids will read those books to see what all the fuss is about.

Sep-16-13 3:36 PM

Andrea, I have no idea why you think you should tell parents what they should and should not read with their children. Don't you think that parents can decide, without your directives, what they want to read and what they will introduce their children to? This dictatorial attitude seems entirely out of place in a free society where adults are certainly capable of critical thinking outside of your directives.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 2:55 PM

No, I never read Helter Skelter.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 2:09 PM

Actually, I hope it does send kids and adults scurrying to read the book. When I was in high school, I made a habit of reading every single book on the banned book list.

Parents who are concerned should read the book themselves in its entirety and discuss it with their kids.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 2:06 PM

Interestingly enough, a state school board president in Ohio is up in arms because Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" is on the Common Core suggesting reading list for high school juniors and wants it banned. Apparently, more than one book is being questioned on the suggested list. I haven't read that particular book by Morrison, but I have read her "Beloved", which also contains some material people might find objectionable, and would probably recommend teaching it alongside Mark Twin's "Huck Finn" and using it in a unit on the evils of slavery.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 1:50 PM

I think individual teachers ought to have a great deal of latitude in choosing subject matter. The traditional Western literary canon is probably a good place to start in determining what ought to be included: Shakespeare, certainly, along with Austen, the Brontes, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Twain, etc., with more recent additions such as Langston Hughes, perhaps, or Toni Morrison or Amy Tan. In North Dakota, I'd probably add Ole Rolvaag. A book like Garcia's "Dreaming in Cuban" is too recent to know if it will have a lasting place in the canon, but it certainly got distinguished reviews.

MattRothchild

Sep-16-13 12:51 PM

All of Shakespeare's works have that stuff, not just one particular story.

But if we're going to use "good literature" as our standard, who gets to be the judge of what is or is not "good literature"? I mean, you're getting to the point of asking, "Is it art?" Top-down solutions tend to be very bad at making these determinations, especially when the masses are unwilling to follow them. It's why you always hear of these uproars with these topics.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 11:47 AM

For that matter, Shakespeare's "Hamlet" contains some choice double entendres that I recall being discussed in high school English. It gave the students some incentive to understand the archaic language when the teacher told them how risque it actually was.

I don't think adult concepts -- including sexual themes -- should necessarily be off-limits with high school students. Bowdlerizing the curriculum would be truly dumbing it down. Not all good literature kids should read will be free of bad language or sexuality.

MattRothchild

Sep-16-13 11:37 AM

This is the same "Common Core" that supposedly pushes pro-GMO food propaganda.

On the other hand, I recall, during my time at Minot High School, what went on during my involvement with the theater department. During that time, we performed productions that depicted serial murders (Arsenic and Old Lace) and teenagers committing suicide (Romeo and Juliet). In the library was a book where characters committed rape, murder, acts of duplicity, and sodomy. I have that same book at home: it's the Bible.

I don't know, perspective, people.

But if ma doesn't want her daughter reading it, fine. Some of the best reading out there is the kind that will never be assigned to you by some school...

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 11:31 AM

Schools retain control of the curriculum and community standards will likely dictate whether this book or any other will be taught in schools. I've heard of no North Dakota school that will be teaching "Dreaming in Cuban" but, given that the book won awards and received positive critical reviews, it apparently is considered to be of some literary merit. As such, I can see why teachers in some communities would consider it appropriate subject matter for mature high school students.

Sep-16-13 11:07 AM

Students do have a right to be educated in a **** free zone--a **** free safe zone. The graphic nature of the sexual passages from "Dreaming in Cuban" put it in the *********** category which is not protected speech. So, contrary to Andrea's view that students don't have a right to not to be offended by school sanctioned ****, they sure do. And what about protecting minority rights? If students want to read this book, of course they can. Their parents can buy the book for them, or they can go to a library where adult material is housed, but keep it out of the required reading category in ND public schools. This is a dumbing down and ****ing-up of what should be a superior literary education. Too, have you seen the effects of the ****ing-up of culture in the US? It's not a pretty picture, is it? Do you really want to advocate that teens hurt each other in the sexual act? If you condone this book, that is what you are doing.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 10:44 AM

Yes, I imagine a sizable percentage of 15 to 18-year-old girls have read "Fifty Shades of Gray," a book of dubious literary merit. However, I remember reading books that weren't a whole lot better than that when I was in junior high and high school. Most girls my age read the "Flowers in the Attic" series (and some did book reports on them) at about age 13.

Marvin51

Sep-16-13 9:44 AM

Well, maybe the high school students in Minot don't know this already, but I think the Grand Forks students who walk out of a dance if they can't grind just might be aware of such things.

With all the books out there, I really don't see the need for including this one in mandatory reading, but I would think it would be preferable to bring up the issues of violence and sex under the supervision of a teacher to talk about it. Since it is already in "romance" books being read in every high school in the state. Maybe the boys aren't reading about violent sex but the girls sure are.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 9:04 AM

I haven't read "Dreaming in Cuban." To put the scene in context, I'd have to first read the book in its entirety. But, yes, I do think there are probably circumstances where it would be appropriate to teach a book with rough language or sexually explicit material to a class of high school students. As I've said before, it would depend on the maturity of the students and the overall value of the book. If one parent objects, it does not necessarily mean the book should be pulled form the curriculum. The parents of the other students in the class may actually want them to read the book. Nor do students have an automatic right not to be offended during their education.

 
 

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