I have always been very supportive of the school my daughter attends. She is 16 and about to go into Year 12 where she will be studying for the International Baccalaureate. She has already received details of books she will study for her English course and I have decided it would be good to help her by reading them as well. However, I am shocked at the content and language in some of the books. One in particular is quite vulgar. How can I best deal with this?
Teacher Jake Burnett replies:
Firstly, you should be assured that the school will be very supportive of the steps you are taking to support your daughter.
Reading the school's set books at home - at any level - can help students to see the value of reading and that it can arouse discussion, debate and interest. It's even better outside the classroom as it can really help to prepare students for life outside a school environment and to stress to them how important reading can be.
If you query the actual content and language of the text, it would be worth raising this with the head of the English department or your daughter's English teacher.
You should consider though, that any text is selected for a variety of reasons. With the IB, for example, the school has a virtually free choice with the texts for their English courses and so individual schools and teachers will have spent many hours considering which texts are most appropriate. Students of your daughter's age will almost certainly be treated as adults.
Much of the literature taught in schools is about the wider (and sometimes more unpleasant) elements of life, and reading often exposes students to concepts and ideas which would be unpleasant and unpalatable if regarded in isolation. A common school text such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird deals with some very bleak racial attitudes and values and uses vocabulary which we would find wholly offensive today.
Charles Dickens' Great Expectations describes murders, prostitution, bigotry, racism and child labour. Many of Shakespeare's plays cover contentious and uncomfortable material.
But what you should bear in mind is that no teacher would treat these controversial elements of these texts in isolation. If Shakespeare used a sexual innuendo it would be to arouse a sense of humour or for his audience to be critical of the character using it.
Although you may be shocked at what you have read you should remember that part of the study of any book, play or poem within a school is to question. Some of the best debates in class arise from contentious and problematic content to spark curiosity or engage students.
You have mentioned that you have been happy with your daughter's schooling so it would be very unlikely that the school would select inappropriate student texts.
Talk to your daughter before she has read this particular book and then again after she has finished it. You might be pleasantly surprised by what she has to say.
Jake Burnett is a head of department in an English Schools Foundation secondary school.