Parents often find out for the first time at the start of a school year what their children are learning in a new grade. One Minnesota school district is facing resistance from parents over a 9th-grade book in its curriculum.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is the book at issue. It is a novel about a 13-year-old girl who is subject to sexual assault. A few years back, a group of parents from the St. Michael-Albertville School district tried to remove the book’s curriculum. However, this year’s 9th-grade parents found the book especially problematic. This effort is timed to coincide with two initiatives facing the district: a curriculum review which happens every three years, and a funding referendum on the November ballot. Last year, a similar funding question was rejected.
Speak, a New York Times bestseller for young adults has won many awards. What’s the problem with this book? Walter Hudson, an ex-contributor and former member of the Albertville City Council, Minn., is running for state representative. He sent us an email explaining the issues with the book:
I was shocked that someone would send me excerpts and then read the whole book to my surprise. The book contains explicit depictions both of sexual assault and self-harm. It also presents a dear and nihilistic view of institutions and authority figures. Miranda, the 13-year-old protagonist is a failure by almost everyone around her. Miranda’s parents, teachers, school administrators, and friends are all incompetent, selfish, and cartoonishly cruel.
Even if you removed the sexual assault depictions from Speak, it would still be devoid of academic and literary value. It is poorly written, which I agree with. It rambles through Miranda’s apparently uncurated thoughts, giving glimpses of her high school experience in a few short and disjointed moments. It is therefore not suitable for high school students and presents inappropriate depictions.
Here’s a sample from Speak (language alert):
Hudson also sent us another excerpt. It shows the fictional school’s PTA being prudish, and overly concerned about frivolous matters and is another example of Hudson’s writing. Another excerpt shows how boring and uninteresting this writing is.
It is worth noting that the St. Michael Albertville region is among the most conservative in the state. The state representative currently in office won the last election with 65%. It’s not like parents would expect to Speak to be included in the high school curriculum.
Hudson stated that “the political makeup of the district” is important because it shows how significant this book’s inclusion into the curriculum is, and the leverage needed to keep it in spite of clear discontinuity with community norms. Simply put, this is possible anywhere if it happens here.
Hudson wrote to the school board with his concerns.
On Aug. 1 and 15, he spoke at school board meetings, urging the removal of Speak from the curriculum. At both meetings, many spoke out in favor of the removal of the book while one speaker supported its inclusion.
The lady who spoke in the book’s defense provided our first glimpse at how teachers were reacting to our concerns. I do not know whether she was a teacher since the meetings are not recorded or broadcast and the minutes do not list speakers or topics raised in an open comment. But I can say that her comments later proved indicative of the arguments teachers made. Her comments boiled down to three points: 1) Speak is a critically acclaimed young adult novel that meets several academic standards imposed by the state; 2) sexual assault happens to fifteen-year-olds and should be addressed in the classroom, both so that victims can contend with their experience and all students can contend with sexual assault as an issue; and 3) parents are not discussing these topics with their children, leaving the responsibility to educate professionals in the school district.
The school board created a Reevaluation Committee that included “one English teacher and the high school principal, as well as a member of the school board, a parent of the group who requested it, and two other members of the community – one parent who was not involved in the request and the mayor of St. Michael.” Hudson could observe but not participate in the meeting.
He stated that the procedural process of the committee was “meant” to produce a recommendation. The committee then went into recess until September 14. Hudson explains what happened next.
You might think, however, that the reevaluation is intended to slow down things in order to allow teachers to organize politically if their agenda is threatened. It would have been confirmed over the holiday weekend if that was your theory. Speak was immediately defended by letters and emails flooding the school board. I was informed of a coordinated effort to support the book at the Sept. 6 school board meeting. This is what inspired my Facebook post. It was easy to see the game. We were ignored after our parents arrived the second time. We were then delayed when we returned the second time. We were now going to be openly opposed.
The parents who were against the book won by two to one at the Sept. 6 board meeting. Hudson stated that even though it was difficult to determine who was who, he felt that he had the “distinguished impression” that the support for books was organized by teachers. Hudson also supported the book with at least one teacher and two students who claimed that removing the book would be “an egregious type of censorship.”
The chair of the school board asked for a vote on the book. Unfortunately, twice as many people voted in favor than against it. This disappointed the parents.
Hudson said, “We were outplayed.”
Hudson stated that the sudden push to include Speak in the curriculum is due to teachers strongly supporting the book. Hudson also said that it was a form of “worldview indoctrination”. Advocates defend the book by pointing out that parents aren’t adequately addressing the topic of sexual assault with their teenagers, and that educators believe it is their responsibility to use Speak to address that gap.
Hudson stated that teachers’ support of the book was indicative of a condescending attitude toward parents. Hudson also stated that teachers are there to serve our children, but not our cultural values.
It’s not over. Next week, the Reevaluation Committee will reconvene. While the superintendent will follow the recommendations of this committee, the school board has the power to override those decisions. Two incumbent members of the school board will be challenged in November, not to mention the funding bill on which voters will vote.
Teachers and parents are not giving up, but they aren’t giving in to the temptation. Keep checking back for more information about the fight over the hearts of the teenagers in the St. Michael-Albertville Schools District.
Let’s face the facts: Public schools have the power to indoctrinate kids. This case shows that even the most conservative school systems can be affected. Parents need to have the tools they need to fight against what’s happening in schools.