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Where Is the Understanding?

booksSigh! I just finished a very long letter to the Virginia State Board of Education. I told them why it’s a bad idea to mandate that school boards have their teachers send out annually a list of course texts annotated with the words “sexually explicit” when they or someone, somehow feels a text merits this description .

So, if the Proposed Amendments to the Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions (8VAC 20-720) Regarding Use of Sexually Explicit Instructional Materials (Proposed Stage)  pass,  the event on page 75  of a text where the two characters fondle one another or on pages 111-113 where the mother gives birth or the scene in which one character thinks about what he and another might do but decides not to follow through—all these and more would be candidates for the “sexually explicit” label—candidates if an individual school board defined them as such.

NCTE has been involved in arguing against this policy since 2013 when it was first introduced in a State Board public forum, then again last spring when it became HB516 and was vetoed by the Governor, again  last fall when it was incorporated in the state accreditation standards, and now when it is proposed as amendments into the school board regulations.

How can we help parents, guardians, and policy makers understand three things?

Text selection is an educator’s job.

Selecting materials requires in-depth knowledge: not just of students’ backgrounds and learning experiences, but also of their abilities and interests; not just of educational objectives, but of the best practices and range and quality of materials for meeting them; not just of the particular work being considered, but of its place within the medium, genre, epoch, etc., it represents.
NCTE’s Guidelines for the Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs

Labeling books “sexually explicit,” or anything else for that matter, is a blatant form of red-flagging

a “practice [that] reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements — those that some individuals may find objectionable — rather than viewing the work as a whole.”

A popular entertainment rating system like the MPAA ratings, which by the Motion Picture Association’s own admission do not rate educational value, is not an appropriate system for rating texts we use in schools.

Where is the understanding that literature is so much more than the sum of its parts, that as one Kansas Director of Instruction noted,

“There is a lesson in each and every book, especially in the hands of a gifted teacher”?