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Plymouth-Canton Parents, Teachers State Cases in Book Challenge

Panel's recommendation on book could come to superintendent by next week.

Two parents who challenged the assignment of Toni Morrison's award-winning novel Beloved in an AP English course and the teachers who assigned the book each defended their stances Wednesday during a review of the book.

Beloved, along with Graham Swift's Waterland, both have been challenged by the parents of an AP English Literature student. Superintendent Jeremy Hughes initially upon the parents' complaint, but that book at a later date.

The two-hour public review was the first formal hearing on the book and it will be followed by a subsequent closed meeting sometime next week — district officials say a date has not yet been determined — where a vote will be expected. Based on that vote, a recommendation will be handed up to superintendent Jeremy Hughes, who then will make a decision.

The parties met at the in Plymouth for the review, which was attended by more than 60 parents and students. Matt and Barb Dame, the parents who challenged the books, first spoke to a panel assembled by the district, which included high school teachers, a school media specialist, a community library director, parents from the district's parent council, a college professor and administrators. 

Just one day earlier, more than 100 parents and students to speak about the issue.

Barb Dame argued that Beloved was a fictitious account set upon its real-life backdrop of slavery, and contained gratuituous language, violence and sex acts that provide no historical context for the reader.

She also argued the book was given an 870 Lexile rating, which rates the complexity of the language within a work. A Lexile score of 870 equates to about a fifth-grade reading level. She compared its Lexile rating to Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

"Mature, right?" Barb Dame said.

Matt Dame addressed what he characterized as gratuitous sex and violence in the book.

"In the first two chapters, there are five references to sex with cows and other sex," he said.

Additionally, Matt Dame said, the book contains passages containing sex with ghosts, forced oral sex and infanticide.

"I don't see the value of this novel in the school curriculum," Barb Dame said. "I just don't see it."

Matt Dame also criticized repeated instances throughout the novel where he said God's name was used in vain.

"If any of this was offensive to Allah or Hindus it would never be in our school district," he said.

As an alternative, the Dames said their daughter was assigned William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying — which also scored an 870 on the Lexile chart and was banned by a school board in Kentucky in 1986 — by her teacher. They said she has to read it in the library and there are no class-wide discussions about her assigned reading.

Brian Read, an AP English teacher who teaches both Beloved and Waterland, admitted he did not have alternative reading material set aside.

"I've taught Beloved for 10 years, never had it challenged," he said.

Still, he said, he understands the parents' position.

"I believe they are looking out for the best interests of their child," he said. "As a parent myself, I understand that."

He said there was a process to vet the book a decade ago when he first introduced it to his syllabus.

"I proposed it to my administrator," he said. "She read that and Waterland. We read them, discussed the content and theme and how it fit in with the course."

He said during that process it was acknowledged that there was some mature content in the books, "but we decided the themes and the way it fit into the course was justified."

He said a list of reading material went out to parents in the spring, before the summer reading program began.

He also countered the Dames' argument that a nonfiction text about slavery or survival should have been assigned.

"AP English Literature, it's about fiction," he said. "Poetry and fiction."

Another course — AP English Language — is about nonfiction, he said.

He said the themes in Beloved, which tells the story of the ghost of a deceased child apparently coming back to visit her mother, feature "magical realism," where the very fantastical can be mundane, and the book has several instances of symbolism.

Gretchen Miller, another AP English teacher, said the book meets the standards of the community the school is serving.

"We teach this book to a self-selected group of people who — with parents — determine they're old enough," she said.

After each side spoke, the panel retreated into a closed meeting to discuss the arguments. A decision on Beloved could come as early as next week, MacGregor said, after the panel convenes again.

Follow updates to this story as they develop here on Plymouth and Canton Patch. Be sure to follow @PlymouthPatch and @CantonPatch for breaking news updates.

John McKay January 19, 2012 at 07:21 PM
Nan, Jeremy Hughes removed "Waterland" from the classroom, but "Beloved" has not yet been removed. In response to those who felt the decision to pull "Waterland" was arbitrary, that book AND "Beloved" are being put through a review process, which is the formal process for learning materials being used in class. "Waterland" also will get its own day in court, so to speak, but currently remains out of the classroom. But nobody has pulled "Beloved," yet.
Leon Fontan October 10, 2012 at 07:18 PM
I'm not sure how many thousands of books you've read that are better than Beloved, but according to a 2006 New York Times poll of 200 critics, writers, and editors, Beloved is the single greatest work of American fiction published in the last quarter-century. The author has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as almost every literary award for her writing. As for mixed signals, there is no message a conscious person could derive from the novel other than violence is dehumanizing, as well as physically and psycholgically scarring. Parents have a choice about what their children read, but the purpose of Advanced Placement Literature and Composition (the course in which Beloved was assigned), as defined by the College Board, is to give students college-level experience with challenging texts. At Harvard University, more senior theses are wriiten about Morrison's work than of any other author except Shakespeare.
Paul Hart October 10, 2012 at 10:23 PM
A good discussion. Personally I think Juniors and Seniors are mature enough for the subject matter. I haven't read either book but now I just might. I started reading Kurt Vonnegut when one of the school districts in my area banned Slaughterhouse-Five some years back.
Brian Brehart March 13, 2013 at 04:02 PM
I don't care so much about the sex and violence, but if the rating puts it at the equivalent of a fifth-grade reading level, then this is inappropriate for high school students.
John McKay March 13, 2013 at 04:14 PM
Brian, It's been argued that the fifth-grade reading level can be a bit of a misnomer - a lot of newspapers are written at a similar level and while the reading level indicates a fifth-grader can get through a book by being able to read the individual words without stumbling too often, the complexities and storytelling concepts are far beyond what a fifth-grader would be capable of understanding.

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