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Books have schools in a bind

Sun., Nov. 30, 2008

Evaluation of required reading limits classroom options in CdA

Margie Wise’s son did not enjoy reading until his senior year at Coeur d’Alene High School, when he took a literature class that engrossed him in conversation about books like “Brave New World” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“He would come home and say, ‘I love my English class; we have the best discussions,’ ” Wise said. “He would say, ‘It is the best way to end my day.’ From a kid who’s not academic and who is not a reader, that warms a mom’s heart.”

Another Coeur d’Alene mother, however, said her ninth-grade daughter was uncomfortable reading two books she was assigned in English class. The books contain profanity and sexually explicit situations inappropriate for a minor, said the girl’s mother, Mary Jo Finney.

“I don’t think that’s necessary to teach minors,” Finney said. “Their feeling is everything is acceptable, and it’s not.”

These two points of view encapsulate the struggles the Coeur d’Alene School District is experiencing as it attempts to evaluate all the books high school and middle school students read in literature classes. Complicating matters, due to an administrative error, the district finds itself in the unsavory position of having to conduct this evaluation during the school year, which has limited teachers’ access to the books and inhibited their ability to do their jobs. Some teachers have complained that the district does not trust their professional judgment.

“Please, give us back our books!” high school English teacher Paul W. Swartz lamented in a Sept. 5 letter to the editor. “As a junior and senior English teacher I have only five novels to choose from besides my textbook! We have removed 78 books from our high schools and 39 from our middle schools. How does this removal of books promote the district’s goal of literacy?”

The situation came to a head on Nov. 3, when the school board approved a group of those books but split 2-2 over whether the Aldous Huxley classic “Brave New World” would continue to be required reading in senior English classes. That tie vote will be broken in a special board meeting Dec. 15 when “Brave New World” and 26 other books approved by a citizens committee will be considered by the school board.

“Believe me, I’ve caught a little bit of flak over this,” said board member Sid Fredrickson, who voted against “Brave New World” as required reading, believing it would continue to be an optional reading choice. Fredrickson said the majority of calls he has received favor retaining the classic. “There’s definitely community concern about censorship. I didn’t consider it censorship.”

Board member Vern Newby, the other “no” vote, was steadfast in his feeling that the book should not be required reading. Newby said the book should remain only as an optional reading choice. He found the book to be “repetitious” in its descriptions of a “society gone amok with no feelings.” He said descriptions of promiscuous sex and naked bodies were prevalent throughout the book and that it wasn’t “that well-written.”

“It’s a good book to read; I just think in our classroom setting we can do better,” Newby said. “From my review of that piece of literature, we had better places we could go.”

Board Chairwoman Edie Brooks, who voted in favor of the book, said the community response she’s received has been almost entirely in favor of keeping the book on the list. “I read ‘Brave New World’ in high school and I’m 64 years old,” Brooks said. “Around the country, there have been districts that have banned certain books. I personally don’t believe in doing that.”

Superintendents and curriculum directors at other major school districts in North Idaho and Spokane, including Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley, Lakeland and Post Falls school districts, say books have been challenged over the years, but not removed.

“In my tenure, never,” said Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane, who has been with the district 18 years. “That doesn’t mean there haven’t been people who have said, ‘What do you think of this book?’ ” he added. “I don’t know why we haven’t had more challenges, but we just haven’t.”

In most districts, including Coeur d’Alene, students can opt out of reading a specific book if they find it objectionable. Such students are given an alternate reading choice. Finney and other critics, however, said that process unnecessarily excludes a student from the classroom when other books might be selected that would be acceptable to all.

Community members have the right to issue a formal challenge to a book being used by all students in a classroom. Most districts surveyed then set up a committee of staff and parents to review the book and issue a recommendation, which is sent to administrators or the board of trustees for a final decision.

Wise said she finds it arrogant for a community member to attempt to deprive other people’s children of the right to read and study a book in a classroom setting, under the guidance of a teacher trained to teach the literature.

“Now it’s up to anyone to walk in off the street,” she said. “We have an opt-out policy. Isn’t that enough? Those of us that are in the majority want these books discussed.”

Rosie Astorquia, a secondary education director, said the process likely will continue through January or February when the final books up for review are considered by the school board. She acknowledges the process has been difficult on teachers and asks for patience.

The process has “been a bit of a struggle in terms of time and giving our teachers options,” Astorquia said. But, she added, “In no way have we tried to censor or ban things.”

Alison Boggs can be reached at (208) 765-7132 or

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