Parents, students pack meeting in support of Alexie book

2013-11-11T21:02:00Z 2013-11-13T07:28:05Z Parents, students pack meeting in support of Alexie bookBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A School District 2 committee is recommending that Sherman Alexie’s controversial young-adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” stay on the high school required reading list.

Parents, students and community members, many of them American Indians, filled SD2’s boardroom at the Lincoln Center Monday night and spoke passionately in support of the novel.

The hearing was in response to a request from parent Gail Supola, who had asked the district last spring to remove the book from the district’s required reading list. She was concerned with the book’s coarse language and its portrayal of American Indian life.

She had also asked that the district better notify parents when mature subject matter shows up in required reading and streamline its process for allowing students to opt out of reading those books.

The committee, formed of trustees Travis Smith, Jana Hafer and Kevin Toohill, sided with the district and will recommend to the full school board that the book stay on the required reading list.

However, they will also recommend that the board review, supplement or correct policies dealing with how parents receive reading lists and how their students can opt out of required texts.

“It’s win-win,” Supola said following the meeting.

The committee reaffirmed that parents should and do have a voice in what their children read in school, she said.

The board has no official policy on giving students the option to opt out; schools have traditionally used an opt-out procedure created by the curriculum office for families uncomfortable with a text.

The committee’s hope is that by enacting the opt-out option as an official district procedure, it’ll be easier for parents to learn when and how they can swap out a text for their child.

Nearly 40 people stood and spoke to the committee Monday night, the majority speaking in favor of the novel. Many were students, who passionately talked about what the book had meant to them and the important place it has in their lives.

Also speaking were English teachers, local authors, a Montana House representative and a German immigrant.

Hannelore Carter was a little girl in 1940s Germany and she spoke to the committee about the importance of a free society.

Talk of removing the book from SD2’s required reading list “brought me back to the grim reminder of growing up in Nazi Germany,” she said.

Many of the American Indian students who addressed the committee talked about how accurately the book represents their lives and the lives of those who straddle life on and off the reservation.

White students spoke about how the book gave them insight into the struggles and trials of a culture with which they were largely unfamiliar.

Most of them talked about how thoroughly teenage the voice of the protagonist was and how that spoke directly to them.

For Kim Anthony, SD2’s director of curriculum, seeing the students stand up and passionately defend a book they had been taught in English class was the highlight of the night.

“Think of what they did,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

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