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Watauga High School English teacher Mary Kent Whitaker speaks Thursday about the pathways students may take in high school English classes, indicating that honors 205 is an elective. Kellen Short | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-12-12 18:51:49
Last modified: 2013-12-12 18:58:54

Appeal committee upholds book usage

An appeal committee voted unanimously Thursday to retain "The House of the Spirits" as part of the sophomore honors English curriculum at Watauga High School.

In a nearly two-hour hearing, the five-member committee heard from teacher Mary Kent Whitaker and parent Chastity Lesesne about the merits and deficiencies of the 1982 novel by Isabel Allende.

Both came prepared with bookmarked paperbacks and extensive notes and spoke for about 30 minutes each about the novel, which Lesesne first challenged in mid-October.

The book was upheld Oct. 25 by the WHS Media and Technology Advisory Committee, and Lesesne appealed that decision.

The appeal committee, which already met once before, included interim Superintendent David Fonseca, WHS math teacher Klay Anderson, Hardin Park media specialist Amy Hiatt, Blowing Rock principal Patrick Sukow and community representative Dr. Clint Zimmerman.

About 60 people -- including the entire WHS English department -- attended the meeting, and a sheriff's deputy supervised in case of an unruly crowd. The audience sat quietly the entire time with no interruptions.

Lesesne met privately with Fonseca after the meeting and was not immediately available to say whether she would again appeal this decision to the Board of Education for a final ruling.

Whitaker began by defending herself, a National Board-certified educator who has taught more than 3,000 students in her 37-year career.

"I would never, never select a work or teach in a way that would harm students," she said. "I care deeply and compassionately about my students and their learning."

She described numerous reasons why "The House of the Spirits" was selected by a committee last year for honors sophomores, including the fact that Allende is a renowned Latin American author and that the book has a high Lexile score, a measure of literary difficulty.

Whitaker said the passages deemed controversial or obscene represented only 1 percent of the entire book.

"I have not seen another title that fits the criteria that we're looking for that does not have adult content," she said.

She also emphasized that the controversial portions were discussed within the broader themes of integrity, justice and forgiveness. The unit also includes discussion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, visits from OASIS representatives and comparisons to American slavery.

Whitaker said she feels her students are missing a critical piece not studying the book this fall.

"There is basically a hole in this semester," she said. " ... I am doing my absolute best, but it is not the same."

Lesesne described herself as a simple mom who merely wanted the parent's perspective to be considered when determining which works were appropriate for teenage students.

"It's not to say that I think they need to be sheltered, however we as parents need to have some say," she said. "You don't know the baggage that that child has. ... We know them, we know their hearts, we know their experiences, we know their past."

She said the sexual undertone throughout the novel and graphic descriptions of sex and rape were inappropriate and buried the valuable content within the novel.

Lesesne also pointed out that while the work is recommended reading under the Common Core curriculum, it is not required.

"There are other books, I'm sorry, there are tons of other books," she said.

She also questioned why, if the Allende novel is so necessary because of its Latin American focus, is the alternate selection "Moby Dick," an American novel from a different era?

Lesesne also critiqued the intimidating challenge process itself and what she perceived as inadequate communication between the school and parents about the content within the books being taught.

After the presentations from both sides, committee members spoke briefly before voting.

Zimmerman, a pediatrician, took a scholarly approach to the matter, consulting with several experts in the field of media effects on children.

He said he ultimately concluded that while violent or sexual content could have a desensitizing effect on youth, scholars also believe that it can create more empathy if approached in a thoughtful, critical way.

Sukow said he believed, based on the Board of Education policy, that the committee couldn't possibly decide to remove the book.

"I believe that this mother has wholeheartedly the best interests of her child in mind, but I don't know how the challenge can be upheld," he said.

The Hardin Park media coordinator, Hiatt said she felt books with adult themes were simply a fact of life in upper-level courses such as honors and Advanced Placement.

"At some point, we have to allow teachers to be able to handle those ugly parts and give understanding to students in ways that they can process that in healthy ways," Hiatt said.

Anderson said he approached the question with his mind on his own children, ages 2 and 4.

"I can't say if my child would read it or not. If I had to guess right now ... I would say no, because it's very adult. It's very adult," he said. "However, that shouldn't remove the right if someone else's child or family feels like they're ready to read it."

The committee did not delve deep into Lesesne's secondary complaint, that the alternate assignments with "Moby Dick" did not provide equal educational value, although both she and Whitaker spoke at length about that question.

Sukow stated adamantly that he did not feel that matter was within the committee's purview.

Fonseca shared little about his personal opinions but joined the other four in voting in favor of keeping the book for sophomore honors English students.

He lamented that both Lesesne and Whitaker had reported feeling uncomfortable about the level of support they were getting and with the community pressure about the matter.

"This has created a ripple effect way outside the walls of your classroom and your home," Fonseca said.

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