by Scott Neuffer

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November 29, 2012
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Parent challenges sophomore English novel

A parent of a Douglas High School honors student is challenging the use of the classic African novel "Things Fall Apart" in sophomore English, which is part of the SpringBoard curriculum.

In a formal complaint addressing the instructional material, the parent claimed to not "want that kind of garbage in her (daughter's) head."

"Perhaps in college that would be her choice then," the parent stated. "Now, it's mine. In raising our daughter we are trying to model good behavior. We don't want her delving into the bad without a good to back it."

The complaint form was provided to The Record-Courier after a public records request.

Also provided to The R-C were the details of a board-approved committee, comprised of teachers, parents, administrators and a student, that will be meeting 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3 at the district office, 1638 Mono Ave., Minden, to review the material.

The committee will decide whether to leave the material in place, amend the material in some fashion, or remove the material from use. Either the complainant or teacher using the material can appeal the committee's decision to the assistant superintendent of education services and then, if so desired, to the superintendent and school board.

The R-C is withholding the name of the complainant.

Written in English and published by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1958, "Things Fall Apart" is considered a classic of African literature, according to the Modern Language Association.

"It is taught in college courses ranging from graduate seminars in English and comparative literature to undergraduate offerings in English, history, ethnic studies, anthropology, folklore, and political science; it is also studied in high school literature and social studies classes," MLA states on its website. "Yet teaching such a book presents special problems; 'Things Fall Apart' is rooted in African social and historical realities that are often unfamiliar to North American readers."

Set in the late 19th Century, the narrative follows the protagonist Okonkwo and the Igbo people of Nigeria as they encounter British colonialism and Christian missionaries.

In the complaint form, the parent took issue with the book's tragic plot twists, including when Okonkwo assists in the murder of his adopted son, and, later, Okonkwo's suicide.

"There is no redeeming value to this book. It's all sad or bad, and it ends that way with no one seeming to respect life," the parent said. "I want something more uplifting. A book that tells about making mistakes but learning from them. One that shows mistakes don't rule your life. One that does not end in suicide."

The parent asked that the book be reevaluated for use in the classroom.

"Mark the books that talk about adult material with a red dot sticker, so parents will know right away if they need to review it first," the parent said. "Like some of Kurt Vonnegut's books."

However, when asked on the complaint form if they had reviewed the material in its entirety, the parent said no.

"And I don't want to either," the parent said, adding that they'd retrieved information on the book from Spark Notes.

The parent also questioned the use of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden."

DCSD Director of Curriculum Rommy Cronin explained that the latter title was included in summer reading for honors English. She said the school district can typically accommodate parents and students who choose to opt out of specific summer reading, but that it's more difficult for a foundational novel like "Things Fall Apart."

"We want parents on our side to work together as a team," she said. "At the first level, we want to see if there is a way to accommodate a complaint. 'East of Eden' for summer reading is different than a six-week unit with conversation and dialogue happening in class," she said. "This particular novel ( 'Things Fall Apart') is a six-eight-week unit. Our biggest concern was when we talked about alternatives, there was this idea of sending the student to the library everyday. We didn't think that would meet requirements for seat time."

In other words, the district is defending its core curriculum. The parent's complaint represents the first formal challenge to SpringBoard since the adoption of the controversial curriculum in 2010.

Cronin agreed that "Things Fall Apart" is a difficult novel exploring difficult topics. However, she argued that sophomores should be ready to grapple with serious issues in literature, paralleling their study of world history.

"I feel that especially going into their sophomore year at high school, it's time to give students the opportunity to deal with world issues, to have that dialogue, and to be able to participate in discussions of those issues," Cronin said.

Beyond history, literature explores universal themes and the moral significance of events, she said. For example, another disturbing book used in the same grade level is "Lord of the Flies," William Golding's classic parable on the breakdown of civilization.

"To me, that's the most important part of teaching a class novel," Cronin said, referring to stimulating intellectual discussion. "We are not trying change anyone's opinion about things, but just give them the opportunity to look through that analytical eye."

Although "Things Fall Apart" is the primary novel of the SpringBoard 10th-grade curriculum, district administrators, acknowledging the complexity of the narrative, have allowed teachers to substitute it with "Children of the River," Linda Crew's 1989 novel about a teenage girl fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Cronin maintains that the study of such literature can help create a more peaceful world.

"My hope is that we are helping kids make good decisions," she said.

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The Record Courier Updated Nov 29, 2012 05:53PM Published Nov 29, 2012 05:52PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.