What to know about the seven books undergoing 'adjustments' at Williamson County Schools

·10 min read
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

"The Shyest Fish in the Sea," "Separate is Never Equal," and "Love That Dog."

These elementary school-level English language arts texts — and others — in the "Wit & Wisdom" curriculum at Williamson County Schools will undergo changes in their usage. The decision was released Tuesday.

Overall, 31 texts were called into question by the local chapter of Moms For Liberty, a conservative parent group, via a formal "reconsideration" request process permitted by board of education policy.

A book interpreted as bad grammar and broken English. A "dark, depressing story" that "asks teachers to play therapists."

A title deemed not "factual" or "fully representative," and as omitting "key elements" of the Declaration of Independence. Another text where teachers must "control the pacing" of the lesson and discussions of mature topics like the death of a character.

A committee ultimately decided "Walk Two Moons," a book used in instruction of fourth grade students, should be removed from the curriculum. It also noted several required "instructional adjustments," as well as recommended changes for seven books.

The original complainants or any school employee impacted by the complaint have until Feb. 15 to appeal the committee's decision. If no appeal is submitted, the decision is final.

Here's what to know on the the books that will continue to be used with both required and suggested "instructional adjustments" from the committee:

'Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea'

"Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea" by Chris Butterworth and John Lawrence is used in instruction of first-graders at WCS.

Community members and Moms For Liberty members voiced objections at school board meetings for its mention of "gender fluidity" and its description and visual portrayal of the animals' mating practices.

According to the WCS report, complainants said the book uses "social conditioning," that it and the video—"Pygmy Seahorses: Masters of Camouflage" by science video series Deep Look—are "attempting to normalize that males can get pregnant" and indicative of an agenda," and that the suggestion that gender is fluid is too early" for the first grade.

The video mentions: "We humans tend to think of who we are as mostly fixed. But in the ocean, identity can be a fluid and mysterious thing."

However, the committee stated the book is a "very strong informational text."

"It is scientifically accurate and shares many facts throughout the text," the report said. "The committee concludes it is first grade appropriate and meets the life cycle standards in science therefore having a cross-curricular benefit to students."

The committee did not share Moms for Liberty's concern about the book's mention of gender fluidity. The committee wrote they they "do not see the video connecting in any manner to human gender fluidity as referenced by complainants."

Nonetheless, teachers will be required to read pages 12 and 13 of the book aloud to students instead of showing the physical pages. The report also asks teachers and administration to consider showing the video without its narration component and to "simply explain" its details, changes they say will not impact instruction.

'Feelings'

The committee determined that this book, used in instruction of first graders, "potentially" contained objectionable content.

The Reading Rainbow book, authored and illustrated by Aliki Brandenberg, was published in 1984.

It uses short comics to create empathy and awareness among young readers and works to guide them in understanding and expressing their own feelings, according to several online descriptions by Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In their report, the committee said teachers will be required to use the word "happy" or other positive emotions during the "shades of meaning" exercise in Lesson 12 of the teachers manual to counteract other emotions mentioned. It also suggests teachers pay "close attention to individuals in the classroom as the topics are moved through in the text" in order to identify students who need additional support.

In a conclusion statement, the committee said the teacher edition accompanying the book focuses on "what a reader may perceive as 'negative' feelings or 'bad' feelings throughout the text and in several of the lessons."

"The committee recognizes the need to ensure there is a balance of focus on positivity and gratitude when the text is being read," the committee said." While this focus is a very natural culture of a first-grade classroom, the committee makes note of the need for teacher intentionality when reading the book."

'Separate is Never Equal'

"Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and her Family's Fight for Desegregation" by Duncan Tonatiuh tells the story of how the Mendez family fought to end school segregation in California in 1947, seven years before the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling. This book was used with second-graders.

The committee is requiring that three pages (pages 25-27) of a trial scene — with mentions of historical beliefs on the social inferiority of Mexican people compared to white people — are not read in the classroom.

The specific pages portray a Los Angeles court trial responding to a desegregation lawsuit filed by the Mendez family's lawyer. A local school superintendent of a all-white school district was called to testify in the five-day hearing and questioned on why he sent Mexican children to the all-Mexican school.

"They need to learn cleanliness of mind, manner, and dress," he said. "They are not learning that at home. They have problems with live, impetigo, and tuberculosis. They have generally dirty hands, face, neck and ears."

He then confirms his belief that white students are superior to Mexican students in the areas of personal hygiene and scholastic ability, as well as "economic outlook, clothing, and their ability to take part in the activities of the school."

The committee states that the omission of these pages will not have "implications for the story being told or the lessons associated with the text." While it also recognized that the book has "immense value," especially in expanding the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement beyond that of "African American and White people," the committee "shares concerns of the complainants."

'Love That Dog'

"Love That Dog," a book of "free-verse poems" shares how Jack, a young character, "finds his own voice with the help of a teacher, a writer, a pencil, some yellow paper and of course, a dog," according to Scholastic.

Scholastic recommends the book for use between the fifth and eight grades; it's used with fourth graders at WCS.

WCS administrators noted in a summer presentation to the district's board of education that the book and several others in Wit & Wisdom had been approved for use with younger students in efforts to inspire reading at a higher level.

Complainants have said the book uses "bad grammar," comparing the character's writing and responses to poems to "broken English." In the text, Jack deals with the idea of death in regard to his own dog and others, which the complainants say contributes to a "dark, depressing story" that "asks teachers to play therapists."

In its "required adjustment" recommendation, the committee asks teachers to "ensure the counselor is put on notice when the book is being read" and to include a note on the book's topics on the Wit & Wisdom Parent Tip Sheet that is sent home at the start of the module. However, they also mention that the text is valuable in its teaching of "empathy to those who may not have pets and may enhance it for those who do" and that teachers and counselors have the "professionalism and responsiveness" to facilitate a positive experience..."

'Hatchet'

"Hatchet," by Gary Paulsen, centers around 13-year-old Brian getting lost in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but his clothing, a tattered windbreaker and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present-- and the dreadful secret that has tore him apart ever since his parents' divorce. This book is taught in the fourth grade.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

The committee will require teachers to follow "specific guidance provided from the WCS Teaching, Learning and Assessment-department in year one and two of implementation," as well as to include talking points for parents on the books topics that might be challenging to students.

The book has been taught in Williamson County Schools for decades and several adjustments have been included to address concerns brought to the district throughout the 2020- 2021 school year, according to the report.

For example, teachers are asked to read chapters 1-7 aloud to students to "control the pacing" of the lesson and discussions of certain mature topics like the death of a character and the book's main character observing his mother kiss "another man." Teachers have been instructed to distribute "Hatchet" out to students beginning with chapter 8.

It also encourages teachers to have a counselor teach specific lessons, and counselors and administrators to consider "holding meetings to discuss topics and strategies related to mental health."

'The River Between Us'

"The River Between Us" by Richard Peck, is also a book that has come under scrutiny in recent years at WCS. As with "Hatchet," the district has made past adjustments in response to community members concerned with this fifth-grade book.

The historic fiction book tells the story of Tilly Pruitt and her family who lived in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River prior to the start of the Civil War.

"One evening a steamboat docks at the landing and two mysterious women come ashore: a commanding and glamorous young lady in a hoop skirt and her darker silent servant," a Scholastic description reads. "Mama invites the strangers to board with her family and life for the Pruitts is changed forever."

During summer hearings, complainants objected topics covered in the novel, including placage, an Antebellum-era civil union often between white men and free women of color. They claimed the book "doesn't fit with (our) values" and isn't "historically accurate."

In the Spring of 2021, an "internal committee," including a teacher, principle, parent, literacy coach and historian, was formed to review "The River Between Us." Due to the review, the book was not taught in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the WCS Teaching, Learning and Assessment team.

The former committee determined that the book was "acceptable" for use, but implemented adjustments to instruction and activities recommended by the teachers edition.

"TLA has created guidance for those teaching this novel. The document provides specific adjustments to the text, omission of specific vocabulary words, offers specific instructional reminders to students, and describes in depth significant modifications to the teacher edition exercises," the committee wrote. "The removal of instructional activities offers additional time. This time will be used to extend student knowledge of how the Civil War impacted women and children."

After discussion with the WCS Teaching Learning and Assessment team, as well as a review of the former committee's work, the reconsideration committee ultimately decided with the aforementioned adjustments, "the text supports the learning targets and standards it intends to."

'George vs. George'

Although generally recommended for use, unlike other books with this label in the report, "George v. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides" by Rosalyn Schanzer was flagged with a consideration for teachers when using the book in fourth-grade instruction.

The book covers the stories of George Washington and British King George III, as well as the two sides to the separation of American colonies from the British.

Complainants said the book isn't "factual," or "fully representative," omits "key elements" of the Declaration of Independence and that students instead "need to know the full truth."

Although not required, the committee recommends teachers consider planning for "replacement words as warranted" and "pay close attention to words that may be inflammatory when read aloud," although these potential words aren't specified.

Nonetheless, the committee said because the book isn't read in its entirety in the classroom, the way those pages are used "supports the learning targets and standards it intends to."

Anika Exum is a reporter covering Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach her at aexum@tennessean.com, 615-347-7313 or on Twitter @aniexum.

To stay updated on Williamson County news, sign up for our newsletter.

These books include:

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 7 Wit & Wisdom books being 'adjusted' by Williamson County Schools

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting