'In Cold Blood' too bloody for students?
Teacher wants to add seminal work to curriculum; some have reservations.
Glendale High School English Dept. Chair Holly Ciotti's AP Language class for juniors discusses Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at the Glendale School on Tuesday, September 20, 2011. Ciotti has requested to add Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" to the district's AP English curriculum. "In Cold Blood" has some graphic descriptions of a murder. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)
But the contents of the nonfiction novel, which detail the brutal murder of a prosperous Kansas farmer and his family, are apparently too macabre for some Glendale Unified officials and parents who are seeking to block a request by a high school English teacher to add the text to the district’s English curriculum.
“I think ‘chilling’ is far too benign a word to use,” school board member Mary Boger said of the book during a recent meeting.
The debate started midway through the 2010-11 school year when long-time Glendale High School English teacher Holly Ciotti submitted a request to add “In Cold Blood” to a list of books approved by the district for use in AP Language.
The class enrolls the top 11th grade English students, and focuses on rhetoric and debate.
Capote’s work is a great fit for the class, Ciotti said, because it introduces students to the American judicial system and the death penalty, among other contemporary topics. It is also superbly written and allows students to form their own opinions, she said.
“In Cold Blood” is used in classrooms across the country and Ciotti said she considered the request little more than a formality.
But while the book received unanimous support from the district’s English Curriculum Study Committee, which is composed of high school teachers, it hit a snag with the Secondary Education Council. Its membership — made up of high school principals — expressed reservations, as did members of the PTA.
“I was totally surprised by this opposition, really surprised,” Ciotti said.
Like all books, “In Cold Blood” must be approved by the school board before it can be taught by a teacher in the district. At a meeting on Sept. 13, school board members split two and two on the issue, with Vice President Christine Walters reserving judgment until she read the work.
Opponents said teens are already overexposed to violence via video games, television and movies. Boger acknowledged that “In Cold Blood” has literary merits, but added that what she reads at home is not the same as what she can recommend to the district’s students.
“I just believe there are other pieces of literature that will fulfill the needs that this teacher is representing to us,” Boger said. “I don’t think we need to use this particular book.”
But others said that the book is already widely used, and is generally considered the birth of the nonfiction-novel genre.
“I whole-heartedly support the adoption of this book,” School Board President Joylene Wagner said. “Not just because it is on the AP list, or because it represents a milestone in literature as the first nonfiction novel. For me, this book is a powerful juxtaposition of the depravity of humanity and the great humanity of the residents of the town.”
School board member Nayiri Nahabedian emphasized that the district can address any parental objections on a case-by-case basis.
“Yes, our kids are exposed to many, many different terrible violent situations on TV, in video games and on the Internet and in the movies,” Nahabedian said. “This gives them an opportunity to have a conversation and to be able to really have an adult person, a teacher, move though the material with them.”
Glendale is not the only community where “In Cold Blood” has generated concerns. It ranks 53rd on the American Library Assn. list of classic books that have been challenged or banned from library shelves and classrooms. The 30th annual Banned Books Week, meant to draw attention to books under fire, started Saturday.
Ciotti refused to characterize the debate as an issue of academic freedom or censorship, saying instead that the board is doing its job in carefully vetting the text.
“They take this seriously, which actually is very good,” Ciotti said. “You don’t want a rubber stamp group of people anyway. They are having a literary conversation. I just think this book should easily pass all the tests they would want to give before endorsing it. It is so widely used in AP classes.”
She wouldn’t use the book in a regular 11th-grade English course, Ciotti said, but added that she is confident it is appropriate for sophisticated readers.
“The 11th-grade AP kids are more mature than other people,” Ciotti said. “They are taking a difficult course and by definition they have chosen to do something challenging and complex.”
The book discussion will return to the school board at its October meeting.