SWEET HOME — “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” will stay in the Sweet Home School District, but who may read it has not yet been determined.
A reconsideration committee voted Wednesday to retain the young adult novel, but said Superintendent Don Schrader will be responsible for determining the appropriate grade level for its use, a process he said is under way.
The novel also must receive “informed consent” from parents beforehand. Schrader said he is to approve the permission slip before it is sent out.
People who filed formal reconsideration requests with the district office have the option of appealing the ruling.
The novel, by acclaimed Native American author Sherman Alexie, was part of the eighth-grade language arts curriculum this year at Sweet Home Junior High.
The largely autobiographical work centers on the experiences of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, who leaves the reservation to attend an all-white high school. It has received numerous awards but also has been banned in places for its 14-year-old narrator’s use of profanity, recounting of racist slurs and sexual imagery.
Teachers Brian Gold and Chelsea Gagner said their students finished reading the novel last week and are now working on discussion questions.
Gold said he would like more clarity on the ruling but is encouraged by it so far.
“I can tell you that I am very pleased with what I believe to be a positive outcome in terms of academic freedom,” he said. “My understanding, at this point though, is that students are still allowed to study the novel in our classes and that we will continue to do so if the vast majority of parents are involved in the decision process and continuing to ‘opt in’ rather than ‘opt out.’”
Gold and Gagner sent home permission slips, with summaries of the most controversial points, three weeks prior to the study unit. They provided alternative texts and lesson plans for families who did not wish to have their children participate.
Roughly 90 percent of the families in both classrooms agreed to the book’s use, while 13 asked for the alternative lesson. Gagner told the reconsideration committee she personally called all families whose children did not return a slip at all.
Five people, two of whom have eighth-graders in the class, filed formal reconsideration requests for the novel. In accordance with a district policy, Schrader convened a nine-member committee made up of district and community representatives to determine whether the book should stay.
Members took about three hours of public testimony Wednesday, then closed the meeting and cast their votes in a secret ballot with the results announced Thursday. One member was absent.
Chairman Rob Younger, a retired teacher and coach for the Sweet Home district, said the discussion and votes needed to be kept private so that district officials on the committee could return to their jobs without having their views second-guessed.
Complainants have said the book isn’t appropriate for class because of its use of words not allowed by the student code of conduct and its discussion of sexual matters.
They question the teachers’ assertion that the book is the best way they know of to connect with adolescent readers, many of whom are disillusioned by education in general and reading in particular. They also object to the more limited attention given to students reading the alternate text.
Committee members grilled Gold and Gagner for nearly an hour Wednesday on their choice of the novel, bringing up many of the same objections.
Younger read aloud from a section of the novel detailing the narrator’s thoughts on masturbation and asked what would happen to a student who wore the words printed on a T-shirt.
That wouldn’t be allowed at school, Gagner acknowledged, but she added the same would be true of other widely-studied works of literature.
“Mark Twain and John Steinbeck are celebrated authors, but a lot of material they write about would not be endorsed on a T-shirt,” she said.
Gold defended the teachers’ attempt to keep the alternative lesson on the same level as the main lesson. He said students were allowed to go to the library, not to isolate them, but to give them a place away from the discussion of the Alexie book, which their parents did not want them to join.
“If I could be in two places at the same time, that would be better, yeah,” he said. “I just can’t.”