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WHS Teachers Defend “The House Of Spirits,” Concerned Parent Moves To File Appeal To Review Committee

By Mark S. Kenna

Nov. 1, 2013.  A concerned parent plans to appeal a piece of course curriculum in her son’s elective sophomore honors class at Watauga High School. The curriculum in question is the novel “The House of the Spirits,” by Isabel Allende, a fiction novel that follows a family through the Chilean Revolution during the 1970s.

Chastity Lesesne objected to two sections of the book: a scene of torture and the other of rape.

“That’s a realistic depiction of what happened there with the military dictatorship,” said Mary Kent Whitaker, honors sophomore English teacher.

The specific sections of the novel that Lesesne objects to are not focused on in great detail, said Whitaker.  

“We don’t teach excerpts, we look at a work as a whole,” said Kelly Stollings, chair of the English department at WHS.

“[Teaching excerpts] merely sensationalizes that act, which would take away from the reason why the author added that portion as a vehicle for conveying the theme of the book.”

Because of the recent issue revolving around the book, other teachers at WHS have been reading it themselves.

“There are a lot of teachers reading this book right now,” Whitaker said.  “Most of them didn’t realize they had read this particular passage that this parent has taken out of context; it’s a part of the tapestry of the book.”

However the focus of the section of the curriculum is not just on the reading novel. 

There is also an emphasis on history and interpreting themes of moral virtue including: integrity, family commitment, justice and forgiveness. The students are instructed to choose one of the themes and follow it throughout the novel and write an essay about their particular theme when finished with the novel.

The writing level of the essays illustrates very gifted and sophisticated writing, Whitaker said.

“These students will be moving up to AP college level courses next year. I feel obligated professionally to prepare them for the next level,” Whitaker added.

This is the second year that “The House of the Spirits,” is a part of the sophomore World Literature curriculum.

Historically the English department offers alternatives to every book, Whitaker said.

Last year, of the 120 sophomores that Whitaker taught, only six chose not to read “The House of the Sprits.”

The alternative to “The House of the Spirits” is “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.  The book was chosen for its similarity in length, alike exercises corresponding to the material and because both books have a similar Lexile score, which is a system that determines a books complexity based off of the books vocabulary and sentence structure. “Moby Dick” clocks in at 1200 while “The House of the Spirits” is a 1280 on the Lexile scale.

The book has been removed from the curriculum until the appeals process concludes. Whitaker has switched instead to teaching Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country.”

“The House of the Spirits,” is a novel that is recognized by the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate program. It is also included in the Common Core Curriculum Maps for English Language Arts, a guide recommended by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and is in compliance with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction 9-12 grade literary sequence.

Lesesne brought up her concerns about the novel during the Oct. 14 Board of Education Meeting. The Media/Technology Advisory Committee, a group chaired by Craig Wright, assistant principal, and is made up of students, parents and teachers reviewed her concerns Friday Oct. 25.

After review, the committee voted unanimously to keep the book in the curriculum.

From this junction, Lesesne has 15 days to send her appeal to a review committee consisting of the superintendent or a representative from the central office, a community representative, a teacher of the subject or grade level challenged, a principal and a media coordinator.  No members of the review committee can be members from the original Media/Technology Advisory Committee.

This new committee then has 15 days after the appeal is filed to review and make a decision.

If the review committee sees the material fit for the curriculum then Lesesne can file the third and final level of appeal, which would be heard at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Education. The action taken by the board will apply to all the schools within the system.

For WHS, this is one of the first times that a book has been officially appealed.

This not the first instance of an attempt to remove books from high school curriculum in North Carolina.  Last year in Guilford County “The House of the Spirits” was under fire with “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood for removal from the curriculum.