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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Story isn't the Story

This past week we saw something I had never seen before, a complaint about Board-adopted materials, Brave New World as a 10th grade Language Arts text.

Dorothy, Mel and I were in the auditorium and heard the presentation by both sides, the Board's questions and the answers. Phyllis Fletcher from KUOW was also there.

I had gone over to Ms Fletcher when she entered the room and congratulated/thanked her for her story on the matter from that morning. The story described the problem at the root of the matter and fairly and accurately represented the perspectives of each side.

That contrasts starkly with other stories written about the situation.

The story in the Times didn't misrepresent the situation, but didn't explain it either. Consequently there were 207 comments about PC or totalitarian efforts to "ban" the book before I posted a comment that stated the actual situation.

The story in the P-I, however, was just plain wrong. The headline read: "Parent seeks to ban 'Brave New World' from Seattle schools" which is just factually wrong. The story goes on to say:
At a Seattle School Board meeting Wednesday night, a concerned parent will petition for a ban on Aldous Huxley's classic book "Brave New World."
Again, just plain factually wrong. The P-I story says "Sense-Wilson's daughter was offended by the satire from 1932" which is a gross mischaracterization. The writer from the P-I, Amy Rolph, has a lot to answer for. I have to wonder if she was at the hearing. I don't think she could have been.

There's a story on the Stranger's Slog by Eli Sanders in which he writes: "I Can't Believe We're Talking About Banning Brave New World at a Seattle Public High School". Well it's a good thing he can't believe it because he shouldn't believe it because it isn't true.

There are other stories now floating around the web, and nearly all of them grotesquely misrepresent the situation, both the concern and the potential outcome of the decision. Many of these irresponsible stories encourage people to contact Ms Sense-Wilson, Nathan Hale, and the District.

As a result, Ms Sense-Wilson, Nathan Hale, and the District have all been scorned unjustly - sometimes, I suppose, directly.

The for-profit press isn't without its biases. They aren't necessarily biased one way or another politically, but they definitely have a bias towards sensationalism.

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I guess I have to re-state the truth about both the challenge and the consequences if the challenge is upheld.

The challenge was rooted in the fact that typical 15- and 16-year-old students do not have the background context necessary to distinguish between the satirical representation of "savage" culture in the book and the reality of Native American cultures. If appropriate care is not exercised by the teacher, students can come away with some very strange, negative, and mistaken beliefs about Native American cultures.

If the challenge is upheld, the book will be removed from the list of texts on the aligned curriculum. Teachers are free to teach any books they like, but they are expected to choose at least four a year from this list. Being on the list doesn't mean that a book will be taught - Ballard is the only school now teaching Brave New World. Likewise, being off the list doesn't prevent a teacher from assigning a book as teachers assign much more than four books a year. Removing Brave New World from the list wouldn't prevent a teacher from assigning it. There are only 75 works on this list. There are a lot of books, great books, that aren't on the list. There's nothing here by Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are more great books that are not on the list than the 75 that are on it. It would not be accurate or fair to say that every other book that isn't on this list is "banned".

8 comments:

wsnorth said...

It is news because these kinds of bans usually happen in small midwestern towns, not in places like Seattle.

Charlie Mas said...

It's not a ban.

No one is asking that the book be banned. In fact, the complaint, if upheld, would not even keep teachers from assigning the book.

Why is the truth having so much trouble getting heard?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Charlie, I may have write my own post on this as well because of my experience with KUOW yesterday.

But I have learned two things here. One, that people in this country will see a word, some silent video or a news report and believe what they see and hear at face value. This is very, very dangerous and a teaching moment for our children as they go forward into the future.

Example; we see video without audio of an undercover police officer chase a guy into a mini-mart. The guy faces the cop with his hands up. So you could assume the cop ID'ed himself. Then the cop kicks the guy in groin and, while down on the floor, in the side and the head.

Now people are saying the cop may have wrongly chased this guy. (And I will submit that I don't think the kicking is proper police procedure.) But we have no idea of what was being said or what came before. The police officer could have been chasing this guy for blocks and knew exactly who he was and/or what he had been doing.

Another example. Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, is on the show, Dancing with the Stars. She managed to get into the finals (she's just an okay dancer so a bit of a mystery). But some kid allegedly saw a tweet about Bristol from another Palin, Willow, and that kid started making fun of Bristol. Willow tweeted him back calling him gay. Also allegedly Bristol tweeted back in an unkind manner and saying how hard it is to be a single mom (while dancing every week on Dancing with the Stars).

My first thought? How do you know for certain those Tweets came from Bristol and Willow? I don't know enough about tweeting but do you know for certain the origin of a tweet?

As it turns out, Willow and Bristol DID send those tweets which they apologized for but the damage was done. (One truly funny thing here is Sarah Palin tweeting about how American Idol is full of kids whose parents told them they are great and let them try out for a reality show when they are not so great. I'm thinking Sarah missed the LA class where they discussed irony and the meaning of hypocrite.)

Two, the point is that we are becoming a country of reacters, not thinkers. That was very much on view on KUOW yesterday. And these people are bright journalists and they didn't care to get it right.

One caller yesterday called me scary? I find what they did much more scary.

seattle said...

What exactly is Ms Sense-Wilson's goal? If the book is taken off of the approved book list, but can still be taught, in addition to four books from that list, then what will Ms. Sense-Wilson have accomplished by this appeal?

Her daughter may very well still be taught the book in 10th grade.

I guess I'm still a bit confused?

Was Ms. Sense-Wilson's goal to have teachers continue to teach the book but receive training in how to approach the subject matter in a culturally sensitive way, or was her goal to stop the book from being taught at Hale? Or in the district?

I understand the outcome- the book may be removed from the list, but can still be taught. But is this what Ms. Sense Wilson was asking for? Or did she want it banned?

And what school or teacher, in their right mind, even if allowed, would choose to teach this book in the future. Who would subject themselves to another appeal, a media frenzy, and a pile of negative press?

ArchStanton said...

What exactly is Ms Sense-Wilson's goal? If the book is taken off of the approved book list, but can still be taught, in addition to four books from that list, then what will Ms. Sense-Wilson have accomplished by this appeal?

I'm going to guess that when she started down this path, she didn't understand the process for removing the book from the class reading list or how that fits into lists at other schools, etc. I certainly couldn't have told you how that process worked.

We don't know what conversations and communications occurred between the parties involved, but the language used in the record varies. An early letter is intended to "bring attention to" the issue. A later appeal is in reference to "removing BNW from SPS" and the response to it mentions the "Aligned Curriculum reading list". So; it's hard to tell what she wanted and what she wanted probably changed over the course of events. I imagine that her initial reaction was to get it out of her daughter's classroom and possibly out of SPS altogether, but later came to realize the problems inherent in asking for an outright ban.

Was Ms. Sense-Wilson's goal to have teachers continue to teach the book but receive training in how to approach the subject matter in a culturally sensitive way, or was her goal to stop the book from being taught at Hale? Or in the district?

Maybe she initially wanted the latter, but came to either: 1) accept that the former was a better response or 2)realize that the former was the most she could get

Melissa Westbrook said...

Tell you what - I'll ask her.

dan dempsey said...

"What exactly is Ms Sense-Wilson's goal?"

Having had several interactions with Ms. Sense-Wilson......

My best guess is her intention is to have Native American students treated in ways that are less likely to make them feel uncomfortable or worse.

Sure seems like a reasonable undertaking to me.

Seems that the facts should be getting in the way of many vilifying her, unfortunately the facts are too often ignored.

Bruce B said...

Thanks for clearing this up. I hope and assume that teachers provide context and sensitivity for all books, many of which have similar issues. All the board needs to do is point this out.