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Friday, August 20, 2010

Parents challenge book chosen for summer reading

BROOKLINE – A high school English teacher defended her summer reading list choice after an e-mail with a passage from the book depicting sexual abuse was sent to school officials.

Debbie and Steve Pucci, parents of an 11th-grader, wrote the e-mail, which included a two-paragraph-long excerpt from “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls.

The Puccis did not include an explanation with the e-mail, which was sent July 27 to high school principal Cindy Matte, Superintendant of Schools Susan Hodgdon and Janice Tremblay, chairwoman of the Hollis/Brookline Cooperative School Board.

During a meeting with school officials that followed a series of e-mail exchanges, Debbie Pucci said her daughter had been complaining for weeks about feeling uncomfortable reading “The Glass Castle,” assigned as summer reading for AP English.

Pucci said she initially dismissed her daughter’s comments, assuming that it was the level of difficulty, not the content, that was troubling her child.

But then the Puccis took a look at the book.

“She showed it to us and we read it and we were shocked,” Pucci said. “The language in the book was very offensive.”

“Why this book, with all the great literature out there?” Pucci said she and her husband wanted to know.

Their answer arrived last week in a letter dated Aug. 10 that was sent to parents of every student in the AP English class assigned the summer reading.

“I chose the text because it is commonly taught in AP Language and Composition classes as part of a memoir unit,” English teacher Samantha McElroy wrote. “Teachers and critics have praised the memoir for Walls’ honest account of positive life experiences as well as difficult incidents, citing her resilience and success in spite of such challenges as inspirational. Unfortunately, it contains mature content and language that may have taken your child by surprise and made him or her uncomfortable.”

McElroy went on to explain that after discussing the matter with Matte and Mark Holding, chairman of the English department, the three agreed parents should have been notified of the content before the assignment was given.

In addition, she apologized, saying she will offer an alternative assignment, without penalty, “if you or your child has concerns about ‘The Glass Castle’ assignment.”

School officials said McElroy failed to follow the new policy, updated about a year ago, that required her to get approval before adding the book to the reading list.

“The Glass Castle” was published in 2005 and received high praise from critics, including writer Francine Prose, who wrote in the New York Times: “Memoirs are our modern fairy tales, the harrowing fables of the Brothers Grimm reimagined from the perspective of the plucky child who has, against all odds, evaded the fate of being chopped up, cooked and served to the family for dinner.”

But the memoir is not without its detractors.

The section the Puccis took from pages 183-184 depict how an uncle gropes his young niece while they are sitting on a couch watching television. When the girl hurries out of the room to tell her mother, she discovers she has no ally.

The day after receiving the excerpt, Hodgdon responded to the Puccis.

“Steve and Debbie, Can you please share with Mrs. Matte, Mrs. Tremblay and me why we have received the e-mail below from you? All three of us find the content of the e-mail offensive and are disturbed and puzzled as to why this came to us without any kind of information.”

A day later, the Puccis reply came: “Mrs. Hodgdon, Mrs. Tremblay, and Mrs. Matte, We can appreciate how all of you must have reacted when you received our e-mail. It was exactly as we had anticipated. However, we can assure you that we were even more shocked to discover this and dozens of similarly offensive excerpts from (our daughter’s) required reading assignment. … We too are disturbed and puzzled as to how this required book for AP English could ever be deemed appropriate by any member of our high school administration and/or professional staff.”

In her return e-mail message sent that same day, Hodgdon told the parents that she would get back to them after Matte returned from vacation and had an opportunity to speak with the teacher who had assigned the book.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has recorded two challenges to “The Glass Castle,” both in schools. The most recent challenge occurred in fall 2009 in Santa Clarita, Calif., where a parent challenged the school district over two books assigned in an honors English class. The other challenged book was “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver.

The parent complained that “The Glass Castle” included profanity, criticisms of Christianity, and accounts of sexual abuse and prostitution.

She was concerned about Kingsolver’s book for similar reasons, according to a Nov. 1 article in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal.

Debbie Pucci said that while she doesn’t approve of the book, what she and her husband were challenging were the vetting process, or lack of one, involved in selecting the reading list for the high level English class.

The cooperative school district has a policy, updated about a year ago, that establishes a process for adding new material to a class syllabus. Since “The Glass Castle” hadn’t been used at the school before, the teacher was obligated to follow the protocol.

The policy is listed under IIA on the SAU website.

“I’m not here to censor books, and I want to trust the teachers,” Pucci said Wednesday during a telephone interview. “But don’t exclude us from being involved in that.”

Recently, Pucci also expressed concerns to school district officials about documentary films shown at the high school that dealt with a series of global crises, climate change, water and the world food supply.

She was disturbed after learning students viewed a film about drug use in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina before teachers had previewed the movie.

“It’s so much easier to prevent than to follow up,” Pucci said.

The school district responded to Pucci’s concerns about the films by reviewing its policies and requiring teachers to preview movies before showing them.

“Part of the challenge as a school board is how to allow folks to have a voice and maintain academic freedom at the same time,” said School Board member Dr. James O’Shea. “There are some great and famous books in American literature that some schools have banned or put on a do-not-read list.”

O’Shea said in recent years, he recalls local controversy over several books, including one about human sexuality and another containing explicit violence.

“As a school board member and a parent, I think more academic challenge, more learning about the world is a better thing,” he said.

Ironically, the Puccis’ objections to “The Glass Castle” could raise the book’s visibility and increase readership.

“It’s a memoir about alcoholism and abuse of kids,” said Gaye Kulvete, the Hollis library director. ”There’s dozens of books like that out there. … We’ve got thousands of those in the library.”

Kulvete recommended that parents read assigned books at the same time their children are reading them and afterward discuss them.

“I think controversial things in a book are a good opportunity for discussion,” Kulvete said. “You can’t shelter your kids from what happens in life, and the pages of a book are a heck of a lot better for learning than on the street.”

Matte is on vacation and wasn’t available for comment.

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 24, or hbernstein@cabinet.com.