Sex, violence and anything that perpetuates hatred or intolerance: These are the criteria that High School Principal Jack Phillips identifies as distinguishing factors for content that could be considered inappropriate for the classroom.
On occasion, texts that investigate mature themes are presented to students, some of which, include parts of Phillips criteria. What students are presented in class, be it poetry in English, or primary sources in Social Studies, are ultimately what students are trying to learn from. “No book is just a book,” Phillips explained.
Usually, when curriculum is being developed, the content that’s included is left to the teacher’s discretion. Governance from administrative bodies is usually minimal. “It’s a collaborative process,” Director of Curriculum Roberto d’Erizans said. “It is a discussion between those teachers, I just have oversight to make sure that [it’s] okay and in line with the school mission and the subject area’s articulated curriculum. But I have not, in my time at ASL made a decision that has been against a recommendation from the department because often they are the subject area specialists.”
The issues d’Erizans tackles are deciding what should be included. “You cannot teach all of history, so we determine what pieces of history we teach,” he said.
d’Erizans reaffirmed that when course content needs to be removed it is typically the teachers who make this decision.
During this school year, material has been both removed and evaluated in the English Department because of explicit content.
When the students of an English elective class opened their email several days after The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera was distributed to them, some found what was waiting for them surprising.
Katie Kennedy (’14), who is in the class, said that as the time to read the book approached, discussion as to whether or not the book was appropriate emerged. “We weren’t sure if we were going to read it, and then a couple weeks later [the teacher] decided we were going to, so he handed out the book when it was time,” Kennedy said.
Even though the class would not read the book as part of their course work, some students continued regardless. “Some of us did read the book, and did read the first part that we were supposed to read,” said Kennedy.
According to Joe Hennessey (’14), who is in the elective, this set precedent for him and others alike. “I am sure there have been classes where there were books that were planned that were not allowed to go through, but never to the point where we had been given the book and then asked to give it back,” Hennessey said.
When Hennessey first heard news of the book’s removal from the course, he was taken aback like most. “I was a little bit surprised that it had been taken back, and it certainly seems like it was sort of a move that did not think of other consequences within the class.” Hennessey found the removal of the book disruptive.
In defense of the book’s removal, Hennessy reasoned that the obscurity of the book itself could have played a role in the book’s censoring. “When you are looking to ban or censor a certain book it is more difficult to do that if there a group of people willing to say ‘no that’s a classic’, ‘sex represents this’ or ‘violence represent this’, there probably are not as many people willing to get up and say that about The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” he said.
Kennedy was disappointed when she found out the book had been pulled, and questions the merit of its censoring. “I think it was pulled for the wrong reasons because [Milan] Kundera explores different parts of life through sexually explicit scenes which I think you should not censor because it is an exploration of something,” said Kennedy.
Although the teacher was unable to comment on the situation of the book, he did remark in an email sent to parents and students of the class, that ultimately, the book was removed because of its explicit nature. The email explained that it was a “pedagogical decision” made between himself, his colleagues and the administration.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was on the ASL website for a majority of this academic year, as a recommended reading for tenth graders. However, the book only came into question when it entered the classroom.
Earlier in the school year a similar issue arose in a grade nine English class. Although the teacher refused to comment, the poem, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, contained content and lead to discussions on certain materials’ suitability for students. Similar to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this poem was included at the discretion of the teacher.
However, d’Erizans maintained that he does not believe there is a lack of oversight. “I think it’s always a balance between teachers choice and alignment and sticking to a written articulated curriculum,” d’Erizans said.
English Department Head Meghan Tally explained that in elective English classes, individual teachers often choose their own content, however these decisions are not made in isolated cases. “Individual teachers at the end of the day have made those decisions,” Tally said.
Melina Asnani (’17), who read Howl thought it was more beneficial to her learning than detrimental. She believed not being able to read that poem would have been a loss to the class as it is a great privilege to learn at such a mature level.
When Asnani first read the poem her reaction was similar to others. “At first I was a little bit shocked but then I realized it was because [our English teacher] thought we could handle it,” Asnani said.
Although sometimes it can be uncomfortable, Asnani believes it is important to confront these texts of sexual nature in school because it provides a safe environment.
While on occasion material is deliberately restricted from students, this is not the only way restriction or censorship, manifests itself. “For some educators it’s easier to use what they have experiences in, and it’s a challenge to stretch beyond that,” Lower School Teacher, and one of the faculty coordinators of the school’s diversity initiative, Jennifer Abastillas said.
Abastillas thinks incorporating diversity into curriculum is extremely important. “We see diversity as part of academic excellence,” Abastillas said.
Abastillas does not necessarily believe that the school censors texts, but rather prioritises some over others, which stems from people’s biases from their own experiences.
Abastillas recognizes tolerance for different texts is always changing and adapting. “If we were in the 1950s, a lot of the texts that we have children read now would never be allowed,” Abastillas said. “So with regard to the specific things that are happening here, I would say that there is more to the story, because institutions like ASL have to think about everyone.”
Phillips agrees with Abastillas in that perspectives do change, which is a reason why the texts were called into question in the first place. “We are constantly making that decision [to reevaluate] all over the place and that can cause us to effectively change our minds,” he said.
Phillips asserted that there are processes in place, some more formal than others, to prevent inappropriate material for the scope of the class reaching the students. Despite the events occurring this year, these processes are not currently subject to any additional scrutiny.
When determining what is and is not appropriate material in a class, Phillips believes, the answer is never black or white. “By drawing on the collective wisdom of the professional within the building we can make a determination about what is best for students,” he said.