Nome parents divided over controversial book list
It was standing room only at the Nome Public Schools Board of Education meeting last Tuesday as parents, teachers, staff and community members gathered to encourage the board to either approve or reconsider the proposed reading list for Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High School language arts students.
A reading list is new territory for Nome Public Schools; many teachers and parents have been advocating for a required reading list for years. This book list becomes the first one presented to the board and the first to be implemented in the district for secondary students, grades 7-12. But, the list was not approved without first hearing ample discussion from the audience, eventually passing with several amendments by board members.
The board heard from twelve speakers during the first public comment period and three speakers during the second comment period. Parent Angela Hansen suggested that the book list not be approved as is, encouraging board members to consider the explicit language, violence and sex contained within some of the titles.
In a letter to the school board, Hansen specifically named the titles The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, citing paragraph-long excerpts from the books containing topics of rape, incest and masturbation. Fortyfive other community members signed Hansen’s letter.
Patrick Callahan and Julie Kelso were two supporters of Hansen’s letter, addressing the board on Tuesday with their own concerns. Callahan said that nobody wants to be radicals or book banners, he just wants to encourage the board to take the issue seriously and to be able to defend why the school needs to use the books in question.
Julie Kelso, President of the Nome PTA, spoke up later in the meeting in support of Angela Hansen’s comments and asked for the board to reconsider the original book list. “Some of the material is quite explicit, and I guess maybe some people think I’m naive, but I really think for my child it’s too explicit, and I think that we can address these issues with sensitivity, without such explicitness.”
“If you have this letter that Angela has, there’s an excerpt from The Bluest Eye,” said Kelso. “If I knew that a teacher had asked my child to read that, I would feel that my child had been assaulted, I really would.”
Out of all the books deemed controversial during discussion, the majority of titles were not on the required reading list. The Kite Runner was listed as a supplementary text option for 10th grade English II – World Literature, as well as on the differentiated text list for 12th grade rotating elective – Diversity in American Lit. True Diary was listed as an Alaska Cultural Standards (AKCS) option for 11th grade English III - U.S. Literature, as well as on the AKCS & Differentiated text lists for 12th grade rotating elective – Diversity in American Lit. The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye were both listed as supplementary text options for 11th grade English III - U.S. Literature.
Twelve community members addressed the board in favor of keeping the original book list, as is, many sharing their own personal experiences with facing hard issues as young adults and how reading books like the ones in question helped them come forward and seek help, or to gain strength and confidence.
“I grew up in poverty, conflicted about my identity, uncomfortable in my own skin, and it was only through reading books that I was actually able to find strength inside myself - to not take my own life at times,” shared Darlene Trigg. “I know that may sound very extreme, but I do really want to say that I don’t think that I would have had the same kind of childhood had I not taken the time to read books like The Color Purple,” said Trigg.
Lisa Navraq Ellanna spoke up for the book list, suggesting that reading books with hard topics in a guided environment is the best way to allow kids to go through the reading process. “This area of the world is pretty impoverished,” said Ellanna. “We deal with a lot of really high disproportionate rates of everything in this area of the world, and books address those things and allow these children to identify with people in the books.”
“Life is very graphic. Life in this region is graphic, life outside of this region is graphic,” said Jenny Williams during the public comment period. “My job is working with kids who are abused – who are seriously abused – sexually abused, physically abused. This kind of information presented in these books gives them an opportunity to experience that through someone else’s eyes. It gives them an opportunity to learn that they’re not alone, that this happens to other children – it helps encourage them to come forward.”
Keith Morrison spoke up as a parent, standing in support of the original book list. “I think that there is great value in having material that is written and delivered from the perspective of individuals who are oppressed,” said Morrison. “I think there’s great value in kids learning from each other, maybe often times even greater value than learning from their teachers and their parents. I think that it’s part of how we develop a healthier, communicative community in general.”
Before the February 21 board meeting, the preliminary book list was presented to parents at a PTA meeting, to the board at a work session, and discussed in a public meeting for parents and community members. After reviewing the materials, comments and letters from parents, Superintendent Shawn Arnold removed the following books from the reading list: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
The amended reading list was presented to the board last Tuesday, with the removed titles stricken in red. Parents had not been officially informed until the February 21 meeting – after the first public comments – that these titles were being removed.
When asked by board member Jennifer Reader what his reasoning was for removing these titles, Arnold said that he based his decision to suggest removal of those specific books by weighing the pros and cons of what they would present instructionally to students.
Nancy Mendenhall made a motion to approve the suggested reading list, without first realizing that the proposed list had four titles removed. Mendenhall then amended her motion, asking for the removed titles to be restored onto the reading list, but shifted into the supplementary text list on the 12th grade level.
“This may be the last time they have a chance to read some very serious, well-written literature on very heavy subjects, and I think we’d be doing them a disservice if they never get that chance,” said Mendenhall. She also added to her motion that the board should review the list annually, as an amendment.
Board member Brandy Arrington shared her comments as well. “We definitely live in a world nowadays where things like this – it’s hard to ignore... If my children were to read these books in school, I would be okay with it.”
“I’d much rather have these discussions with my children and have them learn about this in the education system then having a rude awakening when they’re an adult later in life,” said Arrington.
“We don’t all agree, but we’re here together as a community,” added board member Keith Conger before the final roll call vote was tallied to approve the list. “Look around – you’ve got a pretty good slice of the town here.”
After more discussion and comments by the board, the motion approved, as amended.