‘Ragtime’ doesn’t make cut on high school reading list, Bette’s ‘Hamlet’ Episode Does?

By Dominick DiRienzo
Friday, March 21, 2003

“Ragtime” is out but “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” remains on the reading list after a group of Seneca Valley School District parents, teachers and administrators reviewed the district’s English materials for senior high school students.

Also approved for classroom use are “The Simpsons” version of “The Lord of the Flies;” an episode of the television series “Bette” featuring actress Bette Midler as Hamlet; “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” with Kevin Costner; and “Roxanne,” the Steve Martin movie based on the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Denise Chappell, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said the materials list for the English curriculum for grades 11 and 12 will be on public display for a month at the district’s administration office, which is along Seneca School Road in Jackson. The board is scheduled to vote on the materials in April.

District officials reviewed the materials after a parent complained when a teacher had senior high students read “Apt Pupil,” a Stephen King novella. The King story, which includes foul language and a violent depiction of a teen-age serial killer, had not been approved by the board. The story appeared in a collection of stories “Different Seasons.” Another selection in the compilation had been approved and used, but the policy has been changed so that any time a short story is used, the entire collection will have to be approved. That book is not on the approved list.

Chappell said the only book that the committee removed from the reading list that she could recall was “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow. “Ragtime,” published in 1975, intertwines the lives of an affluent white family, a black family and a family of Jewish immigrants with historical figures in the early 1900s and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Board member Eileen Conners, who was on the review committee, said she objected to what she called “gratuitous sex” in the book.

Beverley Becker, associate director for the office of intellectual freedom for the American Library Association, said her office does not have any record of challenges against “Ragtime.”

“There are lots of wonderful things (teachers) want to share with their classroom,” Chappell, a former English teacher, said. “What we learned is the community wants us to be very cautious about what we share with children.”

Conners said the majority of the reading material the committee reviewed had been approved by the board.

“This was just some housecleaning,” Conners said.

She said the items that they rejected is “irrelevant because what is on the list is all that matters.”

She said recalled some audiotapes by Andy Rooney, a satirist on the weekly news magazine “60 Minutes,” and humorist Erma Bombeck were rejected because they were “no longer relevant.” Conners said a video of “Young Guns,” a movie loosely based on the life of wild west icon Billy the Kid, was removed.

Board member Ann Reale, chairwoman of the committee, said she did not have any problem with any of the material.

“I think our staff is very conscientious,” she said. “The staff was very accommodating.”

According to a district memo, the reading materials should have “no severe profanity,” “no blatant sexual descriptions or references,” “passed the ‘test of time'” and contain “no gratuitous violence.”

A committee of four parents, four teachers, board members Ann Reale and Conners, Chappell and senior high school Principal Matt McKinley reviewed the material.

Conners said the review went so well that she has made a recommendation a similar review be done for the intermediate high school.

As part of the plan, the district each year will review any additions to the list teachers want to make. Chappell figured that review would be done each April so that the district will have time to implement the changes before the start of the new school year.

Conners said the makeup of the review committee would be similar to the committee that did the curriculum review.

Chappell said if students or parents object to material that is being used in a class, the first step is for an alternative assignment to be given to the student.

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