Hardin Valley STEM reading assignment stirs up controversy

1:22 AM, Aug 10, 2012   |    comments
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Knox County students head back to the books next Tuesday, but some students at Hardin Valley Academy in West Knoxville didn't leave the books behind during the break.  A summer reading assignment, which alarmed one student's parent, has stirred up controversy.

Students in the STEM Academy at Hardin Valley were assigned to start reading a science-fiction book, called "Robopocalypse."  Sam Lee, the parent of a 14 year-old incomming freshmam, is calling it "inappropriate" and tells 10News it should have never been part of the curriculum.

The New York Times best seller, written by Daniel H. Wilson, was published last year, and as one family discovered, it contains a fair amount of what they consider foul language.  According to the book, Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and is the author of several other fictional novels.

Lee showed 10News the book in question on Thursday.  One sentence on page 79 reads, "I swear to God and all his cronies, darling I'll..."  The sentence continues with the "f" word followed by "kill you."  Similar profanity appears throughout the book, in addition to descriptions of violence.  The book is described on the back cover as a "terrifying tale of humanity's desperate stand against a robot uprising."

Lee is concerned because his, and approximately 450 other students enrolled in Hardin Valley's STEM program, were assigned to start reading the book as part of a summer reading program.  The STEM page on the Knox County Schools website explains that students will continue reading, and discuss, the book in small groups throughout the fall. 

"My child is being forced to read profanity. This is not something that kids are talking about. It's an assigned assignment," said Lee.

"We want our kids to be civilized citizens and be upcoming members of community, and this does not serve that purpose," he explained.

Administrators with the STEM program told Lee's wife in an email that the intention, when teachers proposed "Robopocalypse" for the summer read, was not to counter those lessons. teachers

Rather, the goal was to keep students engaged in the core aspects of the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math) during the summer break.

An email from STEM Academy Dean Debbie Sayers to Lee's wife reads: "We discussed adult-level language, and decided that most (not all) students of this age group are exposed to profanity through much more graphic means than the written text...we knew there might be some objection to his, and we were willing to defer to parental concerns and discretion."

Lee said school officials never notified him about the book.  He said his wife contacted school officials about it earlier this week after she skimmed through it. Lee contacted school board members and administrators in the central office on Thursday.

"I would like this book taken off the reading list," he said.

Dr. Elizabeth Alves is the acting assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Knox County schools. She tells 10News they are looking into how teachers selected the novel.

"This book was selected by the STEM academy, so it went through a different process and we are currently looking into what that process was," she said.

In fact, Dr. Alves says English teachers at many of the district's traditional high and middle schools typically choose material for summer reading.

"I don't want to comment specifically on the profanity, but we do consider the maturity of students to be able to understand, and whether the text is appropriate for the grade level and age group," she said.

Lee understands the district's policy about free speech, but he feels they took away students' rights by requiring them to read bad words.

"I'm not mad at the author. The thing that upsets me most is the total disregard for parental consent," he said.

It's consent Lee said he would not have given his child, even if the school offered it. It's a choice wants every parent to have in the future.

The school did offer Lee's child an alternative assignment to reading "Robopocalypse."  Sayers wrote in her email to Lee's wife that Lee's child has the option to read one of two different books and then write a paper on it instead of doing other graded assignments.  Lee said that option is "too little, too late." 

The district also has a complaint process to address issues like this.  It requires Lee filling out a form and then a formal review of the curriculum in question.

Lee said  told district officials he is not interested in doing that because the process sounds like it could be lengthy. He said he wants action now since school starts in just a few days. 

Dr. Alves said her office is investigating the process Hardin Valley STEM teachers used to select "Robopocalypse," if that process needs to be changed, and the language Lee is concerned about.

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