Books, Diversity, and Multi-Cultural Education

Terrence Beam, Superintendent
Pocahontas County Schools
 
As you know, there has been quite a conversation concerning two books that were provided to a ninth grade honors class at Pocahontas County High School. These two books are “The Hate You Give” and “This Book is Anti-Racist.” I have received multiple emails, phone calls and office visits from educators, parents, citizens and former students that offer a wide variety of opinions as to the need and the appropriateness of these books at the high school level.

Even though the conversation was spurred by these two books, it has made me even more aware that the topics of diversity, racism and multi-cultural awareness are topics that need and should be taught to our students. I do not believe that these topics are ones that parents object to having their children taught. I do believe what some parents object to is the way the issues are presented to our students and the language used by characters (particularly in the book “The Hate You Give”) to convey their frustrations. I have read “This Book is Anti-Racist” and a portion of “The Hate You Give” to become more familiar with the content.

I have been particularly impressed by the communication that I have received from former students that agree that they were not properly prepared to deal with the diversity and racism issues that they faced after they left Pocahontas County, either to attend school or accept a job in a new location. I was also very moved to hear stories from students that shared their personal experiences while attending our schools and how they saw minority students mistreated by classmates.

Multi-cultural education is a required curricular component that we have failed to give the proper attention to in our schools. Addressing diversity, racial and equity issues is a very important component of that part of any school’s curriculum. 

Lynne Bostic, Ruth Bland and Stephanie Burns (our ELA coach) will be working to provide appropriate staff development this summer for all of our employees. The intent of this training will be to determine how we educate our students in areas of diversity, racism and equity at appropriate grade levels and with appropriate teaching materials. Our schools will be required to document specific instructional offerings made to our students on these topics during the school year. 

We will form a committee of at least one teacher and one parent per school to discuss diversity, racism and equity instruction. We may also include other interested community members if they choose to participate. Mrs. Bland will chair this committee as she is our Title IX coordinator. Lynne Bostic, as Director of Curriculum and Instruction, will serve on this committee as a resource to assist in finding appropriate teaching materials.

It is very important to note that the most important teacher that these students will ever have is their parents. In most cases, parents have more influence than any other person over their children. Parents want their children to respect their values and beliefs. 

We must respect the fact that some parents feel that these types of issues are ones that need to be taught at home. As a county superintendent, I understand that we have parents that either do not address these topics or feel uncomfortable doing so. Therefore, I support a teacher’s right to offer instruction on controversial topics.  

As to this particular situation, I have shared with the principal and teacher that I feel it would be best for all concerned to provide a list of books or writings for all parents to see prior to assigning them to students.  This should be a practice that all teachers share with parents, not just one particular class. This way, parents have the opportunity to review these materials if they choose. If we follow this procedure, parents that are totally supportive of this instruction can allow their children to receive it while those who do not would be offered other literary options that meet their parents’ approval. I direct that this practice occur beginning with the 2021-2022 school year.  This gives our teachers adequate time to prepare a list of these supplementary offerings. Every year, we send out welcome letters to our families and this list can easily be attached to that letter.   

I am not requiring this practice to occur for county and state adopted textbooks, however. 

It has been mentioned by some that the local board should “ban” certain books.  

It is my opinion that neither the board nor I should do so.  I believe that the local schools should have the final word on their curriculum as long as it follows approved state standards and is vetted thoroughly by the teacher, department and administration.  

I have been disappointed by some of the letters I have received strongly criticizing our board of education for “banning books.” I have chastised those who have voiced these incorrect statements and asked them to please get their facts straight before making further comments.  These comments have come from citizens outside of Pocahontas County that are more interested in being accusatory than being informed.

In an effort to be totally transparent, the large majority of emails and phone calls that I have received have expressed their opinion that the school system is doing a disservice to our students by preventing these books from being used. 

In summary, here is what I propose:

Beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, all parents be given a list of supplementary books or writings prior to using them in class and that students be given the option of opting out of that particular book and assigned a different one. This gives the parent the opportunity to preview the material prior to instruction. If the parent asks for a copy, I suggest they be loaned one to review. 

Relevant staff development be provided to all employees this summer using experts in the fields of diversity, racism and multi-cultural education.

All schools become more acquainted with the multi-cultural curriculum and include it in their instruction on a regular basis while documenting its usage. 

A committee be formed made up of teachers and parents or interested parties from each school to discuss and address issues and instruction dealing with diversity and racism. I would also like to include the Student Representative of the Pocahontas County Board of Education to be included to represent our students.  

The board of education continue to refrain from “banning” books and other writings.

We will continue to inform the board and the public of progress being made as we navigate through this process. I assure the board and the community that this is something that will not be ignored, and we will continue to be address these issues and not hide from them.

I hope that all concerned parties understand that we are making every attempt to make fair and just and open-minded decisions on curricular issues. 

Please understand that any book you read is the author’s perspective and, with that, you will always have differing opinions on its value or accuracy. 

I appreciate the fact that we have parents and community members that care enough about this subject to voice their opinions.
Neither side is wrong here… differing viewpoints and opinions are what makes us who we are.

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