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Book Banned from Salem High School AP English Class

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools' interim superintendent, Jeremy Hughes, said he pulled Graham Swift's novel, 'Waterland,' after one parent complained.

Some Salem High students and their parents were surprised when the novel Waterland was pulled from an advanced-placement English class last week. Jeremy Hughes, Plymouth-Canton Schools' interim superintendent, said he made the decision without following district rules, because he was "personally shocked and offended" by the book. He said one parent complained and he thought the novel, by celebrated English author Graham Swift, would upset others.

Debbie Piotrowski, said when she heard this happened to her daughter's class, she felt sad, frustrated and disgusted — and emailed the district to say so. Piotrowski said the move is a form of censorship.

"I completely disagree with how this was handled," she said in an email to Canton Patch. "There are rules and protocol that should be followed and in an AP class, college-level reading should be expected."

Novel an English classic

Waterland, a classic 1983 novel, is the story of a history teacher facing a crisis after his wife kidnaps a baby. The teacher decides to tell students the story of his life, the history of his hometown -- and its most prominent family -- and the  complex relationships among them all. The book is used throughout schools in Britain. Waterland depicts one sexually explicit scene and some sexual metaphors but is essentially the story of how the past is intertwined with the present, said Gretchen Miller, the Salem High teacher whose students were affected.

Plymouth-Canton Educational Park teachers have used Waterland for at least eight years as an example of "post-modern narrative structure, new historicism (a field of literary criticism) and the theme of trauma," Miller said.

Swift's work is described as poetic and lyrical by scholars from France to the United States; Waterland was a finalist for the Booker Prize, which was awarded to Swift for the next novel he wrote. In 1992, Waterland was turned into a feature film, starring Jeremy Irons.

Hughes responded to Piotrowski's email with a note that said, in part, "Yes, there IS a process by which parents can file a formal complaint about a book or piece of instructional material. I admit that I jumped over this process in asking that the book be removed from the curriculum. That process will be honored for any similar circumstances that arise."

The district does inform parents whose students are taking advanced-placement classes that they will be encountering mature material. Parents and students can ask to opt out of study areas if they are uncomfortable.

Miller has used Waterland for two years as part of a year-long English class which results in college credits for most students. She said she first learned about the book being pulled from her class when her boss instructed her to remove them.

Miller said the parent who complained did not approach her until after the book had been removed. She said students were about one-third into the novel and she has since been substituting excerpts of other books to help illustrate the literary principles the course is designed to teach.

Laura Flack said her daughter is a Canton High School junior and in the class.

"Although I haven't read Waterland, I don't agree with banning books," Laura Flack wrote in an email to Canton Patch, adding that she signed a petition asking the district to stop banning books. "What is the criteria for banning a book? Who gets to make that decision? Is it one person's opinion? Everyone sees things differently; where will it stop?"

Flack said her daughter and other students were upset about the decision and "if a student decides to take AP English, they should be prepared to read more adult material."

District allows controversial material

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools has a policy supporting the teaching of controversial subjects but gives parents and students the opportunity to ask for alternatives.

The school district's policy defines a controversial issue as one which has opposing points of view that are "likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community" but states the board of education believes that the consideration of such issues "has a legitimate place in the instructional program of the schools."

District guidelines allow for the teaching of controversial material as a way of teaching students critical thinking skills. But those guidelines also indicate students should be mature, the material relevant to the course of study and that adequate time is allowed "to examine the issue fairly." The district policy states that teachers who express personal opinions about controversial issues must be clear that their opinions are their own and cannot tell students what to think about a subject, or demean a student who disagrees.

"I strongly feel that rules are put in place so that the opinion, morals and/or religious beliefs of one are not allowed to speak for all," Piotrowski wrote in an email to Canton Patch. "For (Hughes) to assume that because one parent came forward and he also didn't like what he read that an 'overwhelming number of parents' would come forward is presumptuous. It is also wrong for one to use one's position to flagrantly disregard protocol."

Hughes on Saturday told Canton Patch he was comfortable with his choice and did not expect the book to be returned to the classroom or reviewed again by the district.

In the author's own words

Swift, who lives in London, could not be reached for this story. However, he once asked, in writing, "Where else can you combine so richly and intimately the world of ideas with the world of concrete reality? And where else can you know — or at least hope — that for each individual reader, each act of collaboration between author and reader, the experience will be something different? I have enormous faith in that invisible collaborative experience, though when I write I never think of the reader. Fiction seems to me only to do in a specialised, concentrated way what we all need to do: to enter, in our minds, experiences other than our own. That is no small or simple thing — all our moral and social pretensions rest upon it."

Mike Pare December 22, 2011 at 07:15 PM
So the superintendent can ban any book he doesn't like? That seems like a very dangerous policy. And it appears he is not willing to listen to any complaints about his decision. I'm afraid this will only lead to more people calling in to ask that other books be banned. It worked one time.
Brad December 22, 2011 at 07:25 PM
hughesj@pccs.k12.mi.us
Brad December 22, 2011 at 07:30 PM
Also this gem of a contradiction "Finally, I will do my best to communicate with our audiences clearly and often so that we are all on the same page. That is a recipe that has served me well throughout my career. I welcome your questions and suggestions." http://www.pccs.k12.mi.us/node/54
Brad December 22, 2011 at 07:32 PM
And this one: "Jackson said Hughes credibility would help Plymouth-Canton's public image."We've got a a reputation that we can't get along with people," he said. "We've got to restore our reputation." http://canton-mi.patch.com/articles/unanimous-vote-for-plymouth-canton-interim-superintendent
Mike December 22, 2011 at 07:44 PM
I don't agree with banning books but given the selection for 10th grade American Literature I wonder about the selections the teachers make. Why do our kids just learn about drunks and losers? Can't our teachers select stories about heroes?
Joe December 22, 2011 at 08:01 PM
Crime and Punishment, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye are ALL similar to Waterland, they all contain controversial topics. They have profanity, they have murder, they have racism. There is nothing different. If you censor Waterland, you mind as well censor 90% of the books in school, even Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
emily December 22, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Mike: I'm a junior at the Park, and not every book we read in American Lit is about "drunks and losers." We read To Kill a Mockingbird, which has one of the greatest heroes of all time. Even the books we do read that have controversial characters, like Catcher in the Rye, teach us something. The teachers chose books like this for a reason and they all have a message. No matter what the personalities and actions of the characters are, they are all wonderful pieces of literature that are in our curriculum to serve a purpose. Not every book has to have wonderful, heroic people all the time, that's just how life is. Our teachers are trying to expose us to different kinds of literature, isn't that what school is all about?
Devan Mykal December 22, 2011 at 09:28 PM
My name is Devan. I am a Senior at the park. I recently did a presentation on the debate about physician-assisted suicide for a report in Advanced Composition. Are there people who would oppose my choice and say that their child didn't need to learn of such things? Sure, but it's a dark world out there. There are things that cannot be kept from today's youth especially if it is for the teaching of moral debates and psychological aspects of others. It's interesting to learn about the views of characters like Holden Caulfield who make us think about the worth of our own views. The teachers at Salem are very good about holding deep debates and making us think harder about things than we ever would have on our own. Something else I learned from English class? Censorship will only lead to many people seeking what it was that someone wanted to hide. We're not going to turn a blind eye to others withholding knowledge. How much longer until it's all government run because someone might be offended?
Matt Bugajski December 22, 2011 at 09:44 PM
I'm a student at the park, and was in APE last year. Waterland remains one of my all-time favorite books, and was truly an inspiration. It's absolutely horrifying that the superintendent even has the authority to remove books and jeopardize the curriculum of the class. AP English, one of the most rigorous courses at the Park, has only 11th and 12th grade students. Even if the supposedly "shocking" material was so offensive, it's only openly available to the most mature and brightest students at the school. What kind of message is he sending? Should we not question and critically evaluate? Is it okay to make decisions based on personal reactions and not look at things logically? This is disgusting.
Natalie December 22, 2011 at 11:23 PM
As a senior at the Park who was in AP English last year and read Waterland, I am absolutely disgusted. Schools have a responsibility to teach students how to read mature material in an acceptable manner. This is a college level class. Do you think a college professor would remove material because someone was offended? There is a better chance that he/she would remove the offended. It's just wonderful that the district teaches us about the principles this country was founded upon and that we have the ability to take a stand and then uses its position of power to overrule protocol. It would've been great if the students and parents had been asked their opinions, but I guess having a voice is overrated.
Amanda Beyer December 22, 2011 at 11:40 PM
I was in Matt's class for Advanced Placement English last year and of course, I also read this book. I am extremely offended by the decision to ban this book from the classroom. It was certainly one of the most thought-provoking books that I have ever read. I found it interesting that time was never strictly linear in the book; it ebbed and flowed between past events and the present. The novel also exhibited examples of tragically beautiful emotion. As Matt said, by taking AP English, you should expect to be reading college-level material. Although there were sexual motifs in the book, this should in no way cause it to be banned. Personally, I believe that if as a parent you are so protective that you refuse to let your child to read any references to sexual love or reproduction, you are keeping your child in a bubble that will be inevitably popped in college next year or the year after. If I were a mother, I would rather educate my child before setting them loose into the big bad world. I strongly believe that the beliefs of this one parent should not have had such a large impact on the curriculum for the rest of the students. Clearly, some people are oblivious to the fact that there are far worse influences around school that do not come from classic literature.
Avery Bruni December 23, 2011 at 03:56 AM
I am a student that took the AP English course two years ago, my junior year at PCEP, and the experience I gained from that class would not have been the same without this novel as part of the curriculum. Many students in just the first few days of reading the novel were claiming it to be one of their favorites that year. It is an egregious overstepping of boundaries by the Superintendent to pull it out of the class simply because of one complaint in the YEARS that the book as been taught, and his own personal opinion. Having read the book, and not just any one excerpt that can be construed to be offensive, I am very confident that only those people unwilling to analyze literature at a college level, and purposefully searching for offensive material would be able to twist this into any sort of controversial issue. If we are to continue with this low standard for what it takes to ban a book, then on the same grounds as the superintendent has set we must also ban half of what is taught in AP English, including Beloved, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Color Purple (summer reading), Brave New World (summer reading), and the liberty of the students to pick whichever novel they like for their final term paper. Last I checked, the only time that the Superintendent's sole personal opinion matters is weather or not there will be a snow day.
Brad December 23, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Correction to contact info: Jeremy.Hughes@pccsmail.net. You should also cc a copy of any emails to Bill.Zolkowski@pccsmail.net as well. He is The Park principal and has been very supportive of keeping the book in AP. (734) 416-3048 ‎454 S. Harvey Street, Plymouth, MI 48170
Heide Leskun December 23, 2011 at 04:01 PM
Instead of waiting until the 10th, we can all contact the board via emails and let them know. That way, for those of us that may not be able to attend, we can still have our opinions voiced.
DownUpside1 December 23, 2011 at 07:21 PM
I applaud the students who have posted their opinions on this story. The articulate nature of their comments proves what they have learned in a remarkable way. Pulling the book in this sudden manner was uncalled for! The fact that Dr. Hughes has not allowed it to be re-circulated shows me the hollowness of his promise to follow the established procedures in the future. Avery Bruni says above the the students can use the book of their choice for their final term paper.If I were a student in the class, I would pick Waterland just to re-affirm my right to study it. I bet most of the student population at the park will now read the book only because Dr. Hughes has turned it into a 'forbidden fruit'.
GiveMoreBeMore December 23, 2011 at 08:35 PM
??????? Wow ONE complaint (in so many years) is enough to immediately overrule already agreed-upon curriculum? He admits this was wrong without offering to change anything? He thinks this action is the best way to keep kids from reading it? If this is about protecting kids, then is he now checking the whole reading list for inappropriate books? How does a book with sexually explicit scenes get into a high school curriculum in the first place? In a public school? The argument that it also has literary value is lame, as is the argument that kids are already exposed to it everyday. It sounds like the parent had a legit complaint and the superintendent decided to handle it as poorly as possible.
Kara Christenson December 23, 2011 at 08:42 PM
Here are a few ideas I took from Waterland (which I read as an AP English student in the Plymouth-Canton School District): 1) the world is full of cycles - things are constantly ending and re-beginning in ways both large and small. In the same vein, many things that happen undo themselves; events are woven and unravel, only to be woven again. Water is a beautiful and easy-to-understand metaphor for this. 2) our family histories are a key part of our own history - we are who we are not just because of our experiences and the experiences of our parents, but also because of the experiences that came even before that. Knowing our past is part of knowing ourselves. 3) time is a complex and living thing. The past is not as solid as it seems, the future not as unpredictable, and the present not the only space in which we live our lives. All of these things have lingered with me over the past decade and shaped my life.
Edward Schroeder December 24, 2011 at 04:25 PM
I guess we should be happy that he did not have a public book burning. This was a knee-jerk reaction by a poor excuse foe an educator.
Mike Andro December 26, 2011 at 02:55 AM
Salem High School English teacher Gretchen Miller is quoted as saying that her AP English class is: “...more mature and provocative.” “It should be a course that's selected by people whose kids are ready for that.” "Mr. Hughes should not be allowed to deprive other students of educational opportunities based on his and a single parent's opinion.” I agree that Dr. Hughes should follow the process though it is refreshing to see some backbone at the district. Let the school district also follow the "book selection" process before approving more graphically sexual material that is presented to some unknowing students and parents because a single teacher thinks "it's a great teaching tool". I do not favor banning books. Have your student read this sexual writing out loud at your dinner table and see if you still want this book in the AP English class.
K. Sose December 26, 2011 at 11:51 PM
Which is exactly why I didn't vote for you Mr. Andro. Unfortunately, two of your like-minded friends got in on the school board and we will probably be seeing a lot more of this in the months and years to come.
DownUpside1 December 27, 2011 at 12:50 AM
I believe that I have read that this book has been part of the AP class for over 5 years and was on a list of reading material distributed several months ago. To make the statement that this book was presented to unknowing students and parents would only mean that those parents and students were not paying attention. I wouldn't care to discuss my kid's disections from biology at the dinner table. By your line of thinking, the district should reconsider the biology curriculum.
Ann Wisniewski December 27, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Kara, You are very fortunate to have had the experience of reading literature by authors who can impart powerful and profound insights about life in such creative and artistic ways. I am impressed that your AP English experience allowed you to read and comprehend such themes so that you are now able to appreciate and utilize these ideas and images on your life journey many years later. Let's hope that today's AP English students will have the same opportunity.
Mike Andro December 28, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Thanks for your comments "Down". Paying attention to a book title does not lend to the knowledge that the reading material inside may have explicit sexual content. We talk so much of being respectful of our diverse community why can we not be respectful about what our young students are presented in their studies? You have a valid point about the dinner table. I assume you would still like to hear about your students studies, so just have them read the material to you in the family room, then you can decide if you like the material or not.
DownUpside1 December 28, 2011 at 02:25 AM
The idea of picking material for high school level curriculum by it being presented in a family environment is not a viable solution. I have an elementary student in my household with an older high school sibling. I doubt anyone would agree to have the high school English classes focus on the Junie B. Jones series based on appropriate material for MY entire family. The parent and the superintendent should have gone through the proper channels to clear the air about this book - that would have included the actual English department. Instead, they have both forced their opinions of what is acceptable and unacceptable without allowing any kind of discussion on the topic. Maybe this book isn't acceptable, but these 2 people have made the decision to change the English curriculum without input from the actual English department, students or other parents. I don't agree with knee-jerk reactions of this sort.
Mike Andro December 31, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Agreed. The proper process should be followed if there is a question about the content of a book. I also would like the proper process to be followed in the selection of reading materials. I was just making a point about your student reading the material just to you, so you would have a chance to consider if the writing was appropriate.
GA January 11, 2012 at 02:01 PM
Janet- Fox News wants their conversation notes back..."ungoverned" "trashy" "can't read the Bible in schools". Your ignorance is so evident here. The Bible IS allowed, and is read in several different English classes at the Park and in other local school districts. Teachers have specific degrees in literature; have studied it for years. They meet in book clubs, collaborate with other colleagues and receive Masters degrees in material interesting and appropriate for different age groups at the Young-Adult levels. When was the last time you read any of these books? When was the last time you had an intelligent conversation about these materials with people of varying opinions? I'm glad to see you are at least reading The Patch, this alone bodes well for your future...but try to read more than you view. Try to listen more than you spew.
Ann Wisniewski January 12, 2012 at 02:51 AM
I really wish Patch would require posters to reveal their real names. GA and Janet's comments, for example, are irrelevant, personal attacks. It's amazing that self-described "educated" people can sound so divisive. Please, Patch, think about raising the level of civility on this blog by requiring participants to come out of the shadows.
jehosahafat January 12, 2012 at 09:36 PM
This is absolute insanity! This is exactly the kind of thing we find when the extreme right-wing and the fanatical factions of the religious-right become empowered -- we must come together and stop this madness!
Geogirl January 13, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Wow Janet...you are a piece of work. From your comments it shows that you don't actually know what a teacher's job really involves. Also, I am guessing you have not read these books. I am glad that you see yourself as so very important, and kudos on your many degrees and material objects. I am just so very glad that you are not teaching my child!
Dorian McGlannan January 22, 2012 at 10:15 PM
If parents are concerned about their children being exposed to sex and violence they will want to reconsider letting them read the Bible.

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