Education

Banning Books in Warren? Parents Question English Curriculum at Watchung Hills

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Banning Books in Warren? Parents Question English Curriculum at Watchung Hills Credits: B. Nemcek
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WARREN, NJ - Two parents took the opportunity for public commentary at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Watchung Hills Board of Education to express concern about a book in the senior English curriculum.

The book at issue is Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a 2006 graphic memoir by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel

The book chronicles the author's childhood and addresses themes of sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, emotional abuse, dysfunctional  family life, and the role of literature in understanding self and family. 

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The book has won critical acclaim, spending two weeks New York Times best seller list. Fun Home was named as one of the best books of 2006 and was nominated for several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and three Eisner Awards.

Some reviews:
"One of the very best graphic novels ever." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review 


"Fun Home must be the most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced. . . . pioneering." -Sean Wilsey The New York Times Book Review 

TIME Best Book of the Year: "A masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other." Time Magazine 



"One of the best memoirs of the decade ... at once hypercontrolled and utterly intimate." --New York Magazine, 10 Best Books of 2006 New York Magazine 

Fun Home was adapted as a musical and won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015.

Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett explained that the curriculum was expanded to include a broad range of literature to reach all students, not just works that portray traditional gender and sexual identities. She said that the expansion of the English curriculum is in alignment with the Strategic Plan and is the result of a two year research process which included professional development for the English department staff.

Parents took issue with some of the illustrations. They said they were shocked at the sexually explicit illustrations and shocked that the book was part of the curriculum for their children. Both said they would like the book removed from the curriculum.

Board member Lisa DiMizio urged the parents to read the book in its entirety to understand the context of the illustrations.

An Ursinus college professor, Dominick Scudera, who teaches the book to freshman, some the same age as Watchung Hills seniors, wrote the following in InsideHigherEd:

 https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/08/28/essay-experience-teaching-fun-home-and-why-graphic-novel-ideal-college-students

He says in part,” In my experience, working with the text in the classroom has been educative and productive. The character of Alison, as presented in Bechdel’s witty and distinctive illustrations, starts as naïve and feeling limited. As she matures, she forges her identity, diverges from her parents and makes her mark in the world. Our 18-year-old students grapple with similar issues. They easily relate to Alison in a variety of ways. Many of the students at Ursinus come from small communities in Pennsylvania, just like Alison Bechdel. They read about a young woman whose world is increasingly becoming wider and more varied at just the moment when the same is happening to them. The author’s themes resonate with all the students regardless of their sexuality, religion or cultural background. Bechdel is a canny writer whose specific experiences translate well to a universal audience.”

He continues,”I have prepared myself each semester for student objections. There is a controversial panel in the book which depicts an intimate sexual moment from Bechdel’s college days. Instead of ignoring it, I have met the subject head-on and asked my students, “Do you believe, in context, that this illustration is pornographic?” In the multiple times I have raised this question, not one student has been offended by the image. These are 18-year-olds. Burgeoning sexuality is nothing new to them. Bechdel shares her story from a young person’s perspective and the students easily relate to her personal sexual explorations.

If students in my class were to refuse to read the book altogether, I would urge them to reconsider. Yes, they may find the story alien and opposed to their morality, but, as college students, they should embrace these differing views. Exposure will help them to understand the world better and to strengthen their own opinions..... Being shielded from offensive or outrageous material does not make it disappear. If students want to navigate the world after graduation, they need to expose themselves to the variety of human experience while in the safety of their college campus.”

Or the safety of their hometown in the last quarter of their senior year before they venture into the world.

Awards and Recognition for Fun Home:

  • ALA Stonewall Book Awards 2007: Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award [list]
  • Eisner Awards 2007: Best Reality-Based Work [list]
  • Lambda Literary Awards 2007: Lesbian Memoir/Biography [list]
  • Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award 2007
 [list]
  • New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2006 [list]
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2006 [list]
  • Time Magazine 10 Best Books 2006 [list]
  • New York Magazine The Year in Books 2006 [list]
  • Los Angeles Times Favorite Books 2006 [list]
  • The Guardian Best Books of 2006 [list]
  • London Times 100 Best Books of the Decade
  • Salon Best Books of the Decade [list]
  • Entertainment Weekly 10 Best Books of the Decade [list]
  • A.V. Club Best Comics of the ‘00s: The Top 25 [list]

 

The Core Texts at Watchung Hills are:

9th Grade

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
  • The Kite Runner, Khalid Hosseini (A and H only)
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell
  • Maus I, Art Spiegelman
  • Enrique's Journey, Sonia Nazario

10th Grade

  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
  • Macbeth, William Shakespeare
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • Oedipus Rex, Sophocles (A, H)
  • A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry 
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie 
  • Incognegro, Mat Johnson
  • selections from Dubliners, James Joyce (A, H)
  • When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka 
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (A, H)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (A, H)
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte or Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (H)

11th Grade

  • Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (CP)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (A)
  • Incognegro, Mat Johnson 2015-2016
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang2016-2017
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (A) 
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (A)
  • selections from Ernest Hemingway's short stories (CP)
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin and "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins
  • Gilman 
  • Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
  • The Realm of Possibility, David Levithan
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • selections from Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (A)
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston
  • The Sonnets, William Shakespeare

12th Grade

  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah 
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

AP: Language and Composition

  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • selections from Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  • Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
  • The Realm of Possibility, David Levithan
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin and "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Incognegro, Mat Johnson
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • The Shakespeare Sonnets, William Shakespeare

AP: Literature and Composition 

  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  • King Lear, William Shakespeare
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Fences, August Wilson
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

 

The public commentary followed a presentation by the district supervisors on progress updates on the strategic plan. Check back for more on the presentation.

 

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