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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

A censor? Who, me?

by Murray Corren

I have just finished gushing to a colleague about the Breadwinner trilogy of children’s novels written by Canadian writer Deborah Ellis and how they would make a thought-provoking choice for literature circles in her Grade 5 class.

"Oh, but I have a child in my class who is Muslim and his mother is very sensitive about anything touching on that. In fact, I would have to let her read the books first before I could use them in my class," she replies.

In the September issue of Teacher, I published an interview I conducted with Ellis during the World Peace Conference in which we discussed the trilogy. The novels tell the story of the experiences of two girls whose lives were profoundly affected when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. When I asked her what message she hopes her books send to young readers, Ellis replied, "If kids who read my books remember them when they get to be decision makers, and their government says it’s time to go to war, hopefully they’ll remember that there are real people under those bombs... and will think seriously before letting their government get away with killing [those people] in their name." It seems to me that is a pretty important message to give to kids who are about to become the adults of tomorrow.

But should a teacher allow one parent’s sensitivities to decide whether or not these, or any other children’s novels, be read in her classroom? To what extent do we deprive children of opportunities to view the world from a variety of perspectives because of a fear of parental backlash? Whose worldview should we privilege and whose should we censor? Who should decide what gets taught and what doesn’t?

I have seen and heard about numerous other examples of how we self-censor in our classrooms or have our classrooms censored for us. At one elementary school where I taught, two children were excused from the entire year’s music classes because of their parent’s religious beliefs. Last year, when C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe hit the big screen, a teacher who intended reading the novel to his Grade 3 class stopped doing so after the first chapter when a child indicated he couldn’t sit through the read-aloud because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. A student teacher told me of a parent who insisted his child was not to see any images of people or animals where the eyes could be seen and that she had to black them out! I am certain just about every teacher in this province could tell similar stories.

So, the question then is: What rights do parents have to determine what parts of the provincially mandated curriculum their children will learn and how they will learn it? Many teachers may be surprised to learn that those boundaries are very restricted and, have, for years, been clearly defined by the Ministry of Education. The policy, currently described as the Alternative Delivery Policy, clearly defines the areas of the curriculum where students and their parents or guardians may arrange for alternative delivery of instruction; namely, the Health curriculum organizer of Health and Career Education K to 7, Health and Career Education 8 and 9, and Planning 10, and the Personal Development curriculum organizer of Personal Planning K to 7. The policy does not apply to any other prescribed learning outcomes in those IRPs. Nor does it apply to any other BC provincial curriculum.

In a letter from the deputy minister sent to all the education partner groups in September 2006, this policy was, once again, reiterated "in order to clarify some common misunderstandings" with regard to its application. "The policy does not permit schools to omit addressing or assessing any of the prescribed learning outcomes within the health and career education curriculum," the letter states, and goes on to say, "Neither does it allow students to be excused from meeting the expectations of any prescribed learning outcomes related to health. It is expected that students who arrange for alternative delivery will address the learning outcomes and will be able to demonstrate that they have done so."

Just so that we are all clear, the Alternative Delivery policy applies only to the health organizers of the above-named IRPs and to no others. What this means is that there are no other areas of the curriculum that students have the option of not being in attendance or accessing alternative means by which to achieve the required learning outcomes. So, when a student says he or she can’t participate in lessons, other than those of the health organizers, for whatever reason, our response needs to be that they are required to be in attendance and are not exempted from meeting the prescribed learning outcomes.

This brings us back to the examples described earlier where teachers have allowed parental pressure to determine what and how we teach to meet the requirements of the curriculum. As professionals, we have a duty to address the learning needs of all our students by ensuring that they be exposed to ideas, materials, and knowledge that informs and educates them about the world in which they live. When we relinquish our right to professional autonomy and bend to the dictates of a small segment of the parent population, we do a disservice to our students as a whole.

So, when a parent declares that a teacher’s choice of a novel to be used in class must be vetted by the parent first; when, in social studies, children are learning about the different family models, a parent objects to the inclusion of same-sex parented families; or when a child is not permitted to attend music or physical education classes because of the religious beliefs of the family, we need to take a stand. Our response should be, "This is the public education system and I am required to follow the mandated provincial curriculum. If you are not happy about that, there are other educational options available to you and to your child."

I have often heard it said that if we take such an approach, we shall lose students to the private education system. My response to such an assertion is, an overwhelming number of parents want their children educated in a public system that reflects the values of a diverse and inclusive Canadian society, values espoused in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In other words, why should we allow ourselves to censor and dumb down public education and reduce it to its lowest common denominator simply because the system doesn’t meet the needs of a few parents and their children?

Let us now replay the encounter I described at the beginning of this article. This time, the teacher immediately sees the value in using novels such as the Breadwinner trilogy with her students, asserts her professional autonomy, and declares, "I think it’s important for my students to learn about the plight of children in Afghanistan, and I’m going to use those books to help them see the world from another perspective."

My question to all of us, as the guardians of public education, is: Are you prepared to protect and uphold the right to do what is best for all your students, to provide them with quality opportunities to learn about the world around them, and to fend off efforts to censor teachers and, ultimately, the children we teach? I hope your answer is a resounding, "Yes!"

Murray Corren is a Coquitlam teacher at the Winslow Centre, Curriculum and Staff Development Department.

The Alternative Delivery Policy can be found on the ministry’s web site at: www.bced.gov.bc.ca/policy/policies/alt_delivery.htm.

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