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Archive for Thursday, October 13, 2011

Middle school principals reject ‘Tom Sawyer’ as single ‘core’ text for eighth-grade English

October 13, 2011

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A classic American novel taught for years to junior high students in Lawrence won’t become a mandatory text for eighth-graders now attending middle school.

Earlier this month, principals in the Lawrence school district’s four middle schools rejected a plan that would have designated Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as the “core” text for eighth-grade language arts, as had been proposed by middle school teachers and endorsed by the district’s curriculum specialist for language arts.

While the book will remain available for use by language arts teachers, it will not be required reading for all eighth-graders — unless all teachers at that level opt to use it in their mandatory English classes.

Principals rejected the “Tom Sawyer” designation, citing concerns from some students and parents — particularly blacks and American Indians — regarding the book’s subject matter, language and themes. The book includes references to slavery and use of the “n-word,” and a prominent villain in the book is “Injun Joe,” a “half-breed” American Indian.

“I don’t think any of us are questioning the quality of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ as a book,” said Myron Melton, principal at West Middle School. “We’re just looking at it through a different lens … one looking at equity in the district.

“We were getting a little bit uncomfortable as to whether this was a core book that appeals to a broad range of students across the district.”

Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer, said that the decision came amid the district’s ongoing efforts to educate and help district personnel deal with racial issues through a program known as “Courageous Conversations.”

The issue, she said: Many students of color in the district find themselves reading books and other materials that portray their ethnic groups during specific periods and in specific roles — such as blacks as slaves or in dealing with the civil rights movement. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” for example, is a book used in 11th grade.

Middle school principals have decided that “Tom Sawyer” doesn’t fit within the broad context identified for determining a core text for eighth-graders.

“It has not been removed as a book,” Bodensteiner said. “It doesn’t mean that ‘Tom Sawyer’ couldn’t and shouldn’t be included. It’s just a matter of whether we need to broaden the literature so that there is a respect for all of our students throughout history.”

But Kelly Barker, who teaches American history at Southwest Middle School, remains upset that the book did not achieve “core” status. He’s required, by the state, to teach his students about U.S. history from 1787 — when the Constitution was passed — until 1899.

Students reading “Tom Sawyer” in English then can come to history class and learn how the themes of slavery, U.S. expansion, border wars and other topics fit in with Twain’s book, published in 1876. Barker has been taking advantage of such synergies for all 15 years he’s been in the district.

It’s not easy, of course, but Barker figures students should be exposed to some of the transgressions of the past so that they can better understand what followed, what exists and what is to come.

“How do you explain to kids that what happened in 2008 — with Barack Obama being elected — is truly, completely and utterly historic if they can’t see what our society was in the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, and what it continued to be through the 1880s, ’90s, Plessy v. Ferguson, ‘separate but equal’ and all that?” he said. “It is so difficult sometimes for our kids to wrap their heads around this.”

Susan Harris, a Twain scholar and Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas University, understands how principals might object to “Tom Sawyer” as a core text. The racial implication of Injun Joe, after all, is that “he’s a thief and a bad person because he’s Indian.”

But Harris applauds teachers such as Barker and others who approach the themes, issues and language of the book with more than the literal meanings of the words and descriptions alone.

“This needs to be taught, but it needs — as any historical novel needs — to be historicized,” Harris said. “Rather than the teacher setting out all the lessons, the teacher needs to be able to elicit student discomfort, and then find ways of helping the students understand where that discomfort comes from.

“With young students, we can’t whitewash history for them. It’s refusing to admit the ugliness in your history. If you refuse to admit ugliness in your history, then you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Principals understand why the majority of English teachers favor using “Tom Sawyer” as a core text, aside from its subject matter: The book includes “rich vocabulary” and other literary devices — alliteration, similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, personification and on down the line — that make it “rich in (addressing) the state standards” in place for eighth-graders, said Will Fernandez, principal at South Middle School.

“That’s why they use it,” Fernandez said. “It’s all in there.”

And that’s why this week Fernandez is reading the book again, for the first time since “way back in the day,” during his own junior high years.

Next month, he and his fellow principals will gather for a meeting with their schools’ English teachers, to discuss the topic and try to identify an alternative story or letter or other writing to serve as a core text for eighth grade.

English teachers at his school already are preparing a presentation for why “Tom Sawyer” works for them. Now, having already heard from students and parents who object to the story, Fernandez wants to see for himself.

“It wasn’t offensive for me then,” he said, of junior high. “But this is 2011. I’ll read it and see if there’s any reason to take offense, from an adult standpoint.”

Comments

jhawkinsf 2 years, 6 months ago

Why is there just one core book for each grade. There should be many more as we should be encouraging our students to flea their mindless video games and pick up a good book. Pick up ten good books. Read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and To Kill A Mockingbird and Call of the Wild, and Lord of the Flies and Merchant of Venice, and The Dairy of Anne Frank and and and ...

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Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 6 months ago

There is a serious problem with using 'Tom Sawyer' as a core text for eighth-grade English students, and that is because it is about a fifth grade level reading book.

But, I have read there has been a serious dumbing down occurring in the schools.

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oneeye_wilbur 2 years, 6 months ago

Dumbin down is correct. A good English teacher and history teacher could use Tom Sawyer as a writing lesson both in terms of grammar and history.

And now the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in KCMO along with the Kansas City Ballet are performing a premiere of Tom Sawyer.

Goes to show you that Lawrence runs off business, runs off culture, because the European village is being run by "not_intellectuals".

Next the school board and the principals will have as mandatory reading Tom Goes Transgender, because it is inclusive.

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Richard Heckler 2 years, 6 months ago

"Next month, he and his fellow principals will gather for a meeting with their schools’ English teachers, to discuss the topic and try to identify an alternative story or letter or other writing to serve as a core text for eighth grade"

Mark Fagan:

Tons of parents should be involved in this meeting.

What time and where?

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somedude20 2 years, 6 months ago

Hope the leave "My Pet Goat" alone as it was on GWB's advanced reading list

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fu7il3 2 years, 6 months ago

Just another step towards further dumbing down of society. We'll stop having kids read certain books till there is nothing left, then just ditch reading altogether. Fahrenheit 451 is coming.

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jackson5 2 years, 6 months ago

So we are 2 months into the semester and they haven't decided what are the core books for 8th grade and won't until November? This strikes me as another example of rushing too fast into the reconfiguration and not giving time to work out the important details. Or perhaps things like curriculum and assessment methods (standards based grading) are too trivial to concern the board office as they blindly push forward their agenda without consulting stakeholders.

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Megan Green Stuke 2 years, 6 months ago

What does this mean? "It’s just a matter of whether we need to broaden the literature so that there is a respect for all of our students throughout history."

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Mr_Missive 2 years, 6 months ago

If it wasn't for PC and Liberals we would have to think for ourselves. What a concept.

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kugrad 2 years, 6 months ago

What better way to have a "Courageous Conversation" about race than to avoid the topic, hide from our past, and make sure no one is offended. Jeez.

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consumer1 2 years, 6 months ago

May as well take "see dick run" out of the grade schools too!! My gosh we don't want to traumatize our children.

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Robert Rauktis 2 years, 6 months ago

Funny "To Kill A Mockingbird" was referenced above. When I lived in Santa Cruz, California, it also came on the "burn list" for public education for the exact same reasons Tom Sawyer is now expendible.

What's the point of Martin Luther King day? There never was evil if we chose to forget about it. and MLK brought toys to all the good little girls and boys, didn.t he?

Fer crissakes, how will anyone ever learn about courage?

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password 2 years, 6 months ago

I wished the schools would teach grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. in middle school English class and leave the reading to Literature class.

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Sharfire 2 years, 6 months ago

Those reading lists need to be updated to meet the needs and understanding of the generations that are reading them. I didn't like Tom Sawyer when I read it but I did like To Kill a Mockingbird but that was in the 60's. When I read Shakespeare I didn't understand it, and in most cases still don't because of the language. There are tons of great books and just because they don't choose Tom Sawyer or anything by Mark Twain is not a big deal in my own opinion.

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gl0ck0wn3r 2 years, 6 months ago

Fantastic. We should continue to dumb down the public education system. Who needs cultural literacy? We wouldn't want any of our precious snowflakes to feel any sort of discomfort or have to read anything that isn't appealing. Perhaps the district can switch to books on tape to avoid the hassle of reading and that Dragon software so the kids don't injure themselves typing.

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sandrat 2 years, 6 months ago

Mark Fagen @ LJWorld: it would be helpful to know what books were considered "core" so we have something to base a comparison. There are only so many books an 8th grader can read during the school year -- if I knew what books were still required and what other titles were optional, I might be able to make an educated comment, rather than jump to conclusions and make moronic trollisms.

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ksrush 2 years, 6 months ago

Another pearl from Granolaville !

Principals rejected the “Tom Sawyer” designation, citing concerns from some students and parents — particularly blacks and American Indians

Tommy you are so far behind the rest of the kids in college, why ? "Gee I dunno I went to skool in Granolaville " Nevermind I understand

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somedude20 2 years, 6 months ago

"A modern day warrior Mean mean stride, Today's Tom Sawyer Mean mean pride.

Though his mind is not for rent Don't put him down as arrogant His reserve, a quiet defense Riding out the day's events The river

What you say about his company Is what you say about society Catch the mist, catch the myth Catch the mystery, catch the drift

The world is, the world is Love and life are deep Maybe as his skies are wide

Today's Tom Sawyer He gets high on you And the space he invades He gets by on you

No his mind is not for rent To any god or government Always hopeful, yet discontent He knows changes aren't permanent But change is

And what you say about his company Is what you say about society Catch the witness, catch the wit Catch the spirit, catch the spit

The world is, the world is Love and life are deep Maybe as his eyes are wide

Exit the warrior Today's Tom Sawyer He gets high on you And the energy you trade He gets right on to the friction of love"

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boltzmann 2 years, 6 months ago

This quote is interesting....

"And that’s why this week Fernandez is reading the book again, for the first time since “way back in the day,” during his own junior high years."

Vote to reject and then research the issue - very Alice in Wonderland logic.

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avaholic 2 years, 6 months ago

I'm not a scholar, but I think kids can read books like Tom Sawyer outside of school and have discussions with their parents and still learn something. I guess my point is that if a middle school student reads 8 books a year, that is still only 24 books over the 3 years they are at the middle school. Good books are going to get left out. It seems to me like their are thousands of good books, and they are trying to choose which ones they can teach to match curriculum the best. No matter what book they decide they can't teach as a core book, people would be upset because they are not teaching a classic. Just trying to keep it in perspective. Good day!!

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Laura Wilson 2 years, 6 months ago

Yes, let's keep our kids in little cocoons.

Kids should be uncomfortable reading a book like Tom Sawyer! Pablum is not what kids need to understand that the world today is based on the world of yesterday.

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Tony Kisner 2 years, 6 months ago

It appears to me that the school is saying we can't handle communicating history in an honest manner. Slavery happened and white settlers took land away from Native Americans. You can then place today in perspective against yesterday. This is teaching to me. Maybe we should build another football field everyone likes that!

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jafs 2 years, 6 months ago

The odd thing about this is that Twain was writing to show the flaws in the racism, etc. of his time.

His work is generally a good way to do that - by having characters that go against racial stereotypes.

I wonder if people can't understand the tone of his work somehow.

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Paul R Getto 2 years, 6 months ago

Oh good grief. I hope no one is reading the bible or Shakespeare. Might offend someone. Tom Sawyer is basically pap, but should be accessible to middle school students and easy for them to read. How about The Mysterious Stanger for a substitute. That should get their attention. " Then Seppi asked him what his own name was, and he said, tranquilly, "Satan," and held out a chip and caught a little woman on it who was falling from the scaffolding and put her back where she belonged, and said, "She is an idiot to step backward like that and not notice what she is about. It caught us suddenly, that name did, and our work dropped out of of our hands and broke to pieces - a cannon, a halberdier, and a horse. Satan laughed, and asked what was the matter. I said, "Nothing, only it seemed a strange name for an angel." He asked why. "Because it's - it's - well, it's his name, you know."

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Bob_Keeshan 2 years, 6 months ago

You know what would have been helpful?

To list those books which will be "core" texts for eighth-grade language arts.

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Steve Bunch 2 years, 6 months ago

“We were getting a little bit uncomfortable as to whether this was a core book that appeals to a broad range of students across the district.”

Assuming that this principal was quoted accurately and meant what he said, the implication is that core curriculum has little to do with what's important for students to learn and everything to do with what "appeals" to them.

"A tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days."

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3crookedhearts 2 years, 6 months ago

Good to hear that Huck Finn is taught at the high school.

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one_teacher 2 years, 6 months ago

Huckleberry Finn is taught as the core text in 11th grade American Lit I classrooms at both high schools. Teachers, because we are educated, conscientious, and courageous, facillitate conversations about race when we teach this text because English classrooms are not just places for learning text features, plot structure, and character development, but literature is also a vehicle by which humanity begins to discover the truths about itself.

This decision is disappointing in large part because core text decisions are--historically--made by groups of teachers who review texts and determine which ones are the most appropriate in terms of content, grade level, and ability level. Those groups of teachers have classroom and curriculum development experience and are aware of the scope and sequence of courses in the district, and therefore are more qualified to make text choice decisions than principals.

Finally, if this decision is couched as one stemming from the district's "Courageous Conversation" initiative, it is counterintuitive. Removing a text that contains negative racial stereotypes--and thus allows for excellent classroom conversations about historical relevance and evolution of language--does nothing for furthering an understanding of how to combat and converse about race; it removes opportunities to do so and sells students and teachers short.

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3crookedhearts 2 years, 6 months ago

I second what Clovis said: They should be teaching Huck Finn instead. About Huck Finn, Hemingway said, "It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that."

And Tom Sawyer in 8th grade?? The reason this should be taken out of 8th grade is that Twain wrote it for 5th graders.

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William Weissbeck 2 years, 6 months ago

I had to read S E Hinton's books and I couldn't relate, because I wasn't poor and I didn't hang out on the streets at night. But that doesn't mean I wasn't smart enough (as most kids are) that it was a story, a different way of life, but still about people, kids nonetheless.

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Eybea Opiner 2 years, 6 months ago

Perhaps if we ignore history it will go away. Will they not study the Civil War because it may include "references to slavery?" PC education run amok.

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WilburM 2 years, 6 months ago

However well-meaning, the notion of "Courageous Conversations" makes a mockery of this decision -- of no courage at all. Tom Sawyer is a great 8th grade book, which should be a core text, not for its minimal racial issues, but for its exploration of humanity. A alternative text? Please. Let's hope that all 8th grade English teachers use this book and that all 8th grade students benefit from its richness and imagination. (And how many of the principals actually read this short book before making this careless decision?)

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parrothead8 2 years, 6 months ago

Dr. Harris hits the nail on the head when she says, "the teacher needs to be able to elicit student discomfort, and then find ways of helping the students understand where that discomfort comes from." A book like Tom Sawyer, properly historicized, is a great tool for this purpose.

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clovis_sangrail 2 years, 6 months ago

I would agree. They should be reading "Huckleberry Finn." "Tom Sawyer" is pablum compared to "Huckleberry Finn."

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kansanjayhawk 2 years, 6 months ago

Amazing how "political correctness" can close the mind and give our children an inferior education. We should read the books and address the issues in the classroom! Now liberals become the ones involved in a subtle censorship almost like "banning" a book??

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