Parents, students debate power of the written word

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Attending the Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting in person and through a Zoom meeting online, parents and students shared their opinions about two books that are part of the curriculum of an English class at Pocahontas County High School.

The books in question, the fiction novel “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas and the non-fiction “This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on how to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work,” by Tiffany Jewell were recently assigned to students in Samara Mann’s English class.

The books address racism in America and ways racism affects people of all ages and races.

Several parents expressed their concerns with the content of the books and the lessons the students are receiving on the subject of racism.

Andy Friel said his concern was about who approved the use of the books in the English curriculum because one of them deals with police brutality and teen sexuality. He added that the book has been prohibited at Marshall University and the University of Kansas.

“Those are the points that I want you all to consider,” he said. “In reading some of this book – the one book – it almost seems to me that it was sort of talking about the good feeling of being high and on drugs and different things. One section seemed to be saying how the summer party leads to winter babies, things like that.
“I don’t think that should be something that’s in our curriculum,” he added. “I just would like to know if you could look into that at this time.”

Several parents read excerpts from the two books, including passages which used foul language. All but one parent censored themselves in reading the passages.

“This is coming right out of the book,” John Burks said after reading a passage. “The point is, this book is full of sex, drugs, alcohol and plenty of f-bombs and all other cuss words. It has been banned from libraries, schools and colleges.”
Richard Lane agreed with Burks and added that he would like to see the board read the suggested books prior to them being added to the curriculum.

“What I would like to see happen is, before any teachers can pass out any books, before a teacher can buy books for herself and distribute them to the kids, why not bring them here and let the board go over them or let them read through them,” he said. “To me, it’s crazy. It’s just crazy. I don’t know what this world’s coming to.”

Sharing in their concerns was Amanda Boggs, who said she believes it would be better for students to learn about certain subject matter – including sex and racism – at home.

“I don’t feel like it’s the teacher’s responsibility to give that information for my daughter,” she said. “If I want to spend time with her on that, then I will on my own terms.

“Just the sheer fact of all the cursing, all the violence, all the negative in both of these books, it’s not something that our children need right now,” she added.

Boggs also addressed how Mann allegedly reacted when the parents spoke up about their concerns with the books. When the students were asked to return the books, Boggs said Mann acted poorly.

Along with those showing a dislike for the two books, there were several who defended the lesson and asked the board to allow the books to be used in the classroom.

Susan Ray, attending through Zoom, said her daughter is in the class and was excited to have the books assigned to her.

“These students were given options for the next lesson,” she said. “They were reading synopses from several books and as a class they were asked to vote on the next book that they would like to read as a class. The class actually voted and chose “The Hate U Give” as their next book. There wasn’t any disagreement from the students.”

Ray defended Mann and said she didn’t feel as though she was pushing a particular political view or her own opinions on race on the students.

“I feel like she’s being misrepresented,” Ray said. “She’s actually a very wonderful teacher who’s challenging these students to think about real world situations. We honesty cannot hold our children’s hands every single moment of every single day. Our children, in three years, are going to be considered adults and they’re going to see things in the real world that they don’t see here in Pocahontas County.”

Sarah Riley addressed the board and asked it to consider a rejection of book bans and to reinstate the use of the two books by Mann in her class.

“Mrs. Mann encourages her students to engage critically with these texts, but certainly does not tell them what they should agree or disagree with in these books,” Riley said. “There is no indoctrination to personal or political views. Mrs. Mann works hard to have her students become better readers, sharper thinkers and stronger writers. She is an excellent teacher, and we are lucky to have her.”

Riley added that the books are both nationally acclaimed award winning New York Times best sellers and are endorsed by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Riley also agreed with Ray, saying the students need to be prepared for the world outside of Pocahontas County and learning about global issues like racism is helpful to them.

“Our children need to be prepared to discuss these issues in college,” she said. “That’s just the current reality. Our students need to learn and discuss challenging materials. Both things they agree with and things they do not agree with. Both are equally important to their education.”

Seniors Silas Riley and Alan Gibson also weighed in on the debate.

“I would like to address all these concerns about these books teaching our students to be vulgar, teaching them to be sexual, to be violent,” Riley said. “Let’s be honest folks, your kids listen to music that glorifies drugs. It glorifies sex. They play violent video games. They watch movies that have this stuff. These problems did not occur simply from these books.

“I believe it would be a terrible decision to remove books like “This Book Is Anti-Racist” from the English curriculum,” he continued. “The act of putting restrictions on what academic works students are exposed to will limit their ability to form their own opinions instead of just following the opinions of their parents, which seems to be the case here.”

Riley said his experience with reading the two books in question and with Mann as a teacher have both been positive. He may not always agree with Mann, but he respects the curriculum she provides to her students.

“Although I do not agree with Mrs. Mann on all of her opinions, I firmly stand behind her on the issue of assigning these books that deal with complex, societal issues,” he said. “She has taught me techniques that have helped me improve as a writer. I can also testify that I am a better critical thinker, analyzer, academic and person because I studied and analyzed works such as “This Book Is Anti-Racist.”

Gibson, who said he has only read one of the books, asked the parents who quoted the books if they read them in their entirety and encouraged them to do so.

“I noticed the excerpts many have brought from the books, but I’d like to ask, have you read them in their entirety?” he said. “If not, I find it incredibly unfair to judge these books solely on these chosen passages and the moment they represent without the context within these passages. My biggest concern is, if not for the provocative language in ‘The Hate U Give’ and the misinterpreted quotes in ‘This Book Is Anti-Racist,’ what is the issue here?

“Social stigma is an equal rights problem that is difficult, daunting and uncomfortable to address,” he continued. “We can only learn from these mistakes from the past by confronting them and bringing them to people’s attention today. I see no harm showing honors teens such things and the light it can bring, especially when guided by a qualified and prestigious teacher such as the one being discussed tonight.”

Principal Joe Riley tried to address some questions asked by parents concerning the curriculum and the books in question.

Riley said he trusts his teachers when they present him with the curriculum they want to teach, and said he signed off on what the teachers wanted to teach.

In response to a question about why the books were collected from the students when they were part of the curriculum, Riley said he made that decision because of the number of parents who voiced their concerns.

“Not that we saw there was anything wrong going on,” he clarified. “It was probably a knee jerk reaction on my part to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to look at this again because we’re getting these complaints.’ I didn’t want people to think that their complaints and their thoughts weren’t heard.”

Riley defended his and Mann’s reactions and said that they are trying to address the issue in the best way possible.

“I know we’re stepping out here kind of in an unknown world, and I hate that we’re into this because that was not my intention, and that was not Mrs. Mann’s intention,” Riley said. “It was just trying to figure out how can we talk about this and how can we go forward so our students are aware because it is a big world out there.

“We may have students that go all over the world,” he continued. “We may have some that stay in Pocahontas County. We feel that, as an education system, we’ve got to present information to them and let them develop their own opinions at the high school level, so they can start forming opinions and they can start thinking on their own.”

Riley yielded the floor to Mann, who also addressed the concerns brought forth by parents and explained her decision in using the books in her curriculum.

“I chose these books because they meet many of the standards,” she said. “They would have one book that would provide the scaffolding for the events in the other book. So, we talk about how systemic racism is very different from the personal, and we have CSOs [Content Standards and Objectives] about information writing and how they built it and how do those characters show you what’s happening in our world.”

Mann assigned the books together because “The Hate U Give” has the story of a high school girl witnessing the shooting death of a black teen by a police officer – a hot button subject which has happened in the recent past and “This Book Is Anti-Racist” gives lessons on how to address subjects like racism.

“I thought that “The Hate U Give” would be an event,” she said. “The characters represent so many perspectives that we can talk about and discuss. I feel that I grew up in a very small community, and I wanted to give them a benefit that I didn’t have when I got thrust into the real world with real people that didn’t look like me. I wanted to give them more and to provide the scaffolding to safely discuss it without judgment.

“I never meant to make anybody uncomfortable or to do what they were uncomfortable with, ever,” she added.

Mann explained that she does themes in her class and prior to this assignment, the students were studying “The Book Thief,” which follows a teen girl during World War II and her experiences in witnessing the treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis.

“I wanted to take the themes from ‘The Book Thief’ and bring them into a modern setting and carry on those themes of perspective and prejudice, and how it can harm much more deeply than we even understand,” Mann said.

The board thanked those who shared their opinions. Since the issue was not an item on the agenda, the board did not vote, but president Sue Hollandsworth said the board would look into the issue and make a decision at a later meeting.

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