Last month, I told you about how a local school district removed A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the 6th grade reading list. I ranted. I raved. I snarked.
I now need to recant.
I presented the information to you as I had read it in local, national, and international reports, including Time magazine and the BBC. Unfortunately, the information presented was both erroneous and incomplete.
A friend of mine — someone whose opinion I value and someone who I know to be calm, open-minded, and a thorough researcher — was on the committee that collected ALL of the facts and then made the recommendation to remove A Study in Scarlet from the reading list. She was kind enough to send me a lengthy email detailing every step in the process, as well as pertinent links to supporting documents. I spent some time wading through it all and am now feeling rather edified.
Because I believe it is important to clear up the errors and misconceptions put forth by so many news outlets and bloggers, myself included, I am going to lay out the facts, one by one. With my friend’s permission — and chunks of the email she sent me — here’s the deal:
While A Study in Scarlet had been on the approved 6th grade curriculum for the entire county (six middle schools) for years, only one of those schools used it for assigned reading. So, this was a not a division-wide issue, as was implied in news reports, nor was it a new book being added to the reading lists, as was also suggested in newspaper articles.
The book was being presented to students as an introduction to Sherlock Holmes, but thoughtful discussions about the cultural and religious biases in the second half of the book were not part of the curriculum. In other words, the teachers were presenting the book, but not necessarily offering guidance about the cultural and religious commentary in the second half of the book.
Over the years, parents had complained about the way the book was discussed (or not) in the classroom numerous times, with no success. When complaints and voiced concerns at the school level repeatedly failed, a parent filed a formalized Curriculum Challenge with the central office of the school system. A Curriculum Challenge is a document that specifies the curriculum being challenged and requests that a committee look carefully and deeply at the curriculum.
The Curriculum Challenge committee is not a standing committee; rather, it is put together for the purposes of a specific Curriculum Challenge. It is made up of an administrator from the school system, an administrator from the same grade level as the challenged material but from a different school, a teacher, a librarian, and three parents, two of whom have children at the same grade level as the curriculum being challenged.
All members of the committee read the entire book, as well as the challenge document (written by the person who filed the challenge), letters written in support of the challenge, and any paperwork that the school system has on the curriculum. The committee then met for a half day to discuss the process, consider the challenge, listen to the parent who made the challenge and also listen to any of the teachers who taught the book being challenged. (Only one of the teachers who taught the book opted to speak.) After this, the committee made a recommendation to the Albemarle County Schools superintendent and then the matter was considered further up the educational ladder and voted on by the school board.
The committee never had any interest in banning A Study in Scarlet. Their discussions were about keeping the book in the curriculum but trying to determine what would be an appropriate grade level for students to study this book, as well as thinking about the curriculum associated with the book. Quoting my friend’s email: “There were many conversations about how the topics Doyle raised in the second half of the book could lead to excellent discussions of religious and cultural biases.”
As I mentioned earlier, these discussions had not been taking place in the classrooms for all the years the book was taught in the 6th grade in the middle school in question.
Children known to be of Mormon faith were offered the opportunity to rebut the controversial portions of the book with facts about their religion, but the teachers themselves were not offering rebuttals. My friend offered this analogy: Would a teacher assign a book of known anti-Semitic content and then ask 6th graders (11 and 12 year olds) to defend Judaism?
Parents in support of the Curriculum Challenge offered anecdotal evidence of their children being teased by classmates about their religion after reading the book.
Ultimately, A Study in Scarlet was removed from the 6th grade reading lists, however, it was not banned in Albemarle County schools.
To summarize and conclude: For a great many years, A Study in Scarlet was not being presented to 6th graders in a way that included thoughtful discussion about religious and cultural biases. The committee that researched, discussed, and voted on the Curriculum Challenge was thoroughly informed in every way possible and was open-minded in its discussions of the book and the curriculum being challenged. The book is still available to students in school libraries across the country.
To see all of the documents related to this matter, click here. Then, click on the calendar on the right and go to the August 11 school board meeting. When you reach the August 11 minutes, scroll down and click on item 8.1 (Recommendation of Reconsideration for the book A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
I feel a lot better about this situation knowing what I know now. While I would have liked to have seen A Study in Scarlet remain on the curriculum with good supporting classroom discussion, the fact is, there are better Sherlock Holmes mysteries for the students to read.
So, what do you think?