A recent dispute in the Dallas suburb of Highland Park over requiring students to read the book The Art of Racing in the Rain was settled today—a committee of teachers, parents and students reviewed the book and found that it can be taught in the classrooms. One thing the debate in Highland Park has shown is that parents and students who object to certain books are also often unhappy with their options for alternative assignments. Some Texas schools have made that process smoother.
In Coppell, Texas, Eugenia Falkner is very uncomfortable with the idea of her daughter being required to read books with sexual content.
“I don’t think we’re trying to be naïve about things," she said. "It’s just protecting children. Are they going to know these things in the future? Of course. But you don’t want to give a drug to a kid just so that they know what’s out there.”
She checked with the Coppell High School Principal Mike Jasso, and was happy to hear that the school’s curriculum often accommodates the different values of the families in the district. She and her husband then sat down with her tenth grader.
“'Because of our church standards and what you are learning, you need to be given the tools to say no,'” she said she told her daughter.
At Lewisville High School in a neighboring community, high school teacher Amy Rasmussen has found that giving her eleventh graders a choice of what to read for her AP Language class is better than requiring that they all read the same book.
“I provide usually a choice of 3-4 books so students can have a say in what they read, instead of me as the teacher making all those decisions,” she said.
Parents rarely--if ever--object to this approach, even though it means that she has to read four times as many books at a time.
Rasmussen also had seven of her own children go through the public schools. She calls herself a conservative parent, and read along with her kids when they were assigned challenging material.
“That creates the best conversations, when you talk with you kids about a book. I never felt like I needed to challenge a teacher, because I felt like it was my responsibility to teach my kids anyway.”
Parents don’t want their children to be punished for not completing a mandatory class assignment when it is contrary to their religion. Highland Park parents in the group called Speak up for Standards have collected stories from students who tried to opt out of required readings – some said they felt stigmatized, or sat in the halls for a few weeks, or saw their grades suffer. Dawson Orr, the superintendent of Highland Park schools, hopes they can create a better experience for students who opt out of reading.
“We want to be sure that if students do make an alternative choice that we have a thoughtful plan in place that supports their learning,” he said.
Offering that choice when it comes to required class reading could make things better for the students, and save some real headaches for school administrators.