Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Here in Washington State (where I live), a group of teachers is challenging THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JANE PITTMAN because it uses the "n"-word:
A group of Puyallup teachers is preparing to challenge whether a novel that starts in the slavery era is appropriate for eighth-grade students.

The objection follows the school district’s disciplining of a teacher who expressed concerns about the use of racial slurs and sexual situations in the book.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” by Ernest J. Gaines, will be required reading for the first time this spring for all eighth-grade students. It will be used in a district-wide reading assessment.

The novel depicts the lives of blacks in the decades between the Civil War and the civil rights movement through the eyes of a fictional 110-year old woman, Jane Pittman. It was published in 1971.

Eighth-grade honors English teacher Donna Helgesen was placed on administrative leave for two days last month after voicing concerns about the book at a meeting with parents, Carole Stratford, a close friend and fellow Aylen Junior High teacher, said Friday.

Helgesen, a 32-year veteran of the district, is restricted by the district from talking about the situation while the personnel department looks into the disciplinary action, Stratford said.

At a Sept. 14 back-to-school meeting with parents, Helgesen told parents that she wasn’t comfortable teaching the novel, Stratford said.

A parent asked why she was disturbed by it. Helgesen said that racial slurs and stereotyping are used throughout the book, as well as scenes of sex, rape and implied incest, Stratford said.

The next day, Helgesen was called to meet with the school principal and Gerald Denman, the district’s director of diversity affairs. Denmen said Helgesen was to be put on two days’ administrative leave for using her classroom as a public forum to express personal opinions on district material, Stratford said.

Jay Reifel, a district assistant superintendent, declined to comment on the situation because it involved personnel matters.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” is one of 27 books adopted in 2003 by the School Board for the 21st-Century Novels curriculum.

A district committee reviewed 70 “multicultural” novels, defined by its members as books written by people who are members of the culture they seek to represent, said Leska Wetterauer, Puyallup’s executive director of secondary student learning.

The committee was convened in 1999 and reviewed the books over four years and 30 meetings. The review was initiated before a 2002 legal settlement that required the district to make extensive changes to create a better environment for minorities.

“We knew that this was an area that we knew we needed to do a better job in,” Wetterauer said.

The settlement required that the district adopt a set of multicultural literary works “that are age appropriate and relevant.” ...

Wetterauer is aware of some teachers’ discomfort with the book but had not received any formal complaints as of Friday. There is a process for any community member, parent or employee to challenge adopted educational materials.

Stratford and eight other teachers plan to challenge whether the novel is appropriate for the eighth grade. The book went previously unquestioned because it was optional, and most teachers avoided it, Stratford said.

She doesn’t dispute that it is an educational portrayal of the treatment of blacks. But it will be difficult for many 13-year-olds to fully appreciate the context of the book through its graphic language and situations, she said.

A 13 year-old can't handle the "n"-word and a few swear words read in the context of American slavery? If that's really true of this teacher's students, she has more problems than she knows.

Incidentally, since this school is just a few miles from where I live, I know something about the history behind the inclusion of this book in the curriculum: the school district was sued several years ago for discriminating against its African American students, and it lost, big-time. Which is why I find it sad that the district is now being challenged again for almost the opposite reason.

Recently, the school also had a big, big controversy over a gay student event called the Day of Silence; over one-third of the student body chose to stay home in a counter-protest, most with the support or encouragement of their parents.

Nut-shell? I'd really hate to be in that school's administration.


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