Opinion: Parents should have a say in what their children read — but they shouldn’t decide for my entire classroom

I am not saying we should ignore these small minorities that don’t want their children to read certain books.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A librarian fills shelves at Desert Sky Elementary on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

As a teacher of ninth graders in one of Utah’s largest districts, I feel compelled to discuss the problems of HB29 in an objective and reasonable way. This bill has potential to allow the minority of a population to categorize societally acceptable literature, which has been taught in classrooms for many years, as pornographic and indecent.

First, as an educator, I want parents’ involvement. There is a clear connection to a kid’s success and their parents’ involvement. Generally speaking, parents who are more involved have children who do better in school. Furthermore, it is the parents’ right to decide and offer feedback to teachers about what books, articles or other pieces of media their child should consume. If the parent doesn’t want their child to read a book that goes against their family values, then that request should be honored.

In 2021, I started sending home book disclosures (as did many of my colleagues) that clearly outlined all the books we’d be reading throughout the year. These disclosures gave a detailed rationale for teaching the book, what standards would be taught and a disclaimer about sensitive materials in the book. (And, yes, some of the books we’ve read in the past three years will fail objective sensitive material criteria in HB29.) In the disclosure, the parents had three options: one, approve that their child could read the book in whole; two, opt out of reading the book entirely and choose (with a list provided) an alternate book; three, purchase and modify (blackout words or remove pages) so that the book met their family values.

Offering these disclosure was a way for my colleagues and I to be transparent in what we planned to teach. We wanted parents to know what was being read and why.

In the three years I’ve done these book disclosures, I’ve had three parents opt their child out of reading a book. I’ve taught these books to over 600 students in the past three years, which means .5% of parents decided that these books weren’t appropriate for their children. For these three students, I found an alternate book, arranged accommodations for them to read elsewhere when the class was reading our primary book out loud and worked through this accommodation with seemingly no issues.

Even if 30 parents objected to these books that I’ve taught over the past three years, it would still only be 5% of parents, which would represent a very small minority. While this number could grow in different areas of the state, that point doesn’t matter. As a teacher, my job is to select diverse texts that help my students become proficient in the various standards put forth by the Utah State Board of Education. And how I select those texts is determined on the needs and interest of the demographics in which I teach. The low percentage of objections shows that the texts I’ve chosen are not only appropriate but approved by the vast majority of parents.

HB29 allows one or two parents — and it’s already happened because of the objective sensitive material criteria — to make decisions for what the majority of parents have no issue with. It means that one or two parents could make decisions that lump classic texts like “Romeo and Juliet” and “1984” with modern day smut like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” HB29 removes the ability to have rational and thoughtful discussion about what books are being taught, why and if the literary merit of a book outweighs the sensitive material.

If you look at the approved book lists from the major districts in the state, most of them have similar books that are all deemed appropriate for high school students. These books have proven over the years (some centuries, some decades) to be valuable to students. This bill, if only a few parents choose, could remove any book that doesn’t meet the objective sensitive materials criteria in HB29 without objection, which would neglect the thoughts and ideals of the varying demographics within the state.

Lastly, I am not saying we should ignore these small minorities that don’t want their children to read certain books. Teachers should — and some already do — create book disclosures that give parents the authority to choose what their children read; however, we should also be able to teach books in communities where the majority of parents are acknowledging and agreeing to the curriculum.

(Photo courtesy of Brian Dahle) Brian Dahle

Brian Dahle is a 40-year-old high school teacher of English language arts. He’s been married for 15 years and has four kids, and he spends his free time camping, mountain biking and grading.

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