The New York Times reported recently on New Hampshire's new legislation that requires teachers to provide alternative activities in situations where a family does not want a student to study what the rest of the class is studying. Educational stakeholders were asked to respond to the related question "Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?" You can read the opinions in the NY Times article.
The law doesn't seem to censor the curriculum, just to require that if a family disagrees, the teacher will let that student do something else. Of course, in practice, I imagine it could be challenging to provide multiple courses of study that satisfy everyone. When I think about how I'd respond if I were a teacher in New Hampshire, the rebel in me wants to continue with the usual studies and deal with the issue when it comes up. The practical side of me wonders, though, if I should make the "safe" curriculum choices to avoid the issue. It's a kind of pre-censorship where the teacher just doesn't use texts or talk about topics that might cause controversy, even when those texts and topics are legitimate material for the classroom.
What do you do when a family disagrees with what you're teaching? Is there some path between the New Hampshire legislation and completely ignoring family preferences? I'd love to hear some stories from the classroom about how other teachers handle these issues when they come up.
This situation may arise more frequently than you might expect. As an English teacher for over 30 years, I faced this dilemma on several occasions. Virginia has no legislation that specifically addresses this situation. However, in my school district, teachers required parents to voice their concerns in writing, and then the parents' wishes were considered by the teacher. In most cases, I encountered this problem when I required students to read a novel as a class project. I decided it was more appropriate to honor parents' requests than to cause embarrasssment and conflict for the student. Most often the objection to the novel was for religious reasons. I gave the student the choice of another novel. I then had to read an additional book, but creating the different assignments was not difficult.
The New Hampshire legislation seems very open-ended. I am not in favor of state governments adopting legislation that has such broad ramifications. From what little I know about the New Hampshire law, this leaves teachers at the mercy of parents' desires. If 30 students are in a class and 30 parents have different ideas about what should be taught to their children, that could create a curriculum nightmare. Although there are some legitimate reasons for parents to want to exclude their children from certain assignments, I think the majority of the time students need to be exposed to a range of ideas that emulate the real world.
Did the New Hampshire law give guidelines for determining the legitimacy of parents' requests? If not, this opens up a huge problem for classroom teachers.
Most of my "official" teaching has been in the college classroom, where the issue rarely came up. I know it does happen all the time in the K-12 classroom though, if only because of the censorship cases that came in when I was working at NCTE.
I keep thinking of a nightmare scenario where a family disapproving of an entire unit. Say you're doing a kindergarten unit on pets, and you have an animal activist family that believes animals shouldn't be pets. You'd have to provide an entire alternative unit, which I imagine is no easy thing in the kindergarten classroom.
You're right that the guidelines would be helpful. Imagine if you had to take every complaint seriously. Someone might not like the color green. Someone else may not like computers. Another family might believe comic books are evil. So many ways it could go wrong.
The NY Times article links to a Union Leader article that explains:
Both the House and Senate voted to override the governor's veto of HB 542, which requires school districts to adopt policies to allow "an exception to specific course material based on a parent's or legal guardian's determination that the material is objectionable."
That doesn't really spell anything out. The original complaint, according to that piece, was a family's objection to Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. There's also more info in another NY Times article. That article suggests that there really are no guidelines:
The mechanics of an “opt-out” are unclear: this is a law created by politicians, not educators. The school district is obligated to develop an alternative plan for each student that still allows the student to meet specific state educational requirements on the subject manner (should they exist). The parent is obligated to pay for the cost of the change. How the cost will be calculated or a new curriculum for one implemented aren’t addressed. But on the substance, the law is clearer. Think your child should be shielded from an understanding of the civil rights movement? Believe spelling is a waste of time in the age of spell check? Just raise an objection, and in New Hampshire, your child should be accommodated.
Talk about a nightmare.
First, if we take the ‘safe’ route, then I don’t think it’s pre-censorship. It is censorship and for all the wrong reasons. I’m not referring to a carefully considered decision not to teach a particular novel because of community values, but to avoiding a novel because of possible objection from a parent. With that out of the way, how have we dealt with the issue of parent objections?
Our school teaches The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie in Grade 9. While I haven’t had a parent object, a colleague has. It was dealt with by explaining our reasons (as a department) for selecting the novel and relating our past experiences with the novel. In the end, the parent agreed with the teacher and stated that while she was initially taken aback by the language and content, she continued reading and realized there was merit in the novel. I think we need to acknowledge that sometimes the content makes parents uncomfortable but that in many cases, it is where teens are living their lives. This past semester, my students wrote letters to the principal on retaining or eliminating the Alexie novel as part of the curriculum. One of the points raised by several students was that adults don’t realize that many students live in less than ideal circumstances. They also felt this led to hiding what they know about the world and life around them.
Honest conversations with parents about why we choose novels and other resources will often alleviate many of their concerns - but not always. If I had a parent that insisted on their child not reading the novel, I would provide another novel for them. Doing this though, means that the student is isolated in some way from the rest of the class and they will still hear about the novel from their classmates but without any teacher mediation. I think we need to bring this to their attention.
Part of our curriculum in British Columbia is teaching critical thinking (as I imagine it is in a lot of jurisdictions). It is difficult to model critical thinking if the topics are always ‘safe’. Students need to think about controversial issues, or positions they do not agree with, if they are to exercise their critical thinking muscles. The New Hampshire law sounds like a step, or several, backwards.