Curricula Controversy: Where the Line is Drawn

CAITLIN HAWLEY, STAFF WRITER

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Intro

   Every Trinity student in each grade has read a book from the American Library Association’s top 100 banned/challenged books from 2000-2009. Of Mice and Men, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, My Brother Sam is Dead, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Wrinkle in Time have all made the list. 

   While books that involve sexism, racism, and other controversial topics spark conversation and have their own specific reason for being included in the curriculum, students and parents alike may not know what those reasons are. 

   Performers may also face challenging plays and musicals within the Theater Department. Although taking on the role of a controversial character is no small feat, performing differs from reading because performances are voluntary while reading texts in the classroom is required. Compared to reading difficult material, physically embodying a character and portraying the content can be much more challenging. 

   Both departments have varying standards when it comes to what students should be exposed to. These standards are not made haphazardly, as both departments incorporate different ideas when deciding where they draw the line on controversial topics.   

English 

   In 11th grade, students in AP English Language and Composition read Beloved, a book about racism in the South that has been challenged for featuring infanticide, racial language, sexual content and sexual violence. Books discussing racism, however, are introduced in the sixth grade with Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, which includes a few conflicts that are similar to those portrayed in Beloved

   Conversations on controversial topics within the classroom do not solely revolve around racism, as seen in texts such as Maus and Handmaid’s Tale. Maus revolves around a nonfiction biography which details the horror of the Holocaust and the Handmaid’s Tale science fiction dystopian novel envisioning a society in which females are forced to procreate. Although we are talking about genocide, most people agree that the Holocaust is something that must be addressed. The same is true for the themes in Handmaid’s Tale as both serve as a warning, either from our past or possible future, that if we don’t do something about society now, we may fall into these ways.

   English department chair Steven Krueger said that while some books are written for different maturity levels, the way the books are taught, not the concepts, determines the grade in which students read them.  

   “I think it would be dangerous to rule out talking about racism and sexism and violence at the younger levels,” Krueger said. “It’s just that we have to all be aware of the group that we are working with and try to modify our discussions in a way that is healthy and safe for them.” 

   Therefore, while both Boy on the Wooden Box and Maus involve difficult topics, the content and discussions vary drastically between middle school and high school. Books are chosen and approved to make sure students not only tackle difficult issues but engage in a discussion of language.

   Although discussion may be set to the maturity level of the students, the content within the texts remains challenging in itself. Dr. Stephanie Dryden, Director of Learning and Instruction, explains that one of the reasons books such as Maus or are added to the curriculum was to add diversity. 

   When books with controversial topics, like Beloved, are read within the History curriculum, people rarely question the choice because it is factual evidence from a period of time in the past. acknowledging the historical aspect of a text also adds a level of knowledge about the mindset and culture of previous generations. Historical issues in Beloved like Fugitive Slave Laws and the Trail of Tears are purposefully taught in the AP U.S. History classes at the same time. It is specifically taught in AP Language and Composition, however, because there is literary value to the book that adds to the depth of the topics at hand. 

   As a junior, senior Yasmeen Asfoor found that AP Language and Composition class and AP U.S. History class often collaborated.

   “Every now and then a book we were reading in AP Lang would overlap with information talked about in APUSH class that revolved around the same themes, like slavery,” Asfoor said. “It really helped us put a time and place in a book and allow us to realize that that kind of thing really happened.” 

Theater 

   While a book like Beloved is taught in English, it would most likely not be performed, as it would produce a different effect on an audience than it would a reader. 

   “There is a difference between studying things in the classroom setting, versus a production, that is actually shown to the larger community,” Dryden said. 

   The actors’ comfort level of portraying a character is considered when picking a production, especially for all-school plays because a senior may be in the same scene as a sixth-grader.

   Fine Arts Department Chair Janine Papin explained that productions are allowed to be performed at Trinity as long as they are PG-13 or have a historical slant, set in the time period that the piece was produced. 

   This is the case for Man of La Mancha, a 1965 musical about the journey of Don Quixote as he pursues the prostitute Aldonza. This upper school musical was performed in 2017 at Trinity. 

   “That was also a little edgy because there is a rape scene. But having the talent to do that is not a common thing, you know? You strike when the iron’s hot. When there’s someone you are trying to lift up,” Papin said. This musical is controversial, specifically for the rape scene. The scenes may be hard on the actors too. Lydia Gifford, who graduated from Trinity in 2017, played the role of Aldonza. 

   “Playing an emotionally distraught and abused character requires a lot of physical effort and mental focus on stage,” Gifford said, “So it was bound to take its toll on me, but I always made sure that before and after a show, I was rested, calm and centered so that it didn’t affect my mental or physical health.” 

   Similar to teaching the historical aspect of Beloved in English, Gifford reveals that the historical slant actually helped her distance herself from the character as well as Papin’s vision for an abstract take on the rape scene within “Man of La Mancha,” which made it more suitable for the younger viewers. 

   This is the case for sophomore Isabel Tongsen, who performed in this year’s upper school production of The Heresy of Love. In the play, her character Juanita is a slave in a convent and has a line in which she mocks prayer, comparing it to sexual pleasure. 

   “The first time I read the script I guess my mind kind of glossed over it, but at the auditions, I was reading it and my mind immediately went to how my very Catholic parents and grandparents were going to react if I got this role,” Tongsen said. 

   After receiving the role, she informed her grandparents of the persona of her character and braced them for the play. Their reaction came as a surprise to Tongsen; her grandparents loved everything about the show with the exception of one thing: she played a slave. 

   Tongsen’s stance on Juanita was different than her grandparents’ opinions, yet another audience member may have formed a completely different opinion of what they found entertaining or controversial within the play. Thanks to books, plays and musical performances’ ambiguity, individuals are able to form their own varying opinions. 

   Therein lies the purpose of books, plays, music, or any other art form. The viewer is supposed to form their own opinion on whatever they are experiencing both on and off the Trinity campus, thus controversy will always be in the eye of the beholder and subjective depending on who you ask.