Education

Everyday I teach the book

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…but what happens when parents raise objections to “controversial”
parts of the curriculum?

Scott Gibson knows he’s a lucky teacher. As the head of the English
department at Paul Kane High School in St. Albert, he has a lot more freedom
to choose what books to teach his students than teachers in other
jurisdictions. In his English Language Arts courses, Gibson teaches his
students a wide variety of books, from classics such as Lord of the Flies,
The Great Gatsby and Brave New World to modern greats such as Blindness by
José Saramago.

“The kind of books I read here in St. Albert, which is a very liberal
community, if I were to do in southern Alberta, I’d be crazy,”
Gibson says. “Anywhere in the rural area, I’d be crazy. You just
have to talk to teachers who live in the rural areas and oh boy. I show a
documentary on witchcraft when we study The Crucible, and I’d be nuts
to show that anywhere in parts of rural Alberta, because [in the film] they
interview witches, even those going to liberal Catholic colleges in the U.S.
But that would sacrilegious, or blasphemous, to show that in the classroom
for someone who is very religious.”

Problems arise because of a caveat in Alberta Education policy.
“Alberta Education actually has a very lenient code when it comes to
book selection and I think they should be applauded for that,” Gibson
says. “However, there is a caveat, and the caveat suggests that when
teachers are choosing resources, they need to consider their community
standards.”

Of course, community standards in Edmonton and St. Albert are different from
those in other communities. One look at the recent list of banned or
challenged books in Alberta and you’ll see. For example, as mentioned,
Gibson regularly teaches Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby to his
students. But in another part of the province (and the list doesn’t say
where), Lord of the Flies has been challenged for “promoting
Satanism” while Gatsby got grief for “promoting adultery as an
acceptable lifestyle.”

“This is what happens: as the polarization in the religious community
is exacerbated, we’re seeing things like parents saying, ‘We
don’t want our children studying that,’” says Gibson, who
emphasizes that his is speaking as a private citizen, not on behalf of Paul
Kane High School or the English department. For example, one of
Gibson’s students’ parents became upset because he showed a
segment of the movie version of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars that
included a scene showing a group of soldiers taking a shower. “The
parent flipped,” Gibson says. “It was ‘How dare I show
these children’—and this was a Grade 12 class—‘a
restricted film?’” In fact, The Wars is rated 14A, which meant
Gibson’s students were officially “old enough” to view it.
In the end, the parent said he would allow his child to finish the novel even
though he continued to have objections to it and felt it did not meet
community standards.

“One of the things he was concerned about was that the book was written
by a homosexual,” Gibson says, adding that there was further concern
about the next piece of literature the class was to study: Tennessee
Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. “His response was that
this was another play written by a homosexual and he said, ‘My daughter
will not be studying that play because I feel there is a homosexual agenda to
this curriculum.’”

Gibson has a simple response to such comments: “As an English teacher,
I feel it is my duty to expose students to a whole range of authors and
characters, and there are stories I deliberately chose because there are gay
characters. I’m trying to expose students to different characters and
different situations of life, and they are deliberately controversial because
as an English teacher, I’m interested in the novel, the novel concept,
the novel characters you don’t see day to day but which do
exist.”

When parents forbid their children from studying a certain book—which
they are allowed to do—another book is picked to replace it, and that
student studies it on their own in the library. “That’s a real
bummer,” Gibson says, “in the sense that the kid has to leave the
class every time you have to discuss the novel or the play, and they go to
the library. And it’s really hard on the kid that they have to keep
leaving. It’s socially awkward. It’s hard for the teacher,
because even if something should come up while you’re studying another
piece of literature that relates to it, you can’t talk about it because
that student is there. So what am I supposed to do—tell the student to
get up and leave for 10 minutes? It’s very awkward for the student, the
teacher and the rest of the class because you’re sort of gypping them
out of an education by not being able to talk about it or to make that link
that connects them thematically, sometimes intentionally, sometimes
not.”

Since he’s been teaching at Paul Kane, Gibson says no books have been
banned except for Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play Cloud Nine, which the
school decided to remove from the curriculum because of a concern raised not
by a parent, but a fellow English teacher. In Cloud Nine, male actors play
women, women play men and adults play children; some characters are lesbian
and one is a pedophile. It’s a comedy. “The teacher felt that the
issues of abuse were not reverent enough and that the age group of students,
16-18, weren’t mature enough to handle the humour of the play,”
Gibson says. “Those kinds of concerns were dropped anonymously into
school trustee mailboxes and then there are questions that start being asked.
And that’s when people duck.”

Overall, Gibson says, he’s lucky to teach in St. Albert because the
community is very liberal and open when it comes to teaching its kids.
He’ll continue teaching the books he wants to teach even though issues
pop up time and time again, seemingly in 20-year cycles. “I’m
seeing a little bit of a wave here now,” he says, “a ripple where
parents are stepping in and suddenly becoming more concerned about
language—really pedantic issues which are so far away from the central
themes of these novels. However, since English Language Arts 30 is a
mandatory course, you get into a grey area when you force students to read
things they don’t want to read, and you have to be sensitive to that.
However, that is juxtaposed with the need for a liberal arts education to
broaden a student’s horizons. You have to walk that line very
carefully.” V

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