Updated: Mar 29, 2021
The purpose of this post is to fully explain the Canyon Independent School District's Fall 2020 Freshman book permission and selection process from a parent's perspective. We will not discuss specific book appropriateness or even past / current book list selections. The intent is to educate parents on the process flow, up to and including the small group discussions of the books. We will also highlight communication methods, revealing details and potential pitfalls.
1 - Permission Given
On the first day of school, your child brings home the English class paper permission form requiring a parent signature.
2 - List Emailed
The teacher emails parents a list of books.
3 - Book Selection
Teacher asks child to select book in class.
Let's analyze step #1. The English permission slip (see CISD English PERMISSION FORM below) is a hair over two pages and contains the following statements:
- Reading allows us to confront our worst fears and live through them.
- We will not know the details of every book students read and refer to this semester.
- Students can select any book on any subject of their choice.
- We will not monitor their book choice.
- Students are responsible for their book selection.
We are not experts on liability, but one can guess that this form was the school's absolute best attempt at waiving all responsibility for anything a child reads. The form is a declaration that all responsibility is on the parent and none on the English Department. Like many permission forms that come home the first week of school, your child wants you to sign. We think its important to add that your child is under the impression that your signature, which is an attempt at release of liability and responsibility, is a requirement.
Let's analyze step #2. The teacher emails parents a list of books. The email address on file that the teacher uses is the email you have stored in 'Grade Viewer' which is on the Skyward platform accessible via the district website. We've heard the two names used interchangeably, but 'Grade Viewer' is the more common name. Per the Canyon District Support Center (aka DSC; 806-677-2600), you cannot update the email address on file once you are logged into Grade Viewer. Instead, you must call the DSC and they can easily update it for you.
There is no response required to the email from the teacher. She is simply informing parents of the list. It is important to note that the teacher does mention that you can select another book. These emails will contain lists being read for a certain time period so you might get one or two emails for the first six weeks and same for each additional time period. It is important to note that this is a distributed communication approach meaning that important pieces of information are distributed via singular emails numerous times throughout the year.
Let's analyze step #3. This step is where a book selection is made. Unless the parent has emailed the teacher a differing choice from the list, the book selection is left up to the child in the classroom. The teacher may or may not have told the children that they can select from the list or from any reader level appropriate book. We cannot be sure. We know the children we have spoken with are under the assumption that they need to make a selection from the list presented to them.
COMMUNICATION METHODS AND REVEALING DETAILS
Now that we've walked through each step in the process, let's review the communication methods used. In step #1, when permission is given, a paper form is sent home with the child. In step #2, the teacher switches to electronic mail to communicate with the parent. It's worth mentioning that as children get older, it seems paper forms sent home are not as common. There is a drop off from elementary to middle school, middle school to jr. high and so on. However, some could construe the switch in communication methods as misleading. We know of at least two parents in the small sphere of freshman parents we've spoken with that were completely unaware of emails being sent home at all. Since these emails contain potentially harmful content for a child, based on the parent's values and beliefs, we believe parents not being aware that there is communication occurring is a real problem.
We'd like to expand a bit more on some underlying details of the entire reading process including..
where the book is located
a term called 'literary circles'
It is important to note that once a book is selected, the title is never brought home by the child. Normally, a book in the floor of a car or falling out a corner of a backpack might cause a parent to pick up the book and read the back cover, flip through the pages and ask the child about its contents. These opportunities are all missed since the books stay at school. From what we understand, there is daily class time set aside where the children read their book selection and then return it to the shelf in the classroom.
'Literary Circles' or 'Literary Tables', from what we understand, are small groups of children, along with the teacher, discussing a book once it has been read. The approach used is 'guided reading' and is not an open discussion, but discussion prompted by questions such as "How do you think the main character feels about .....?" or "How does the character feel when this happened to him/her?". We've been told that this is not a time or place where the teacher would say that events that occurred within a title are right or wrong, but to uncover character development or possibly the author's intention. The purpose of 'guided reading', we're told, is to discuss the literary aspects of the book.
You cannot discuss literary aspects of the book without crossing over into content. The problems occur when the book contains content that is potentially harmful or inappropriate for a child in K-12. For example, if the title walks a child through consenting sex, sexual assault or molestation, then you have a teacher, directly or indirectly, discussing heavy material with no guidance from the teacher of what is morally acceptable or not.
POTENTIAL PROCESS PITFALLS
There are numerous potential pitfalls to this process for parents, children and educators. The concerns are listed below.
Carte blanche permission
A distributed communication approach
Parents are potentially missing critical communication
No confirmation of receipt or final selection
Parents are under the assumption book selections are safe
Book selections have no detail
Children are under the assumption that the choices presented are the choices available
Normalization of harmful or inappropriate material
Small group discussions where the teacher never differentiates between right and wrong
Small group discussions where the teacher and children are discussing sexually explicit material furthers normalization
Teachers are put in career compromising situations
Teachers lack qualifications for discussions
Carte Blanche Permission
When you sign the CISD English permission slip, you are telling the school they are free to give your child anything and everything. You are agreeing to any content that 'allows us to confront our worst fears and live through them'. Are you ready for your child to confront their worst fears? Only a parent can answer this question. Once you sign the form, the school is clearing saying that they are washing their hands of all responsibility and done monitoring content. The problem is that, up until now, parents have trusted CISD to not deliver inappropriate content and, for the most part, the school has delivered. But once this trust has been broken, how can parents feel confident about giving carte blanche permission? Shouldn't the school have some level of responsibility and take on some level of monitoring to protect children from the dangers in our world? Why would any school work towards children sustaining from sexual activity in order to reduce teenage pregnancy, but then distribute reading material that has example after example of underage, consensual sex when minors consenting to sex in the state of Texas is illegal? We don't have the answer to any of these questions. We do know that once you grant carte blanche permission for your child to be presented anything and you have a problem with content, the very first thing the school will show you is the copy of the form that you signed giving them the 'thumbs up' to present anything to your child.
A Distributed Communication Approach
In step #2, we mentioned that the teacher emails a list of books to select from. It is important to note that this is a distributed communication approach meaning that important pieces of information are distributed via singular emails numerous times throughout the year. We think this approach is problematic in that it is very easy for a parent to miss a single email. In today's world, inboxes are overrun with spam, mailing lists, and various types of content. Emails are easily deleted from mobile apps and spam filters or inbox rules can easily remove a message from the main inbox view. Maybe your inbox looks like ours and you have one or two unread messages, and you are behind on the daunting tasks of keeping inbox zero. Overlooking one little email might be the difference in the school violating your family values and beliefs or you protecting your child.
Parents are potentially missing critical communication
As mentioned above, we know of numerous parents that had no clue of book lists being emailed out for parental review. One might wonder how parents could not know about this. Well, if the teacher never follows up and no other parents are talking about it and your child is not mentioning anything, how would a parent know? We'll also mention that up to this point in a child's educational journey, there has never been anything of this level of severity (potentially harmful to our children) that was only sent via email. All other permission or opts in have been done via the registration platform or via a paper form. These methods require a response so there is proof of acceptance.
No Confirmation of Receipt or Final Selection
These scenarios are presented assuming that the parent does know to look for email communication. There are really two issues, but both surrounding email receipt so we have grouped them together. We'll start with the 'no confirmation'. Well, we know that there is no confirmation of receipt of the emails the teacher is sending out. The teacher could have an invalid email address, the email could be going into spam, the parent might just not be checking that inbox because they are unaware of the correspondence or the level of importance of correspondence. If there is no response from the parent that they are receiving the email, there is no way an educator can be certain that the parent is viewing the information. There is also no book final selection confirmation. Maybe the parent tells the child to read 'Run, Tommy, Run', but the child selects a differing title in class for whatever reason. There is no parent confirmation of final book selection via email, or any other electronic or paper method that we are aware of. This is putting the child in a situation of being exposed to unwanted content.
Parents Are Under the Assumption Book Selections Are Safe
Up until Freshman English, CISD has been a safe, secure place to educate our children. We would even put Crestview Elementary up against any local private school. It was a wonderful experience for our family and many others. That is why it can be shocking for a family when they are blindsided by inappropriate content at the high school level. Parents are not ready for it nor even suspecting it. Their guard is down. We know at elementary school levels that content is closely guarded and, as we've heard administrators tell us, 'nothing goes out without approval' and 'content released has our stamp of approval on it'. Has this policy changed? Is it different for upper levels? We don't know.
Book Selections Have No Detail
One of the missed opportunities of the book list emails is that there is no information about the contents of each title. There is no summary or reading readiness level. There is no content category/categories of concern or link to an online review or review sites. There is simply the title name and author.
Children Are Under the Assumption That The Choices Presented are the Choices Available
Although in at least one email, parents are told that they may select another book for your child. Is this statement accurately communicated to the children? We are not sure. We know of at least one child that selected their book because the teacher told them it was the 'least worst' book available from the current list and another child that was told that she had to, indeed, select from the choices presented. So, when the district reminds us that none of the books are required, we take pause in that it is still unclear whether that message was clearly communicated to all involved.
Small Group Discussions Where the Teacher Never Differentiates between Right and Wrong
Can teachers use these small group teaching moments to clearly communicate to a child when behavior is wrong and what is the better choice? From our conversations with the educators, it is our understanding that the teachers are directed to stick with covering the required TEKS and use their 'guided reading' techniques at the 'literary table/circles'. The obvious problem is that what is wrong for one family is acceptable to another. What you need to take away from this paragraph is that there is no adult telling your child that potentially inappropriate behavior or vocabulary in a book is not ok. The point is to simply discuss the literary aspects and move on. The child is on their own to determine what is moral, good and acceptable. This may seem like a somewhat harsh observation of the exercise, but this is exactly what we were told occurs and it adheres to state guidelines.
Small Group Discussions Where the Teacher and Children are Discussing Sexually Explicit Material Furthers Normalization
Many young reader titles today contain sex, premarital sex, sexual assault, masturbation, molestation, and more. When content is reviewed that is sexually explicit in nature, the information is normalized to the child. This normalizes early sexual experimentation and portrays sex as casual, unprotected and consequence-free, encouraging sexual activity long before children are emotionally, socially or intellectually ready. Possibly more disturbing is when the children are forced to discuss the content in small group discussions with their peers. This is uncomfortable for the child and continues the normalization process.
Teachers are Put in Career Compromising Situations
When secondary curriculum directors, high school principals and English departments select titles with taxpayer dollars to be read in class that contain sexually explicit material, teachers are compromised. According to the Texas Administrative Code Educators' Code of Ethics - (Title 19, Chapter 247), from the Office of the Secretary of State, the Code of Ethics and Standard Practices for Texas Educators, Rule 247.2; Rule 3 (I) aka Standard 3.9 (v)) which states "The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor...Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include, but are not limited to: " and (v) "whether the communication was sexually explicit". When teachers are positioned to ask questions in literary circles to students such as "How did Lilly (main character) feel when she was raped?" or "How did Lilly feel when she lost her virginity with her boyfriend when she was 16?", they are indeed discussing sexually explicit content. The school district is opening themselves up for massive liability, not to mention putting teachers in terribly compromising positions faced with performing their job duties while violating the code they swore an oath to. When teachers bring this up to administrators, are the titles removed so the teachers can feel comfortable in safely performing their job duties? Or were the teachers actually involved in selecting titles that contain inappropriate sexual content? We don't know.
Teachers Lack Qualifications for Discussions
When titles are selected that contain sexually explicit material (sex, sexual assault, sexual abuse, molestation) or material that covers topics such as alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, etc. and educators are having intimate, small group discussions with children as young as 14 years old about how characters feel about ___(see above)___, one can acknowledge how discussions could turn personal or are deemed as informational to the child. Most English literature teachers do not have degrees in counseling or training in any of these topics. Counselors that we have spoken with have told us that this situation seems very inappropriate and if they were to do any type of small group discussion with any of the topics above that they would indeed get parental permission specifically to discuss this type of content.
The above is an opinion piece based on personal experience and all available resources presented to our children. Please consult with the district to verify all information and processes.