Our View: Controversial poem opens community dialogue
The recent controversy swirling around the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg has sparked a community conversation that we believe has the potential to effect positive change.
We aren’t going to weigh in on the literary merits of “Howl” or opine on whether or not we think the poem was age-appropriate. Instead, we’d like local residents to consider this recent string of events as an opportunity to engage in a broader, more open discussion about the range of ideas that should be presented in our public schools and how the district can ensure families are aware of what is being taught and why. It’s also important that families clearly understand they can opt-out of any material they think violates their personal belief systems.
Steamboat Springs School District has a seven-page policy in place that outlines how instructional materials are selected. According to this policy — I-9-E —the district provides students with a “a wide range of instructional materials at various levels of difficulty, with diversity of appeal and presenting different points of view.” It asserts that the school board has the final say on whether or not books and instructional materials are made available to students.
A list of criteria for selection of materials is outlined in the policy, and there is also a section detailing how materials on controversial issues are chosen. Furthermore, the policy states that people may raise official objections to instructional materials, but the board will not permit censorship. Instead, there is a system in place for material to be re-evaluated as well as an appeals procedure if the complainant is not satisfied with the review committee’s decision.
When a teacher chooses to use controversial learning materials and discuss controversial issues, they are required to get prior permission from the building principal and the teacher must be prepared to provide alternative learning activities at the request of a student or parent.
At issue: The Steamboat Springs School District has come under fire recently for how it handled the evaluation of a controversial poem “Howl” as part of the curriculum for a high school music education class.
Our View: The school district has a policy in place to deal with the teaching of controversial materials, and it’s important the policy is communicated clearly to parents and students. It’s also essential that parents take an active role in their child’s life and pay attention to what’s being taught.
- Logan Molen, publisher
- Lisa Schlichtman, editor
- Jason Gilligan, community representative
- Don Moss, community representative
A review of the district policy revealed to us that the district has a solid policy in place to deal with the teaching of controversial subject matter, but we believe more education and awareness in advance of a teacher’s use of this material could have helped the district, the student and her family avoid the current controversy.
Ultimately, we think it’s the district’s responsibility to strictly adhere to its own policy while also diligently working to ensure that students and parents understand the school’s policies, especially when it comes to curriculum. And we believe back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences can provide the perfect venues for discussing potentially objectionable materials that might be taught in the classroom, giving students and parents advance knowledge and the opportunity to request different material or another assignment if they so desire.
Parents also have a responsibility to pay attention to syllabuses and talk to their children about what they’re learning in school. These discussions aren’t always comfortable, but they provide a great opportunity and safe space for deeper conversations about important and sometimes challenging issues that can help prepare young people for a world full of conflict and varying viewpoints.
It’s our hope that “Howl” sparked many of these in-depth dinner conversations across the Steamboat Springs community and served as a catalyst to inspire parents to become more active participants in their child’s daily life. We think the school district, and our community as a whole, can learn from this recent controversy to ensure situations like this are handled more proactively in the future.
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