School Board debates the use of ‘detrimental’ book in new middle school class

Published 6:01 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2022

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Some Suffolk School Board members recently expressed concern over one of the books on a list of possible choices to be used in a middle school Contemporary Literature class.

“Walk Two Moons,” by Sharon Creech, was initially brought up by board member Sherri Story as one that should not be taught to middle school students.

Reading from a review of the book, Story said the book “is filled with death and sadness. The 13-year-old characters talk about vivid theories that people have been chopped up” and said a 13-year-old character in the book “draws images of people who annoy her with a noose hanging from a tree.” The book, she said reading from the review, “is intensely depressing.”

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“I don’t think that’s a book that I would want our eighth graders reading,” Story said during the board’s April 7 meeting. “I think we have enough problems with depression (and) potential suicide.”

Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck asked if the board was supposed to be looking at simply approving the course, which is designed to give eighth graders a survey of 20th century literature to the present, or whether it was approving what students would read in it.

“If a parent has an objection to a book, the child can read an alternative book for credit,” Brooks-Buck said. “We never force a child to read a book that a parent disapproves of.”

Story said, however, that the board “should have a problem with this book.”

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Maria Lawson-Davenport said the books listed in the course description are not necessarily the ones that will be taught. The course, she said, is an exploration of contemporary literature, with a suggested reading list that was provided as part of the description for it.

She said the course will include the use of literature circles, with students being given a choice of books to read.
“They may not have to read that book,” Lawson-Davenport said. “Once we design, and you all approve the course, we can go through and design the course and set it up with literature circles and that type of thing, which allows for student choice.”

A list of all the books in the course will be given to parents at the beginning of the school year. Parents, she said, can ask for an optional book if they object to one on the list.

Lawson-Davenport said “Walk Two Moons” is an award-winning book with a Native American primary character.

“Part of the list you see is the diverse characters, making sure that we’re representing all of our students,” Lawson-Davenport said.

How the books will be taught, she said, is worked out as the division sets up the framework for the course.

Another board member, Tyron Riddick, said he was learning about the issue for the first time, but he said that using “Walk Two Moons” concerns him and asked whether this is the only book about a Native American that could be used in the course. He said with how impressionable children are and what they are going through, it is not wise to include the book on an approved list of ones to be used.

“I understand that people have the option to opt out, however, if we know something could be detrimental, why even include it as an option?” Riddick said. “Now I understand we’re talking about the courses, but the books go along with it. … It’s the tag-along. You can teach the course and these are what we recommend with it, so, me personally, I can’t separate the two.”

He said with a social and emotional learning “situation” going on in the city and country, “I wouldn’t recommend it either.”

Lawson-Davenport said after the course is approved, the division then vets the books to be used, and “if at that stage you want us to remove this book, you can make that recommendation as a School Board. That is your determination if you want to make that recommendation.”

She said teachers could, at a later date, add different books.

Brooks-Buck said she didn’t know what’s in the book, but without any of the board members having read the book, “I don’t think we’re at a point where we’re attacking books and taking them off a book list.”

Riddick asked for the motion to approve the courses, with a list of books to be used in them to come back to the board at a later date to be approved.

Brooks-Buck asked if the board would now be approving all teacher book lists. Riddick tried to cut off debate by calling for the question.

Board member Heather Howell asked who vets the book lists before they go to parents. Lawson-Davenport said teachers, media specialists, the instructional team and the administrative office all read the books prior to their being used in a course.

The motion passed by a 6-1 vote, with Brooks-Buck the lone dissenting vote.