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Saturday, November 20, 2010

What is this Issue of Brave New World Really About?

What this situation in Seattle Public Schools and its use of Brave New World is NOT about is banning a book. That one word is so loaded and has been used over and over and it's just not true. It is not used in any of the supporting materials submitted by the district in this case.

I just want to relate how troubling this can be by the reaction on KUOW yesterday morning during their weekly news roundup. This week they had as guest pundits; Joni Balter, editorial writer at the Times, Eli Sanders from the Stranger and Knute Berger from Crosscut. These are people who I know to be professionals and not particularly hysterical people.

I was listening at that time (I always like to check in on the news roundup to see news items make it) and they were discussing the Brave New World book situation. I called in NOT to give my opinion but because I had attended the hearing, read the supporting materials and have spoken with this mother, Sarah Sense-Wilson, in the past. (She's also not a hysterical type.) I told the screener I thought I could give more background to this case to help the discussion. She said great and I was on hold.

What followed was just mystifying and frustrating.

First, the host, Marcie Sillman, had opened the discussion with a couple of errors. She, too, said the book was to be banned. She also said the "School Board deferred the decision." Well, they did but only because they ran out of time. I feel sure if they had the time, they would have made a decision. They didn't not make the decision because of any uproar. (She also said, at a later point, that she wasn't sure what the decision was. That didn't stop her from using the word "ban", though.)

So then they brought me in. I mentioned the blog and just stated how this was about professional development for the teachers and that the book had issues that might need clarification for students. I got out two sentences before Eli Sanders interrupted me to say that it wasn't Aldous Huxley's fault for the ignorance of high school students. (And no one said that.) But then he went on to say maybe they need "better education in classrooms." Great, okay.

I then tried to expand on this to let them know that both the teachers at Hale AND the district said that for this book (and several other challenging ones) more professional development was needed.

I had Eli and Knute jump in and say "that's absurd." Knute said, "This kind of censorship is exactly to the point of what the book is critiquing. But if you wave the flag of political correctness in this town, you'll get a hearing." I'll stop here and say I disagree that anyone is waving that particular flag. I think it valid to say, "Where is the context given the inflammatory nature of some of the language of the book vis a vis Native Americans?" Also, the district has a process and the parent followed that process. It's not like she asked for and received any special treatment in this matter.

Then Eli said that he believed she misunderstood the book (but later they all say that books can have multiple meanings so go figure) and that he "was against the state coming in and telling you the parameters of your inquiry or thought." Again, who is saying that? NO one is saying teachers should tell the kids what the book is about or how to think of it.

Joni said, "What's wrong with being offended by a book?" Good point, books are supposed to be thought-provoking. However, this is a book being read, not by choice or for pleasure, by students in a class who are there to learn how to think critically about what they read. Explaining context to them helps them know how to do that and would help balance any offense they might take to any situational or word usage. Joni said, "You have to trust the learning process." To which I would say, that's pretty old school. I'd like to think we have moved beyond, "who are the main characters and what are their goals and obstacles to those goals." Any bright child can read a book and figure that out. The bigger picture - why Huxley used satire, why he might have chosen Native American culture, what message he was trying to put forth - that's important to be able to analyze what you are reading at a deeper level.

But again, Eli said something to effect of not telling kids "this is what the book means." No one is saying that, it's not the issue here and yet that's what all of them believed the issue to be.

Marcie then added what I thought was fuel to the fire by saying, "I'm picturing Nazi Germany and burning piles of books." What!?! Unfair, not part of the issue and inflammatory.

Eli also said, after a listener sent in an e-mail saying she felt they had gone nuclear on me, "I have to take a stand on censorship and imposing thought on others." Not - the - issue.

Then he said (and this is also crucial), "Why do teachers need professional development?"

Do people not know why this is? Do they not realize we spend money and time in this district, every single year, for PD? Who, in their right mind, thinks teaching is a static profession?

What was interesting is that they discussed this topic and moved on but apparently got so many calls (and I guess people were really irate because Marcie asked them not to yell at the screener) and e-mails that they went back to this subject. One listener wrote that she was a teacher and said teachers needed professional development to have the pedagogy to help answer those student questions and elicit students' understanding of what they read. Another caller said he was Native American and had read the book as well as taught about NA culture and that he thought the parent in this case may have been offended but that she took it out of context.

So we end up with:
  • Some saying this is political correctness when I might take the other side of putting up the political correctness with incendiary statements about banning books. Say you're going to ban a book and watch the fur fly. Maybe the parent could be taking the NA references out of context but they are there in the book. She isn't making this up.
  • Some not understanding that the book is not to be banned even if its use is temporarily suspended. (I believe the Board will likely say to the district, get the curriculum mapping done before you use challenging materials and temporarily remove the book from the list. Then you have our blessing to put it back on the list.)
No one is trying to make teachers into thought police.

I think especially for LA teachers that is so out of the realm of possibility as to be laughable. I've met LA teachers from at least 4 high schools and they are so enthused about getting their students to think critically if only to make the class interesting (but, yes in the bigger picture, to elicit those critical thoughts or questions).

No one is trying to ban a book.

22 comments:

Ike said...

I'm sorry, Melissa, but you're wrong on this one. The District is setting up a system where to do anything with Brave New World is going to involve so much scrutiny as to make the book untouchable. A de facto banning, in practice.

I think it's a bit of a slap at the teachers, too, to suggest that they have to map/PD in order to take another run at BNW.

Melissa Westbrook said...

One last time. The teachers at Hale said this themselves. Not me. Them. So does the district. So if it's a slap at teachers, they are then slapping themselves in the face.

Director Smith-Blum asked the district if they could just give the teachers a foundational sheet covering issues that may be of concern. The answer was no (although I think that would be fine myself).

Again, I say, once the district does what they say will be due diligence on addressing this issue, the book should come back.

Banning a book means something very different and I am struggling to understand why this is so difficult.

Brave New World is in the libraries, both public and schools. It can be used in book reports. It can be used, whether it gets removed from the list temporarily or permanently, by LA teachers after they've used 4 of the other books on the list.

That is not a banned book.

seattle said...

"Explaining context to them helps them know how to do that and would help balance any offense they might take to any situational or word usage."

Do we know if the Hale teacher taught the book appropriately? Did he/she explain the context? What exactly do we know about how the Hale teacher taught the book? Some people (and I don't know if this is true of Ms. Sense-Wilson or not) are hyper sensitive to racial issues. Perhaps the teacher did explain the context but it wasn't satisfactory to Ms. Sense-Wilson. What do we know?

Before the school taught Brave New World, they taught Mother to Mother. This was also a very challenging text, that dealt with Apphartide, racial injustice, murder. My kid is bi-racial, and I certainly could have taken offense to the subject matter, which includes racial slurs, and worse, but I wouldn't. I couldn't. I think it is important to learn about our past to protect our future.

I have to agree with Eli and Knute on this one. There is a whole lot of PCism in Seattle, and in this case it is skirting the lines of censorship.

I read this comment on the Stranger slog, and honestly, I have to agree with it.

"Liberals, particularly Seattle-style Soy-mochaccino Liberals, are often more eager to regulate thought than right-wing kooks.
"

Chris S. said...

Yep, maybe we shouldn't have "book lists" in Seattle. Bad idea, Maria. This ain't the east coast.

I still don't know what I think. But I think Ms. Sense-Wilson's goal might have something to do with raising awareness of racism then AND now.

Also, if those media pundits dug a little further, they might discover this family is active in the NA community, especially over the last year in which the district has -um- "offended" them to a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars. And dissed it as a "pseudo-crisis." I can't say I would blame her if she were doing everything in her power to annoy the district. Because, as a parent-activist, there ain't a lot you CAN do to the bureaucracy.

ArchStanton said...

A lot of people are having a knee-jerk reaction to the word BAN which has been tossed about. On top of that, a lot of people who haven't read the book or read it a long time ago know enough to know that the book itself deals with issues of totalitarian government and thought control, so they're quick to pick up on the inherent irony in an alleged ban. (I have to add that many of the comments I've seen elsewhere make me think a lot of people are confusing BNW with 1984).

Unfortunately, a nuanced headline doesn't grab readers/listeners.

Before this week, it had been probably two decades since I last read BNW and I wouldn't have recalled the points in question well enough to say that a teacher should be prepared to deal with these topics. I certainly haven't read all of the books on the reading list and of those I have read, most were long ago - I've probably forgotten many details that, in light of this case, would warrant some kind of preparation to teach.

The hard thing (although, maybe the good thing), I think, will be identifying these little land-mines before they catch teachers unaware. The publicity of this case invites everyone to scrutinize every book on a list. There's a place for that, but at the same time I wonder if we aren't going to spend half of the time devoted to a book discussing references that are marginal to the real meat of the book.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Rascal, a great and valid question.

(It's one that you wonder as a parent sometimes. "What is going on in my child's class?" I remember when my son started school -I was an at-home mom so he was a big part of my everyday life- thinking, "how is it going? Is he making friends? Did he laugh today?" It's just part of letting go.

And, as my son's principal in elementary once said at the beginning of the year gathering for parents, "I'll only believe half of what your child says about you if you only believe half of what your child says about me." And that is true at almost any age. If you aren't in the classroom yourself, do you have the best and clearest picture of what is actually happening?

According to the review materials, the teacher did not review the context. And, in fact, had a lecture on why we have reservations. But again, who knows what was said?

Arch, also good points and a valid concern.

Anonymous said...
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hschinske said...

According to https://sites.google.com/site/uaianea/home/goingson/obravenewworldyeswegetirony-1, "What is missed in this article is that the teacher did not use this as an opportunity to teach what history has to teach us, but to spread more misinformation. The teacher actually told student that reservations exist today to preserve Native culture. This is the contemporary context chosen by the district. I ask you, do you think this is correct?"

Helen Schinske

Patrick said...

A language arts teacher could assign a book that isn't on the list, but how many actually do assign books that aren't on the list to their entire class? I'm really curious, my child is still in elementary school.
If the teacher uses a book that isn't on the list and controversy arises, is it a black mark against them as far as their principal or the District is concerned?

Moose said...

I am concerned that "[a]ccording to the review materials, the teacher did not review the context." Context is basic pedagogy for ANY text in ANY LA course. If indeed the teacher did not review the novel's context, then I would contend that BNW is not an issue of faulty support by the District (though they may be guilty of that in other areas), but of a teacher not following basic best practices in teaching.

seattle said...
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seattle said...

"A language arts teacher could assign a book that isn't on the list, but how many actually do"

My kids 10th grade class is only reading 4 books this year as a class - and they are all from the list. As I understand it, there is not enough time to read any other books as a class. I'm not concerned about it though, since the four books are all fantastic choices (though they are all the same gendre). Students also have to have silent reading books all year long, and those books can be anything they choose.

Do we know which teacher at Hale is accused of not teaching the context of BNW? Was it just the one teacher? Or was it a department wide decision?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Not to be testy but no, we don't know which teacher it was but in the supporting materials is a letter from the head of the LA department at head stating that all of them agree they aren't prepared to teach this book.

Dorothy Neville said...

Follow Helen's link to see the part she quoted, that the teacher said reservations exist to preserve Native culture. Seriously, do it. If that is true, it explains a lot. It explains the principal and LA dept at Hale being quick to admit they weren't providing a proper portrayal of the book. Given that many folks point out that Hale has a long history of teaching this book, the idea that a teacher could teach it and have such a representation of current reservation issues is quite unsettling. It explains why the parent would pursue this to ensure that other LA teachers are not so woefully ignorant.

I also read the book as a teen, not for school but because it was one of the important books, one of the many futuristic dystopia classics that seem to resonate with teens. However, I had no recollection of the plot nor of the reservation of unclean savages. I recalled the SOMA making people happy but dulling their free will and the artificial manipulation of the test tube babies for stratified mental development. Those were themes I could put in context, as my mentally handicapped aunt lived with us and I had plenty of alcoholic relatives. I was on the East Coast, had never met a NA person and was woefully ignorant. I suspect I might still have thought of them all living in teepees out West somewhere.

Some of the comments on other articles about this are just plain ugly, but the ones that don't seem to be knee jerk all argue that Huxley was English and was not talking about NA. This is so far into the future and that the rituals are not accurate for NA that there is no connection and NA should not feel offended. I think that says it all. As Helen our super literary sleuth shared, there is compelling evidence that the portrayal IS an ugly jumble of exaggerated NA stereotypes. So the fact that a broad sample of citizens do not make that connection adds to my reluctance to believe that all LA teachers could teach the book and correctly discuss the cultural misappropriation of NA for the purpose of his theme.

Huck Finn is also on the list (although I haven't checked the grade level) but certainly if a teacher selected this book but did not already have a deep understanding of the possible controversies then I suspect folks would be indignant. I don't just mean the N-word, but the whole relationship between Huck and Jim (and Tom) and how is Jim portrayed? Is Jim stupid? How many readers, especially younger readers, would leap to that conclusion? (My book group of highly educated adults read it a couple years ago and some, reading for the first time, had trouble with Jim's ignorance.) Is he not stupid but just innocent? Can teens discern the difference, does it matter to the formation of inappropriate stereotypes? How can one discuss in a culturally competent way the story and the themes to high school students?

A main goal of the LA alignment is that all students are exposed to complex challenging literature. I support that goal (but not the process they followed). It is imperative though, that such an alignment list of texts not be implemented without appropriate levels of professionalism. I suspect that some teachers would already have that for BNW. But all? The Ballard teachers still want to teach it, but want to take two sub days to wrestle with the book beforehand and have invited Ms Sense-Wilson to attend. If they thought they were already covering her issues well, wouldn't they have been able to point that out to her, offer proof that they do teach it with that complex understanding?

hschinske said...

If they thought they were already covering her issues well, wouldn't they have been able to point that out to her, offer proof that they do teach it with that complex understanding?

Oh, I think you can always learn something new from an exercise like this -- and it's worth doing by way of community-building anyhow. I think anyone who really was doing it right would want to do more -- they wouldn't necessarily see this kind of thing as a 101 exercise that they ought to be able to get out of (not that you said that).

Helen Schinske

montag said...

Another fact that no report has mentioned is that the text All True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is on the 9th grade list of choices for required reading in LA classes.

Dorothy Neville said...

Oh, Helen, of course. And those who are doing their best at self-examination already are going to be the first to jump at even more reflective learning. Two whole sub days (if I am understanding that correctly) does point out the seriousness of their desire to examine it further.

Please, let's not call any book a required text. It is one of several that must be taught, but no particular book is required.

And should a college bound high school LA class read and discuss only four novel length works of literature per year? I don't think that is nearly enough, nearly the rigor and pacing one should expect.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Montag, I wonder what Sherman Alexie would say about all this given that he is both an author and a Native American.

hschinske said...

Knute Berger still doesn't get it: http://crosscut.com/2010/11/23/mossback/20392/Brave-new-book-banning/

Helen Schinske

montag said...
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montag said...

Melissa,
I suspect Sherman Alexie would either
A. make a profoundly hilarious joke revealing how all points of view have something to learn
B. state that any meaningful truth of the matter got squished by politics
C. say that book complaints are simply a new marketing or teaching technique
D. All of the above!

Anonymous said...

I think this book sends a powerful message and should be learned as a warning to society... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZJoCfgAEuE&feature=player_embedded