Teacher gives book pic

Editor’s note: The following testimony was delivered on May 6 to the Mat-Su Borough School Board during its deliberation on whether to rescind its April 22 vote to remove five controversial books from a list of recommended reading for an elective high school literature class. It is reprinted with permission.

Hello. My name is Carol Carman and I live in Mat-Su Borough, District 6. I am a retired Alaskan teacher, parent, grandparent and 66-year Alaskan resident.

Regarding the books in question, I am far more concerned about how books are chosen to be part of school district curriculum than which books were “removed.”

As a 25-year retired Alaskan teacher (retired for about seven years now), I can say that there have always been some topics that are taboo in classroom curriculum when I was teaching. Dare to stray from those restraints and parents will be in the principal’s office along with you to answer for what you are teaching their children. Expect to be put on the spot and held accountable for anything you say or teach that contradicts or violates standards in their homes.

What filter or rules are used to decide the appropriateness of books in the school district curriculum?

I remember a few times when delicate topics came up, I told students, “that is a topic between you and your parents,” and directed students to go home and have that conversation there, because it was not appropriate for school. These situations were normal. There were also the rare, but sad times when I was required by law to call the Division of Family and Youth Services, because a student shared with me abuse they were suffering. Discussing their trauma in front of the class would have been unthinkable, not to mention the inappropriateness of me, a teacher, taking on the responsibility of counseling children who need professional help. I am not their parent nor their counselor and should not usurp those responsibilities.

Having taught 25 years, I have had students in my class who were abused, sometimes sexually. Because of the trauma on their psyche, because they were not developmentally mature enough to deal with trauma in healthy ways (much less discuss it), they acted out in the classroom in very inappropriate (sometimes sexual or violent) ways.

Were parents solicited to participate in choosing these books?

Since these books have a combination of sexually explicit content, incest, violence against women, racial slurs, anti-white messaging and profanity, I am concerned about their impact on the psyche of children, thus about their use in the school district teaching curriculum, and their availability to students in school libraries. Consequently, I also have some questions:

  • What filter or rules are used to decide the appropriateness of books in the school district curriculum?
  • How is the developmental stage of students figured into book selection in curriculum and school libraries?
  • What filter or rules were used to select books for these elective classes?
  • Were these specific books designated for curriculum in MSBSD prior to these elective English classes?
  • Who chose the books for these elective classes?
  • Were parents solicited to participate in choosing these books?
    • If so, how were parents solicited?
    • How many parents participated in the selection process?
    • Were a wide variety of parents with varying backgrounds selected?
    • Was there an equal representation of parents with varying backgrounds?
    • Did a wide variety of parents with varying backgrounds unanimously agree on the book selection?
  • Is there a filter or rules for books in school libraries?
    • If so, what are those rules?
    • Who chooses that filter or rules?
    • Are parents consulted in the selection process?
  • Are a wide variety of parents with varying backgrounds consulted?
  • If books with these topics are just now being brought to our attention as recommended for curriculum, what else has already been taught, or is available to students in school district classrooms or libraries?
  • Have there been prior complaints, or are any of you aware of any other books with any of these or other questionable topics in MSBSD classrooms or in school libraries (in the past or even now)?
    • If so, how was/were the situation(s) resolved?

To the School Board, thank you for not rubber-stamping school district actions as business as usual

Thank you to those testifying tonight (on both sides of this issue) who are sharing your views as a rational discussion, rather than making (unsubstantiated) accusations and name calling; belittling our school board members and those of us who support their action. I appreciate having a respectful, adult conversation, listening to each other’s views without dismissing each other as unimportant or unintelligent. Loved the testimonies about the love of reading! I taught historical fiction in my class that students looked forward to reading and discussing every day, and they did not have to be controversial in nature to instill excitement and a love of reading.

To the School Board, thank you for not rubber-stamping school district actions as business as usual. Please make sure there is a clear, transparent, objective filter, not just “because educators are the experts” or they showed up in force at this meeting. It should be easy for even parents to access, understand, and be satisfied that the chosen filter is appropriate and applied objectively to all books in curriculum and school libraries, taking into consideration student development, and reflecting our community’s standards as a whole in addition to educational standards.

Please vote no on rescinding the high school English elective curriculum and reading list part I until you have an appropriate filter in place to objectively evaluate all books and run these books through that filter as a final decision. Thank you.

Note: The Mat-Su School Board is set to take action, May 20, on its decision to remove the following books from the recommended reading list for a high school elective literature class: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou, “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, and “Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller. The board also pulled a New York Times curriculum resource for high school journalism.

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25-year Alaska teacher raises key questions in dealing with controversial books

Joel Davidson
Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 24 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.