New London-Spicer parents want book banned

In west-central Minnesota, the New London-Spicer School District provides an alternative lesson plan when parents object to a book being discussed in class. The objecting students leave the room and study somewhere else.

At issue now is the 2007 book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.

This week, a couple of parents told the school board the alternative lesson plan isn’t good enough — it amounted to “punishment” for their kids, they said — and they want the book removed from the eighth-grade curriculum. They say the book features “gratuitous and unnecessary” profanity and reference to sexual acts, the West Central Tribune reports.

“Parents have the right to teach their own values to their children regarding these topics and have assurance that a classroom teacher would teach those same values,” parent Jessica Conlin said.

In a response to the newspaper yesterday, a district spokesperson said it “values and understands” parents’ role as decision-makers for their own households and works to “accommodate all family values while engaging learners” but that banning a book in the school is “separate from a parent making a decision for their own household” and requires a certain procedure under the district’s policy.

The district didn’t say “yes” to a book ban; it didn’t say “no”, either.

It told the parents to fill out a form to begin a review process by an advisory board of parents and educators.

Related: Authors Alexie and Walter on race, writing and how the Twin Cities ‘aren’t even twins’ (MPR News)

  • John O.

    //They say the book features “gratuitous and unnecessary” profanity and reference to sexual acts

    Oh, you mean like a lot of television shows on a myriad of cable/satellite channels, or the internet?

  • amycrea

    If their kids are in eighth grade, they’ve heard plenty of gratuitous profanity and reference to sexual acts. The book won’t have anything new for them in that area.

    • chlost

      And maybe their role as parents should be teaching their children how they want them to react to those things in society, instead of shielding them from it. Profanity and references to sexual acts (and *horrors!!* actual sexual acts ) are in the world. The kids better figure out how to deal with that.

  • Zachary

    Eighth Grade me was reading some books just for the swears and sexin’.

    • Al

      Because eighth-graders know NOTHING about swearing and sex and–

      Oh. Wait.

      (And let’s be honest; it’s a freaking fantastic book.)

      • Zachary

        I’ll have to read it sometime.

    • Jerry

      Isn’t junior high the age kids really start reading Stephen King?

      • Zachary

        Probably. Too old for Goosebumps, and nothing said ‘look at me – I’m a grown-up” than some 1000 page door stop sitting on your shelf.

        For me it was Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. Never did get into King’s work.

        • Jerry

          I read way to much Clancy and his imitators during junior high and high school. That and science fiction/fantasy.

  • Rob

    Cue the slippery slope. Scary to think that the school board is even considering the objecting parents’/students’ demand. IMHO, the only appropriate school board response would simply be “No.”

    And it’s certainly interesting to see that the author is a non-white person. Coincidence, or does the hostility to the book have a racial animus?

  • Sam M

    Ban phones in school too. These kids better not have TV’s at home.

    • Rob

      And iPods. Lots of swearing in music these days.

      • Ralphy

        Just for fun, investigate the lyrics your grandparents listened to in Jazz, Blues and Blue Grass music, pre WW2.

        “Put some sugar in my bowl…” is not a reference to a common sweetener…

  • Gary F

    Do kids still read The Outsiders, Of Mice and Men, and The Cay in 8th grade?

    • From the 8th grade mission and curriculum at NLS:

      Students will learn & apply a variety of reading strategies for comprehending, interpreting and evaluating a wide range of texts. This includes fiction, nonfiction, classic, contemporary and poetic, specifically The Outsiders, A Christmas Carol, and Holocaust themed materials. Students will use a variety of strategies to expand vocabulary through use of Greek/Latin Roots and Stems.

      • Gary F

        Greek and Latin roots, nice.

      • Zachary

        uggg – can we get A Christmas Carol banned? Please?? Need a reason, how about ‘over saturation’. Does that work?

        • RBHolb

          Supernatural themes, what with the ghosts and all.

          Also talking about Christmas with virtually no reference to Christianity.

          • Zachary

            my personal theory is it was some bad cold mutton (or whatever) he had before going to bed.

  • Anna

    And what happens when you ban a book in school?

    The kids are drawn to the forbidden fruit, especially teenagers.

    I think the parents in the New Brighton School District have bigger fish to fry than profanity and “reference to sexual acts.”

    What could these “bigger fish” be?

    We’ve had long discussions on this blog about them—suicide, drug overdose, alcohol abuse, sex trafficking, fat shaming, and bullying to name a few.

    Talk about living in a bubble!

  • MrE85

    They could always read “Tropic of Cancer” instead.

  • Michael

    I don’t understand, why does parent Jessica Conlin and (from the linked article) Carroll Sarsland get to stop my kids from getting that lesson plan? Why do they get to decide for my house-hold what my children can learn?? Why do they get to punish my children just because Jessica’s children get an alternative lesson??

    Okay, we will leave Jessica’s children in the classroom and have all the other children whose parents are okay with this plan leave the room and go to another classroom to learn about it, that way her kids are the ones who aren’t being punished and all the other ones are….wait that still doesn’t work, it is still punishment to be left behind.

    Okay, (from the linked article) sitting in the hall while the class talks about the book does seem to be a punishment and maybe the school should find a better way to handle this situation, but banning the book seems like the wrong direction to go.

    I apologize for the sarcasm, I haven’t finished my cup of coffee yet.

  • Mike Worcester

    //This week, a couple of parents told the school board the alternative
    lesson plan isn’t good enough — it amounted to “punishment” for their
    kids, they said — and they want the book removed from the eighth-grade
    curriculum.

    Interesting that the source article goes on to say that the parents assert their children were “forced to sit in the hallway while the class discussed the book”. I find myself a bit skeptical about that specific item only in that it would seem punitive to make the kids sit out like that, rather than send them to an alternative room for other study where they could be supervised, rather than in the hallway were there would be pretty much no supervision.

    • BJ

      Why? we have over crowding in most schools, I’m pretty sure that NLS just approved expanding because they had to hold full classes in hallways.

    • Sybil Twilight

      I’m guessing the kids were put in the hallway so the teacher could easily interact with both groups. Most teachers in that position would do the same thing.

    • king harvest

      I’m not okay with putting kids in the hallway. If true, there needs to be a better way to handle such differences.

  • RBHolb

    “Parents have the right to teach their own values to their children regarding these topics . . .” No disagreement there. “[A]nd have assurance that a classroom teacher would teach those same values.” No, sorry, thanks for playing. That just isn’t how a classroom works, and it certainly is not the purpose of public education. Like it or not, the students in a classroom are going to come from families with diverse values. Perhaps more importantly, there will be different approaches to how those values should be observed. Some parents may have no objection to having their children learn about ways of life alien to their own, even if they don’t endorse it.

    Incidentally, if your teaching of your “values” is threatened by a book with a few swears, maybe the problem lies with your teaching.

    • MikeB

      the kids will be all right

      • Bob Sinclair

        Put ’em in a band class!

  • Lobd

    I haven’t read the book and probably won’t get around to it– until then I will reserve judgement on that book. That being said I, too, am sick of profanity being acceptable at school. Why can’t it be a dignified place any more? Why can’t I assume that my children will read literature that teaches them how others live and behave but skips the swearing? Don’t you think profanity is adding to the coursening and deterioration our culture? Why are you giving in so easily to ridiculing people who want higher standards? Is asking the teachers to choose a different book censorship? I don’t think so. If you want your kid to read that particular book go to the library and get it. Leave my kid out if it.

    • Al

      It’s a great read, and it does “teach them how others live,” because life is messy and often includes swearing. And, last time I checked, sex. (Unless you know something I don’t.)

      • Al

        (And the book mentions masturbation, not sex.)

        • lobd

          But they do know these things exist. Of course they do. But must it be at school? You can’t ask a character in a book to watch their language, please, or walk away if you find it very tiresome and come back another time.

          • RBHolb

            Then put the book down, but don’t tell anyone else not to read it. Don’t tell anyone else their children shouldn’t read it, for that matter.

          • Rob

            We just don’t live in a sanitized society. There’d be nothing left to read if the presence of profanity was grounds for banning any given book from the curriculum.

          • Al

            What happens if we give kids a chance to bring it up themselves if they feel that way? Maybe it would lead to some good discussions about the way we express ourselves, pervasiveness of sexual content in media, etc. Kids have GREAT things to say about these things, and these sorts of books give them a forum to say it.

    • RBHolb

      “Don’t you think profanity is adding to the coursening and deterioration our culture?” Perhaps, but profanity has always been with us, and it exists in every language. Pretending that it does not is absurd.

      In any event, the issue is not whether these parents should be allowed to prohibit their children from reading any particular book. It’s really whether they should be allowed to impose their values on the rest of the class.

      Tell you what–let’s just have the kids read recognized classics. How about the Canterbury Tales?

      • Jerry

        The Miller’s Tale?

        • RBHolb

          The very one. A true classic, with elevated discourse.

          • Jerry

            And of course there are no dirty words in Shakespeare.

            There are, however, some very dirty pronunciations.

      • lobd

        Not pretending it doesn’t, but I wish we didn’t just shrug it off like we do now. And why can’t we all agree that civil discourse doesn’t involve profanity and share that value? I mean, among friends we all can speak as we choose, but do we do it in business much? It isn’t professional. Are we normalizing it by letting it seep into school like this? I know I sound old-fashioned, but I’m really tired of hearing all the stupid swearing. Elevate discourse! Find some values to share and promote!

        • Have you read the book?

          • Lobd

            No, I said that from the start. Maybe the characters do actually get reprimanded for their language. Do they? That would be satisfying.

          • It’s the “seeping into schools” part, which I presume you mean through literature. I haven’t been in 8th grade in 50 years, but I assure you there’s nothing being said here today that wasn’t said 50 years ago, about different books.

            As for values in our literature, I don’t know you can say this particular book doesn’t do what you want it to do until you actually read the book.

            The school district may already be doing what you’re asking them to do.

            One of the great things about allowing 8th graders to read books by today’s authors — especially for kids living in a place like Minnesota — is there are so many opportunities to go and meet the authors and talk to them about their work.

            Not that Shakespeare, who provided more prose about breasts and screwing than anyone else I’ve ever read, isn’t important, mind you.

          • Lobd

            I get that. And the book could be fine. Yes, the world is ugly, but there is a lot of beauty and goodness, too. Do the kids read anything like that? For all I know the books don’t exist.

          • patrolling various school sites around MN today, I find this list from Wayzata to be pretty typical.

            http://www.wayzata.k12.mn.us/Page/16240

          • Jerry

            There seems to be a lot of 19th and early 20th century adventure novels on there, which I’m many cases have not aged particularly well. I’m not saying they can’t be enjoyable, but you have to approach them in the right historical context.

            The Singing Wilderness will really make you want to go canoeing

          • lobd

            Canoeing? What a frightening concept! Gives me chills!

          • Jerry

            From my experiences in a canoe, it depends how cold the water is when you inevitably tip it.

          • Kassie

            I’ve read 15 of these books, and one is about 20 minutes from being complete. That said, I don’t have a lot of interest in those books. It is a lot of really boring books. Only 20 of the 80 are written by women. Worse, only 5 are written by a person of color. Wayzata should be ashamed.

        • king harvest

          Ah, but what is profanity? An overused F word? What makes one word profane and another word, describing the same thing, not? Is the word profane or the act it describes? Fun with semantics!

          • Lobd

            I need wine with this discussion!

          • king harvest

            True. I’m having beer 🙂

      • Ralphy

        The Handmaid’s Tale?
        Portnoy’s Complaint?
        The Thin Red Line?

        • “A Young Girl In 1941 With No Waist At All”

          • Ralphy

            Just read it. Thanks for the interesting suggestion.

      • Barton

        The Wife of Bath would also be an interesting education for a young child.

    • Rob

      How about a little Shakespeare? “Thy father is a gor-bellied codpiece.”
      Oh, wait – that sounds like swearing. Guess we’ll have to cross the classics off the list of acceptable school reading…

      • lobd

        At least they come up with snazzy insults that way!

    • X.A. Smith

      It’s pretty much impossible to teach how others live without profanity, due to the fact that so many people lead lives full of profanity.

  • >>They say the book features “gratuitous and unnecessary” profanity and reference to sexual acts,<<

    Those parents better have abstained from any news coverage about the last Presidential election…

    • Zachary

      Or of us that were this age during the Clinton impeachment coverage. Lots of new terms came out of that!

    • Tim

      Yeah, I was confused because I thought we were talking about current events and civics class for a second…

      • 212944

        Civics courses? We haven’t seen those for decades.

  • MarkUp

    Any insights on what the kids thought of the book?

    • Sara Grant

      I’ve taught it for several years. All the kids loved it. The sex act referred to is a boy’s masturbation. So, yeah, eighth grader boys have likely heard of it. #biggestduhever

  • Sybil Twilight

    Sounds like they’re trying to make the classroom a “Safe Space” for the values they want to instill in their kids.

    • Based on what you know from the book, what values are that?

      • Sybil Twilight

        It’s been close to a decade since I’ve read the book, but here goes. One of the things that troubles me most was how many native kids, particularly those spending any time at all on a reservation, are still extremely isolated from mainstream America, They may see what it looks like watching TV, Movies etc. but what they see doesn’t look anything like their daily life. I thought (from my old white lady high school teacher perspective,) that Alexie did an amazing job writing that in a way that was understandable to a teen/YA group. And that the story of identity, place, struggle to become an adult in a stupidly unfair and very cruel world is pretty universal for the vast majority of kids no matter their backgrounds or hometowns.
        Some people who live in places like NL-S (and the small town I taught in for 15 years,) really don’t want their kids exposed to what they see as the ugliness of life. They believe that they are insulated from “those kinds of people and things” because they live in a town that is not like that at all. They deny that their kids are doing drugs, or drinking, or suicidal, or having sex. Until it slaps them in the face, and then its just an aberration, and easily dismissed as a one time event.

        • Jack

          Unless someone gets pregnant, then we know what she is called.

    • plund

      Wouldn’t that end be gained by having discussions of what makes the sex and language gratuitous? To what end does it serve in advancing the story/making the reader feel something? Can those ends be achieved by other means? Exploring those lines might make for a more reasoned embrace of their values.

    • Rob

      We don’t want no pluralism around here!

  • MReap

    As if there isn’t “gratuitous and unnecessary profanity and reference to sexual acts” in 8th grade already.

  • Here’s 200 pdf pages of the book. Dig in and discuss.

    And welcome to the NewsCut book club.

    http://www.sturgeonenglish.com/uploads/1/3/6/0/13602064/the-absolutely-true-diary-of-a-part-time-sherman-alexie-1.pdf

    • RBHolb

      Pssst, Bob . . . copyright!

    • Barton

      speaking of censorship, the corporate ‘net monitors at my work really hated that link…..

  • MReap

    I leave you with the wisdom of South Park…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wjbZ6Dp41s

  • Blasko

    Let’s be clear: the “sexual acts” described are male masturbation, and it’s in there because the book is about adolescence, awkwardness, and isolation. Those themes alone would make it a valuable read for young people, but the fact that it’s also about generational poverty, family tragedy, historical oppression, stunning degrees of resilience, intercultural understanding and developing talent and character make the book almost a must-read for young people. Parents who object: please, actually read the entire book first. If you want to have a real conversation with your kids about the world, this is one of the better books to get you there.

  • Colette Scarpello

    closed minds closed hearts

  • FarmerTom

    Yea, banning the book isn’t going to happen. Giving parent’s a degree of input into the education of their offspring isn’t a bad idea. but they don’t get to dictate to the rest of the class.