Native American Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel will stay on the reading list at West Valley High School.
The West Valley School District Instructional Materials Committee voted Tuesday night to keep the book in the curriculum for upperclassmen — 11th- and 12th-graders. The 15-member committee is made up of teachers, administrators, community members and librarians.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is the mostly autobiographical tale of Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation. The book is a National Book Award winner and Alexie’s first young adult novel.
The book was originally approved for 11th- and 12th-grade classes as supplementary reading, but has been taught without approval as required reading in all 10th-grade classes for three years at West Valley High School.
“Part-Time Indian” has been on hold at the school since parental complaints in early December. English department staff are currently going through the process to get it approved for all classes. The staff said they were unaware they needed to go through a separate process to use the book for lower grades.
The parent who first voiced concerns about the book is a teacher in the district, Alicia Davis.
“My issue is over the unapproved use in my daughter’s 10th-grade honors English class … and the school’s confusion and lack of organization over the approval process,” Davis said.
However, the question before the committee was whether the book should be removed from all students, which assistant superintendent Peter Finch said was the option Davis requested.
“I think we need to improve communication in the district,” Finch said after the hearing. In their comments during the discussion, several committee members agreed.
Those who object to the decision by the committee can appeal to the school board.
Davis is a teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School and her daughter read “Part-Time Indian” in teacher Josh McKimmy’s 10th-grade honors English class.
The book follows the life of Arnold Spirit, a 14-year-old Spokane Indian who decides to leave school on the reservation for a mostly white school just outside of it for a better education.
At his new school, a white bully uses a racial slur meant to offend both Native Americans and African Americans. Davis and her family are black, and she felt that West Valley lacks the diversity to fully understand how that line could affect her daughter.
Community leader Ester Huey also spoke on Davis’ behalf and criticized the level of cultural competency within the high school teaching staff.
“Had you had a person of color involved in the reading of this book, it might have raised some concern as you looked at it,” Huey said.
In her statement, Davis read from a list of profanity she had found in the book, and said English teacher Mark Burns did not accurately explain the level of vulgarity. Burns was the teacher who first got the book approved for his 11th- and 12th-grade classes as supplemental reading in 2010.
The teachers, however, feel the book has merit and messages that outweigh the profanity, and cautioned the offensive words cannot be taken out of context.
“There are about 20,000 words in that book, and she picked a few because they made someone feel uncomfortable,” said Burns during the teachers’ opportunity to present at the hearing. “If you read it beyond the bad words … you find something else great every time.”
Themes like tolerance, the importance of education and chasing one’s dream are the messages that kids take away from the book, McKimmy said, as well as a greater understanding of culture beyond the confines of West Valley.
“I think it’s important to teach kids about these other cultures so they can have empathy when they go out in the world,” he said.
After the committee’s decision, Davis said it was not her goal to have the book removed for all students.
“Going forward, I would like for them to consider having some diversity on the IMC,” she said. “And I would like for them to revisit the policies and procedures, and make wise decisions about literature that’s approved.”
West Valley High School librarian Susan Kaphammer said it was difficult to separate concerns about the process of approving books from the actual challenge to this particular book.
While the book was not used with any “nefarious intentions,” she said, in the future, “We’ll just be more cognizant of articulating where and when the books will be used.”