Tuesday, December 01, 2009

More on the Montgomery Co Book Rukus...

...and why the superintendent was correct
to throw out some of the books

In Montgomery County this week some parents complained that certain novels contained foul language and cover topics — including sex, child abuse, suicide and drug abuse — unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes. The superintendent removed some of the books from the college preparatory classes where they were being employed.

I'm opposed to book banning and censorship of any kind.

But being responsible for the care of children in loco parentis does impose a responsibility on school officials to use proper judgment. That judgment extends to the discussion of topics that some individuals may find objectionable. High school students are in need of critical thinking skills and the mature topics that present themselves on television, in the news, and in everyday life are appropriate for discussion with students of high school age.

Keeping some books away from some children is appropriate in some cases. Discussing abortion, rape or other potentially disturbing topics of a sexual nature - like adultery - with kindergarteners is likely to be inappropriate at any time. It's one of several reasons why the Ten Commandments should not be posted in our schools.

Four of the books in question are:

Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Deadline, by Chris Crutcher

Lessons from a Dead Girl, by Jo Knowles

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman.

Superintendent Daniel Freeman has responded to the complaints by withdrawing about half a dozen of the challenged titles from classroom use. He was correct to do so, but not because the topics were objectionable to a few parents.

I haven't read any of the books in question so today in class, I asked my 103 students if they were familiar with the titles - and a few of them were. These college students laughed off the parents complaints as unnecessarily and overly protective. In fact, one student familiar with Montgomery County High School opined off-handedly that a typical student would run into worse in the hallways. But when I asked them about assiging these titles in a college preparatory class they laughed again.

Are they easy? Real easy.

Twisted has a lexile rating of 680L - or fourth grade text level !
Deadline's lexile rating is 880L - or sixth grade text level
Lessons from a Dead Girl's Lexile of 620L (third grade) is not likely to challenge any college bound student.
And Unwind's 740L is fourth grade difficulty.

Too easy.

Lexile text measurement is typically used by teachers to compare text readability with the ability range of their students. This allows teachers to forecast how well students will comprehend the particular text.

These texts were designed for reluctant readers. That usually means high interest level, low reading level. The books may well be appropriate for some high schoolers, particularly freshmen. But as a means to prepare students for the rigors of higher education, I think not.

Freeman was correct to remove the books; not for their content, but for the lack of rigor.


ReadingCountess said...

I would like to recommend a book to you to help you update your outdated teaching ideas: Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

Richard Innes said...


Doesn't KERA reserve curricular decisions to the school's SBDM?

I don't think the superintendent can direct the school to remove these books from course use -- he can only advise.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the comments.

ReadingCountess: Surely, your highness, you are not suggesting that an engaging book for high schoolers must be written at the elementary school level? I don't think Gallagher is promoting that at all.

Have you read the book you advocate?

He argues for rich, deep teaching that goes beyond memorization as test prep. (p 10) He thinks simple, badly designed test questions lead teachers to lower the bar on student understanding. (p 12) He does not object to high school students reading challenging material, which is my complaint.

I agree with him that it is appropriate to "teach to" a good (performance-based) test but that the Bush Administration got NCLB exactly backwards (p 17-21) and we now have too many bad ones.

Furthermore, he says, correctly, that the problem is schools not putting good books in front of students (p 30) and he decries the "word poverty" of students who aren't even exposed to words. (p 32) It's hard for me to imagine that he would feed this poverty with books that have a controlled vocabulary.

Where Gallagher might agree with your assessment is with summer reading where he advocates all teachers assigning high interest books that do not require a teachers intervention to be understood. (p 56) ...but not in class.

Finally, consider this: "Teachers have a duty to challenge students with complex novels and longer works. We are English teachers, not English assigners, and as such, we are paid to get in our classroom and present texts that stretch our students' thinking. It is our job to work our students through text that is a little too hard for them. It's not the difficult novels that are the problem; it's how they are taught.." (p57) ...and he talks about that more in Chapters 3 & 4.

I guess what I'm saying is...I don't think you have properly characterized Gallagher's point of view and I suspect he would not have taught these titles either.

Dick: You may be correct, technically, but I'll bet you a nickle the books are not going to be taught.

Thanks again.

Opal said...

Judging books merely on their lexile level is not an appropriate method of selecting books for the classroom. The prologue of the Gospel of John is written at a first grade reading level. That doesn't mean that first graders are ready to discuss the hypostatic union of Jesus. "Winnie-the-Pooh" is written at a seventh grade reading level. Does that mean it should be reserved for 7th grade students? Most "adult" literature is written at a 5th grade reading level.

Richard Day said...


Sure, text difficulty is only one factor. But of the books listed it seems the whole focus was high interest, low vocabulary. That wouldn't work in my classroom.


Opal said...

It's not just about vocabulary, but the concepts of the plot. For example, "Unwind" deals with important issues that college prep students should address. What is the nature of humanity? What is the value of human life? Do you own yourself or does society? Who is your family? Not fluffy themes.

Richard Day said...


I haven't read Unwind, so let me take your word for it that it contains the weighty issues of life, death and society that our college-bound students ought to be pondering. Perhaps every freshman should read it.

But is there no suitable substitute written on a more challenging level for upper- classpersons that would still allow students to delve into the important topics you mention?

The first book that came to mind on these topics is also one that has resonated deeply with me as a youth. Why not Man's Search for Meaning by Vicktor Frankl. ...or perhaps Maya Angelo's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All of the content and a more challenging vocabulary to boot.

Of course, we can argue all day about the relative merits of this book versus that. But might we agree that books written at the elemenatry level ought to give way to titles that can engage the same critical issues at a more appropriate level of challenge where they exist?

It appeared from the news stories that the Montgomery County list was made up completely of these easy titles. That's a mistake.