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LETTERS / Open Letter to Watauga County Board of Education: The House of the Spirits and a Plea for Reason

Dear Board of Education,

Please allow me to take just a few minutes of your time to highlight some key elements related to the ongoing controversy over the use of Isabel Allende’s book, The House of the Spirits, at Watauga High School.    

In response to an initial challenge last October, which raised concern over the book’s inclusion of sexual and violent content, a Media/Technology Advisory Committee was established as per Board policy (4.02.40).  Members consisted of parents, teachers, principals, and students.  After listening to the pros and cons, the committee voted unanimously to keep the book.  This was largely because The House of the Spirits is recommended by the state of North Carolina as part of the 10th grade Common Core curriculum; it is considered by professional educators to be of the appropriate level of difficulty and content for 10th grade honors English; and is also very highly regarded in the US and around the world for its literary merit.  In addition, the book is not obligatory- an alternative book is available to accommodate students and/or their parents who might prefer a different text. 

The parent who launched the initial complaint decided to appeal the committee’s decision even though she had signed an approval form earlier in the year.  As per Board policy, a district committee with representation of educators, administrators and the community was established and heard lengthy presentations by both sides in December.  During the committee’s internal discussion, Dr. Zimmerman, the community representative, introduced information from Harvard’s Center of Media and Child Health which he had contacted for advice.  Their response included the following: 

“In this case, it sounds like the teacher is using this book in a way that she can really do positive things for her students. She’s not only engaging thoughtfully with the themes and the difficult content, but she’s actually connecting it with issues that are occurring in these students’ community – connecting it to real people and real problems.” 

Dr. Zimmerman can provide the full text but the point was clear:  by guiding students through books like The House of the Spirits, teachers can help them learn how to assess and react to some of modern life’s uncomfortable realities in a structured, constructive and rational way. 

After deliberation, this committee also voted unanimously to retain the book. 

Board policy allows for yet another appeal and one was filed.  In the meantime, some people in the community are up in arms about “…making a stand for the souls of the kids in our county” and some politicos are busy collecting signatures on petitions.  But this is neither a political nor a “soul saving” crisis.  It’s a high school English book.  The decision on whether to retain or ban the book should be based on educational value- not religion or politics.  The book’s merits have already been assessed by professional educators and found exemplary.  Its use is in conformity with the North Carolina curriculum and Board policy.  The teacher involved is exceptional- a Watauga County Teacher of the Year- so who better to guide our students as they learn to deal with some of the most challenging (and uncomfortable) aspects of today’s society?   Isn’t it better to educate students about how to deal with the evils of the modern world rather than pretend that evils don’t exist?  

I’d like to close with a couple of suggestions:

  • Given that both the previous committees voted unanimously to retain the book, the Board could, at its next meeting when considering the appeal, simply let the previous committees’ recommendations stand so the book could be taught.   
  • It might also be useful to consider revisiting the Board policy.  Rather than keeping all students from reading any challenged book until every appeal has been exhausted- thereby denying students’ right to read, the policy could be reformulated along the lines of “innocent until proven guilty”- allowing teachers to teach until the Board decides otherwise.  It just seems unfair to penalize all students and their teacher simply because a parent doesn’t like a particular book.  Given the diversity of our community, there’s probably something to object to in every book- so where does it stop?

Thank you very much for your time.  

Best wishes,

Paul Siegel