Athey Creek Middle School in West Linn, Oregon has taught its eighth grade students a First Amendment curriculum for ten years, addressing the controversies surrounding commonly-banned books and reading the books in class. The unit drew no major criticism until early last month, when librarian and teacher Michael Diltz faced ire from several parents. He had written two common “obscenities” on the board and allowed students to say them aloud.
In an email message to parents, principal Carol Eagon explained that the use of the words “was meant to provoke student understanding and experience how words, taken out of context, can lose their significance. When taken out of context, an author’s words can move a community to ban that author’s book from a school library.”
In a comment on a School Library Journal article, Diltz said he did not read from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as alleged. Instead, he used a page from a pro-censorship group’s website to demonstrate how readers should not “be distracted by words when the greater meaning and message of the book is what they seek to discover.” Diltz does not say which page he cited, but this one on the group’s site exemplifies his point that a list of the profane words in Slaughterhouse-Five is a gross simplification of the meaning of the work.
By protesting the explicit use of the two words in class while dismissing the lesson’s intent, the objecting parents proved Diltz’s point. “There’s some irony there,” said district superintendent Roger Woehl.
Woehl has defended Diltz and the overall curriculum on banned books, but his two concessions—that Slaughterhouse-Five will never be taught, and that the teacher will not use profanity in class—are overkill. It would have been enough, as the school district also promises, to inform the parents about the curriculum before it takes place. That way, parents who object can choose to make their own children read alternate books, while the rest of the students remain able to take part fully in this important unit.