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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)

AndreaJohnson

Sep-19-13 4:15 PM

Your definition of "age appropriate" and others' definition may well not agree. That's why such decisions ought to be left up to individual school districts.

Sep-19-13 3:37 PM

I meant to say "choosing age appropriate literature standards is necessary." In my previous post the subject and verb do not agree without "choosing." Sorry about that!

Sep-19-13 12:06 PM

I've been to the ALA site many times. I do not agree that all of these actions have a chilling effect. True book banning--not allowing the writing or publication or distribution of a book--has a chilling effect. But age-appropriate literature standards for children is necessary. Not teaching the highest quality literature has the chilling effect. I want to thank Andrea for her excellent reporting on this issue. She is so thorough in her research, and I appreciate the information she has brought forth on this issue. We don't agree on the possible problems and solutions here, but I certainly respect her willingness to engage on such an important topic. I need to turn my attention to other things, and I want to thank Andrea for setting up this blog.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-19-13 11:56 AM

Next week is Banned Books Week. The ALA has a list on its site of books that have been challenged in school curricula or where there have been attempts to remove books from school and public libraries. It notes that all of the above have a chilling effect on our freedoms. See the separate blog above for more information.

Sep-19-13 11:16 AM

I certainly agree with Andrea that taking a book like Harry Potter out of a library for one complaint is certainly not appropriate. I'm not sure how library books came into this discussion, since we are talking about a reading list of recommended books for required reading to achieve course objectives. The students in the latter scenario are a captive audience. The library scenario is different, though I do think librarians should consider age-appropriateness, too. To my mind, required reading and library selections are separate issues.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-19-13 12:42 AM

I'd add that I do think librarians and teachers should make wise choices of age appropriate, high quality literature that is representative of a variety of cultures and includes both contemporary and classical literature. But if one mom or dad decides that Harry Potter or the Judy Blume books don't belong in the library, I don't think that means the school should automatically eliminate them or put them on the restricted shelf for all kids. Likewise with high school content. Most schools apparently have a committee that reads and reviews books that are chosen for the schools and if a parent registers a complaint, that is taken under consideration.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-19-13 12:21 AM

To muse further on the subject ... on a personal level, I don't care overmuch for efforts to ban a book from school libraries because one or two parents object. I suspect a lot of librarians already don't order books that might be valuable for kids to read because they fear controversy. School libraries are often a kid's primary source of reading material. I think it's usually better for kids to read freely and for parents and teachers to discuss anything they might find problematic with the child.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-19-13 12:07 AM

== Continued == By breadth and depth, I would gather they are suggesting that teachers use books by authors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and time periods and books that have complex plots and characterization and are an appropriate reading level. Garcia is Cuban-American; Morrison is African-American. Both books being questioned were written in the last couple of decades; both are by award-winning authors. Both also apparently include sensitive material that most would probably agree is only appropriate for older adolescents. I imagine there are other books that are comparable in all of those factors.

Without reading the book in its entirety, you can't offer an informed opinion on its merits.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-18-13 11:59 PM

And trained experts were also involved in choosing the books on the Common Core list, which the guide says are intended to serve as EXAMPLES. 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."

No one is requiring that a particular book be taught. If parents and teachers in a community object as vehemently as you do, it wouldn't be. But different school districts might make different choices. North Dakota is adopting the Common Core; hence, the Common Core book list is on the DPI website.

Sep-18-13 11:54 PM

Likewise, not everyone shares your view, and let us error on the side of taste and protecting the innocence of our youth. In addition, Common Core does dictate the standards, and if it were true that all curriculum choices are local, then DPI of North Dakota should remove the list of Common Core books from its web site, and indeed, leave the selection of texts up to the individual teachers. Do we think that our teachers, who are trained experts, can't find books that teach the standards they are required to teach? what condescension teachers are required to put up with! Also, as a college and university teacher, I would never require my college students to read graphic, disturbing passages about the biting, bruising, bondage, and slapping of a human person in the sado-masochistic sex act. Why would I? Why would I want to offend my students because of my own perverse tastes? But that is what perversion desires, an audience and complicit partners. It is a sickness.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-18-13 10:36 PM

If and when it is actually being taught in a North Dakota school district, this might be a relevant conversation. Right now the discussion is purely academic.

How many times does it need to be said that under the Common Core, local school districts determine which books are used in the curriculum? It's also not a given that everyone shares your particular view of the book or its suitability for a high school junior or senior to read in class. I think everything has been said on the topic that can be said.

Sep-18-13 7:39 PM

Dreaming in Cuban should not be on any school lists. The only way to know if one is offended by the offending passages is to read them. And then, of course, one has been subjected to the objectionable material. The damage is done. We need to have standards in public school curriculum. If this text is included, there are no standards--- Nothing is off limits. Age appropriate considerations are rational and necessary. Parents who embrace the normalization of sado-masochistic sex for teens need to spend their own time and money on the book. They do not have the right to sully the minds and spirits of students and parents with higher (normal)standards.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-18-13 6:02 PM

No beer or drinking being discussed here, though.

Different communities will make different judgements regarding the suitability of a particular book. I don't think a handful of outraged parents should get to decide the curriculum for an entire school, however, particularly if other parents of kids in the class want their kids to read the book. Chance's opinion of this particular book is not universal.

It IS reasonable for a school to offer an alternative assignment for kids who object to a particular book for religious or other reasons. This seems to be a pretty standard practice already. It's definitely NOT reasonable to remove a book with sensitive material from the entire curriculum or from the school library on the basis of a complaint.

Sep-18-13 4:13 PM

To compare Huck Finn with Dreaming in Cuban is improper at any and all levels. The N word is part of the historical record, offensive as it is, and yes, it is very offensive. Reading aloud scenes of sexual S & M, bruising, biting, etc. etc. can't be compared to saying an offensive word out loud.

MattRothchild

Sep-18-13 3:55 PM

Nothing. namexxx is obsessed with beer and drinking.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-17-13 6:12 PM

What does the one have to do with the other?

namexxx

Sep-17-13 5:32 PM

This is exactly why North Dakota is the least visited state . . . and the beer drinking capital.

MattRothchild

Sep-17-13 5:19 PM

But...academic freedom!

AndreaJohnson

Sep-17-13 2:21 PM

-- continued --

literature. Communities may or may not choose to teach this particular book, just as many teachers choose not to use "Huck Finn" because of the "n" word. I think not teaching that American classic is a mistake, personally, but every community makes its own decisions. And now I am really done with this discussion.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-17-13 2:19 PM

Again, not necessarily.

The "N" word is used in "Huck Finn," to use classic literature as an example. If I were teaching that book, I would not have students read that particular passage aloud in class. I would particularly not allow it to be read aloud in class if there were African American students present. I WOULD discuss the fact that they will be encountering the word in their own reading of it, why it was used and what context it was used, as well as the historical period "Huck Finn" was set in and the evils of slavery. This is the same way I'd teach any other sensitive material to 11th and 12th graders. We would talk about the characters, their motivations, why they might have acted in certain ways or used certain language and how they meant it. We would discuss whether they think this is appropriate behavior in their own relationships and why or why not. Sixteen to 18-year-olds are capable of understanding complexities and ambiguity in literatu

Sep-17-13 1:50 PM

Why teach books with passages that can't be read aloud in class? What does that say to students? What does that say about the objectionable nature of the text? Therein lies the answer as to whether this book is age appropriate.

AndreaJohnson

Sep-17-13 9:23 AM

I would tend to agree that it was not appropriate for the teacher to have the students in the class read this particular passage aloud. Without reading the book itself, I can't say whether the choice of book was inappropriate.

locomotive

Sep-17-13 6:49 AM

I'm wondering if it was appropriate to do this as a read-aloud. For teenagers especially, this is sensational and titillating.

It appears "Dreaming in Cuban" is 2013's "Catcher in the Rye."

Sep-17-13 12:00 AM

One brief excerpt of sado-masochistic sex it all it takes. It's not hard to judge a book by a few lines when they're written like that!

AndreaJohnson

Sep-16-13 11:27 PM

Until you have actually read this particular book, you do not have an informed opinion on anything more than a brief excerpt, taken out of context. As for its suitability, that will be left up to local school districts and individual teachers and parents, as it should be. It doesn't appear likely to be taught in North Dakota, so the argument is purely academic. I'm done with the discussion.

 
 

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