Shelton BOE member: Bestselling memoir not appropriate for freshmen

SHELTON — Amy Romano is adamant. Her request for the Board of Education to review “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” was not a call to ban the book. Rather, she wanted the panel to find a more age-appropriate venue for its presentation.

“This is not about banning books,” Romano told Hearst Connecticut Media. “It is about have age-appropriate content available for students.”

The 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls is the story of her dysfunctional childhood in a loving but deeply flawed family. The book spent 260 weeks in hardcover on The New York Times Best Seller List, and 440 weeks on the paperback nonfiction list.

“The Glass Castle” received a Christopher Award for works that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit” and the American Library Association Alex Award, which annually recognize the 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12-18.

Romano, who is a board member, spoke during the public comment portion of the board’s most recent meeting, reading excerpts from Jeannette Walls’ novel that contained descriptions of sexual situations, alcoholism, and physical and mental abuse.

The book is required reading for freshmen in honors English, but Romano said it is best suited for an older age group and is hoping the administration feels the same after a review of her complaint. While her complaint is the only one concerning this book, Romano said she has heard from several parents and district staff supporting her cause.

Romano’s complaint was the focus of the board’s Teaching and Learning Committee meeting Tuesday. Ten people submitted comments, which were read into the record, in support of keeping the book as part of the freshmen English curriculum. The book has been used at Shelton High for several years.

“The job of the BOE is to set policy,” board member and Teaching and Learning Committee Chair Kate Kutash said Tuesday. “We trust our educational professionals to select and set required curriculum to carry out our policies.”

During the committee meeting, Kutash said the board has no control over the school district’s curriculum choices, citing several portion of the board’s policy book stating such actions as banning books are “not within our governance.”

Romano has filed a formal complaint. Superintendent Ken Saranich said that while the book’s use at the high school has already been discussed at Teaching and Learning, the district would follow regular procedure.

“We will follow the process per the policy,” Saranich said.

Under the policy, Romano’s complaint would be submitted to the teacher, who then prepares a response. This then goes to the principal for her response, then to Saranich, who will present all the findings to the school board.

With that, board Chair Kathy Yolish said she did not believe there would be any more discussion on the book. She added that Kutash will present a report on the committee’s findings at the next full board meeting and did not expect any vote on this issue.

“We trust and value our professional leaders and colleagues because they are very passionate and dedicated to the whole learner,” Yolish said. “They are sensitive to subject matter and to the students they engage with.”

Yolish added the schools had policies and administrative regulations in place to serve and provide direction and guidance.

“I feel confident that our teachers, curriculum leaders, administrators, supervisors and Central Office leadership know their jobs and the best way to do them,” she said.

At the Teaching and Learning Committee meeting, high school student Florian Hurlbert, in a statement submitted and read into the record, said she read The Glass Castle as a freshman.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t entirely remember what we were supposed to learn related to English. I think we primarily focused on literary devices,” she said. “But I learned so much more than that. This book informs about poverty, abuse, constant moving, real challenges that people go through in this life that you may never know about just by looking at them or talking to them.”

Hurlbert said these issues need to be discussed, not removed from the curriculum and buried. If anything needs to change, it is that students should receive warnings about the book’s content.

“That is the double-edged sword of a book so real — for some it will be eye-opening while for others it may be triggering,” Hurlbert said. “Students should be warned about the contents as they come up and be given the option to skip over material or to not participate in discussion that may be triggering to them. Discussion in class must also be sure to be respectful, as you don’t know who is in the room, and you want to respect any experiences someone may have been through.”

High school English teacher Marcia Wilson said 20 of the school’s novels have been banned by other schools, but as a system, Shelton has recognized the historical, social, and individual value of these texts.

“I even wrote a paper on censorship when I was in graduate school and used our curriculum as a positive example of refusal to fall to censorship,” Wilson said. “‘Fahrenheit 451’ and ‘1984’ are novels in our curriculum which deal with the dangers of censorship.”

Wilson said she used the book in two academic level classes this year with “tremendous” results.

“The class discussions showed true insight and empathy,” Wilson said. “The discussions of the psychological causes of the parents’ behavior and the effects on the children were in-depth and meaningful. The students created projects of character studies which showed great understanding of symbols and motivations. They applied the character studies to popular movies and songs of today.”

Students are eager to read works relevant to today’s world and society’s struggles, Wilson added.

“They know what is going on today and enjoy examining successful stories of facing difficulties. Their effort, attention, and success prove this to be true,” she said.

Kutash also read a statement from the Shelton Education Association calling for the book to remain in the curriculum.

“Over the past few years, I have watched teachers be stripped of what they do best, teach the students of Shelton,” the statement read. “The micromanaging of curriculums, while both students and teachers are living through one of the hardest times in history is hard for me to wrap my head around. Yet here I am writing to you about just that

The statement continued “My colleagues and I have spent years in our own education with advanced degrees to become professionals in the classroom. I ask that you respect this and our judgment when it comes to what is put forward to our student body.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com