The Depression-era tale of George and Lennie and their dream of a farm together will continue to be part of the literary journey for Coeur d’Alene ninth-graders.
The School Board voted 4-1 Monday night to keep John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” as an option for English teachers to assign their classes, rather than demote it to voluntary, small-group discussion as recommended by a school district committee that is reviewing novels taught in the schools.
Trustee Dave Eubanks pointed out that in 13 years of tracking the book’s use in Coeur d’Alene schools, the district has not received one parent complaint about it, and no families have opted to have their children read something else in class, as district policy permits.
“I think our community has already clearly made its decision: no problem, leave it where it is, require whole-group instruction,” Eubanks said.
Trustee Tom Hearn said, “We need to trust the judgment of our English teachers to use this book wisely, as we have since 2002.”
Trustee Terri Seymour voted no, saying the book is more appropriate for small-group study only.
District leaders also spoke Monday of a need to recruit more community volunteers representing a diversity of views to help review around 80 more novels, and to give them clearer guidelines for the task.
Some teachers in the district believe the ad hoc committee that made the controversial recommendation on “Of Mice and Men” strayed from its task: to verify if novels are at the appropriate grade level based on the complexity of the material and the expectations of Idaho’s Common Core standards. That’s a narrower assignment than the committee seems to have taken on, the English language arts teachers said.
In its recommendation to the board, the committee cited frequent dialogue with profanity and a “negative” theme as reasons to pull “Of Mice and Men” from whole-class instruction and make it available on a voluntary, small-group basis.
One member, Mary Jo Finney, said in April she doesn’t regard “Of Mice and Men” to be an American classic, arguing that it’s “neither a quality story nor a page turner.” Monday night she told the board she feels she has been bullied by the news media and others for expressing her views.
“It’s shocking that there is such outrage because a person is outspokenly conservative, yet not aghast when students are to read or watch profanity, vulgarity or explicit content on our tax dollars,” Finney said.
Even before Monday’s vote, she told the board, “It has been 10 long years that I have worked to get this district to be more accountable to parents with safeguards and standards, and now I would suggest that parents pull their children from (District) 271, or better yet never put them in.”
Teachers in the district frequently elect to have their ninth-grade students read “Of Mice and Men.”
Brianna Cline, an English teacher at Lake City High School, said many students relate strongly to the story, “especially young men who are often the most difficult to engage with literature.”
As for offensive language, including a racist euphemism for African-Americans, Cline said she and many teachers “address the issue head-on by discussing why the N-word is offensive. This is an incredibly important lesson.”
Lake City High School teacher Kirsten Pomerantz said none of her students have told her they thought the book, which touches on themes of justice, mental disability, sexuality and human rights, was too much for them.
“Broadly, this is a ridiculous book to take out of the curriculum,” Pomerantz wrote in a note to district officials.
She continued, “As 9th graders, I feel that when we discuss the Great Depression and this time period and then read other short stories in the same period, it really gels for them.”
School trustees in recent weeks mostly heard pushback to the committee’s assessment. Teachers, parents, former students and national literary groups wrote to say the book’s status should not be diminished.
The novella reflects the period it’s set in and is “written with realism and honesty,” wrote Myron and Linda Recob, of Coeur d’Alene.
Also urging the School Board to reject the committee recommendation were officials with the Idaho Library Association, American Library Association, National Coalition Against Censorship, Association of American Publishers, National Council of Teachers of English and other groups.
The ad hoc committee can recommend novels be taught at a higher or lower grade, but it cannot reconsider books like “Of Mice and Men” that already are approved for full classroom use, wrote 11 Coeur d’Alene High English teachers in a letter to the board.
“If so, we are opening up every single novel for a second attempt to ban them,” wrote Stephanie Lauritzen and other members of the CHS faculty.
The teachers also said the lack of a teacher on the ad hoc committee is “a serious oversight.”
The current committee’s last meeting is next Tuesday. The district is seeking residents to apply by June 24 to be on the committee for the next 12 months, starting in July. The district also has clarified committee guidelines and said at least two teachers should be a part of it.
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