MALIBU TIMES 5-16-12

"Sixth Grade Reading List Raises Eyebrows"

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Parents say profanity, graphic descriptions inappropriate for middle school.

When Rebecca Witjas’ daughter, a sixth-grader at Malibu Middle School, was assigned a book report that had to do with survival, she figured her daughter would pick a familiar title like “Swiss Family Robinson” from the list assigned by teacher Brigette Leonard.

But after reading 17 pages of the book her daughter selected, Norman Ollestad’s “Crazy for the Storm, A Memoir of Survival,” Witjas said she was shocked.

“It was absolutely inappropriate for children,” Witjas said. “I couldn’t believe that this book was being suggested to eleven-year-old children from a public school teacher.”

The book, a New York Times best seller, is the harrowing true story of Topanga Canyon local Ollestad and his complicated relationship with his charismatic father. In 1979, when Ollestad was 11 years old, the plane he and his father were taking to a skiing competition crashed in the mountains at 8,000 feet. The pilot and his father were killed, his father’s girlfriend died shortly thereafter, and the boy had to negotiate descending the mountain by himself.

Filled with surf culture lore and riveting detail, the book has received many honors since publication, including “Top 10 Best Books of the Year” by Amazon. But parents say its frankly sexual scenes and pervasive use of adult language should preclude it from a reading list for children barely past “My Little Pony.”

“When the teacher gave out the list of suggested books, she said she had read this book and recommended it,” Witjas said.

Audrey Ruth, another parent at Malibu High, echoed Witjas’ shock. “This book might be OK for college kids, but certainly not for 11-year-olds,” Ruth said, whose son is in 7th grade. “I never thought I’d have to vet a book list suggested by my child’s teacher, but I will have to now.”

Dr. Annie Thiel, a clinic al psychologist practicing in Malibu for nearly 40 years, said she was dumbfounded when she read the book and heard it was being assigned to sixth graders.

“It is well known that until children can think abstractly, they just can’t handle certain information properly,” Thiel said. “That’s why they don’t teach algebra until 8th grade. This book has very abstract viewpoints of a complicated bond between an extraordinary father and his extraordinary son. And the plane crash, watching the dad’s girlfriend die, the sex scenes… these can be very damaging verbal imagery for children of this age.”

Witjas said she spoke with Principal Mark Kelly at the school, who read passages from the book and agreed with Witjas that it was inappropriate for the grade level.

“But he never said that any other steps would be taken and I never received any kind of email communication that the book would be removed from the reading list,” Witjas said.

Dr. Kelly acknowledged that the book was inappropriate for the grade level, but said that the teacher had not actually read the book at the time it was put on the list.

“This was an outside reading assignment and the students weren’t required to choose specifically from this list,” Kelly said. “Other students had read and described the book to Ms. Leonard so she added it to the list.”

Kelly said that, in general, teachers try and put together reading lists of books approved by the state Board of Education and that they try to update the lists annually for summer reading assignments.

He also said there was no plan to send out any further communication to parents about the book since he believed “the number of readers to be very low.”

Ms. Leonard was unavailable for comment.

“At this point, we will have to work carefully with our librarian and the state board for future lists,” Kelly said. “The teacher felt really bad about it.”

The author himself, however, feels differently about the book’s effect. In an email to The Malibu Times, Ollestad wrote, “My son has not read the book, but not because I don’t think it’s appropriate—he knows the whole story and says he’ll read it some day.

“Several of his 10-, 11- and 12-year-old-friends have read it and none have suffered any psychological damage or been traumatized by the language or the crash imagery.

“What your child is exposed to is, of course, a personal choice but if the assignment was to explore survival, in all its facets… then a true account of an 11-year-old boy’s survival, written from his young point of view, seems like an appropriate choice.”

Peggy Harris, the director of curriculum and instruction with SMMUSD, said that there is a rigorous process of checks and balances in submitting titles to be considered for school reading lists. Proposed submissions are entered as information items for discussion on school board agendas. If the title is deemed appropriate, it is then listed as an action item, to be voted on in a future meeting.

“There are many steps in deciding if a book conforms to proper usage, including age appropriateness, themes, messages and images,” Harris said. “Normally, the teacher must read the book, share it with the principal and they submit a request to the district. We read it and decide if it is something to be placed on a board agenda. We are extremely conscientious on vetting reading lists.”


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