KUTZTOWN – Triblive is reporting… Kutztown School District halted its new One Book, One School program before it reached students after receiving complaints over a book’s focus on climate change.
News of the program’s cancellation was met by an outcry by those in favor of the selection of “Two Degrees” by a popular author for young readers while others claimed the book promotes ideologies and political views inappropriate for middle schoolers.
Middle school teachers applied for and received a Kutztown Area School District Education Foundation minigrant for the One Book, One School literacy program. Designed to create a reading community within a school, every middle schooler in grades six to eight was to read the book in March, engage in conversations with other students and teachers, then meet the author at the Kutztown University Children’s Literature Conference in April.
The middle school team selected “Two Degrees” by Alan Gratz, which centers around four middle schoolers fighting for their lives amid three climate disasters: fire, ice and flood, according to the book description on Amazon.com.
Previously, the program was presented as an informational item at the Jan. 9 Policy and Curriculum Committee meeting.
“It’s very challenging to find a current contemporary novel of high interest to both boys and girls that not many students have already read,” Melissa Devlin, director of curriculum, instructions and professional development, said to the committee. “Alan Gratz is an author of a couple titles that are super popular with this age range and this is the newest release which gave it something contemporary and current in an era where students have been doing lots of reading and wanted to find something that a lot of kids wouldn’t have already read before.”
Reading teacher Kristin Haring told the committee their goal is to get students excited about reading. Her eighth graders have read other books by Gratz, who is a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author. Her classroom copies are popular among her students.
“I can’t keep his books on my bookshelves,” she said.
“The major goal is to increase students’ interactions with books, promoting literacy across the school community,” said Superintendent Christian Temchatin. “Generally about a monthlong project, One Book allows students to be immersed in a single book, across different subject areas, growing as readers and scholars.”
At the committee meeting, board member Jason Koch raised concerns about pushing a politically charged book about climate change, questioned if the other side would be presented and called the book fear driven.
“We’ve gone through a couple of years where fear was used to shape our students’ perspectives,” he said. “Is that a good thing to continue as we talk about climate change, using a fear-driven book?”
“What I see are students who are empowered by what happens in their personal environment and how they want to personally take the next steps for themselves and their communities,” Devlin countered.
Koch argued that the novel pushes a political view using fear.
“Do we want our children to look at us in the way we live in this community and say it’s wrong?” questioned Koch.
“I don’t know if that’s a bad thing sometimes,” said board member Dennis Ritter. “I don’t know that we do everything right. I think I want my children to grow up as critical thinkers.”
Koch also cited an interview in which the author states he wants the book to be a wake-up call for kids who live comfortably.
“I’ve read a similar interview in which he definitely talked about how for him writing this book was his action on something that meant something to him,” said Devlin. “The way I feel the book is presented as I read it is three groups of kids going through an experience, grappling with others in their lives who have opinions about that topic and in the end determining what for them is the course of action they want to take as young people moving forward.”
Devlin said the book also models how to have good conversations over really tough topics with people you really care about.
Board member Caecilia Holt said one of the things she thinks they would like to see children be able to do is digest things that are happening, have conversations about them and learn more about them.
“So, we’re OK with using propaganda to educate our students?” questioned Koch.
“The intent of the book is to help young people grapple with challenging topics and do so through their dialogue with their peers, with the people in their lives,” said Temchatin.
Board member Al Darion said reading provokes thought.
“If it provokes a thought in your child to come home and talk to you about whether or not it’s a good idea to have a wood fire going, that’s a wonderful conversation to have with your child,” said Darion. “I don’t know if the book propagandizes or simply presents situations, but I would have no fear of my children reading something that they hadn’t experienced before or hadn’t thought about before. That’s the whole purpose of reading.”
“That is the purpose of reading; however, it is not the purpose of a school to promote a particular political agenda,” said Koch.
Temchatin announced the One Book, One School program would not move forward prior to the Feb. 6 school board meeting.
Over the course of the past few weeks, the team spent much time and attention understanding and considering the goals and concerns raised in relation to the project, Temchatin said in a statement.
“In this case, the adult interest and ensuing scrutiny outweigh the students’ benefit from a program supplemental to our curriculum,” said Temchatin. “In my role as superintendent, this is not a decision based on science, ideology or public opinion. My decision is not a value judgment on the content that has been under discussion.
“In our increasingly complex world, I believe any resource or program, and any that engages students with challenging societal questions promotes the development of critical reasoning skills, which become more important each day.
“Scrutiny in favor of or against the program creates a distraction for students and unfair stress for our professional staff in the classrooms.”
While Temchatin said there are times he makes recommendations or decisions in the face of loud opposition, he does not believe this is one of those times.
“It saddens me that the professional judgment of our teachers is in question and that the work they put into creating a project that would engage our students and staff as a learning community will not go forward,” he said.
The only topic of debate he wished to comment on specifically is that of the maturity and reasoning skills of the students.
chool students in 2023 interact with and interpret more information than any middle school student in history,” he said. “They are bombarded with opinions, facts, news, and interpersonal interactions. They are intuitive, inquisitive and very aware of the world around them. They question information that is shared by the media, their teachers and their parents. This is a natural part of their development.”
He said Kutztown’s middle school students can critically consider the content on their own.
“Anyone questioning their capacity is woefully wrong about the adolescents we teach and care for,” he said. “It is imperative that we are engaged with students in understanding the world in which they live.”
While he believes the decision does not deflect controversy from the school board or him, Temchatin believes it prevents stress from reaching classrooms.
“When identifying criteria for making my decision, that emerged as the one that must rule the day,” he concluded. “I don’t ask you to agree with me, but I ask you to respect the rationale for this course of action.”
During public comment at the Feb. 6 school board meeting, a number of community members voiced their anger over the program’s cancellation while others shared their concerns about “Two Degrees” being selected for a schoolwide reading project.
“I’m absolutely saddened that you took away this program for 300 children when there is a policy in place where individual students could have opted out of this program,” said Robyn Underwood of Kutztown. “I don’t understand how you have the authority to do this.”
Angry that teachers were not supported, she said teachers put in a lot of time and planning into the program.
“I can’t imagine what morale is like at the middle school,” she said. “You are not trusting your teachers and that is what the school board is supposed to do.”
Underwood also fears what this action will bring in the future.
“A few loud, squeaky wheels change the entire curriculum for the middle school and you just open the door for a future of this over and over,” said Underwood.
Temchatin countered that he fully supports teachers and had been in conversation with them throughout the process.
Lorraine Abrunzo of Albany Township said her son, a sixth grader, read “Two Degrees,” not because anyone told him to, but because he loves books by author Alan Gratz. Also a teacher, she has taught environmental science in the past.
“I’ve never discussed anything environmental with him because I figure he’s only in sixth grade, and how wrong he keeps proving me,” said Abrunzo, quoting her son in that he feels students should be reading more books like this so that when they grow up they know how to take care of the world.
“I don’t think we give middle schoolers enough credit for how sophisticated their thinking and opinions are,” Abrunzo said. “Also, as a teacher, I would be very happy to have an alternative project for kids whose parents did not want them to read it. That would have been a pretty constructive compromise.”
Kutztown High School freshman Joslyn Diffenbaugh, a recipient of a 2022 Hugh M. Hefner Foundation First Amendment Award, spoke about First Amendment rights and education.
“Evidently, there is controversy in our community balancing parents’ ideas with student and teacher ideas; however, we can look at the First Amendment rights of students and teachers when these controversies arise,” she said. “It is important that any resolution is a balance respecting staff and students, respecting professionals, and referencing government requirements.”
Citing the National Coalition Against Censorship, Diffenbaugh said schools have the right to make decisions to include or exclude books in their curriculum constitutionally, but it is unconstitutional to exclude a book solely based on hostility to the topics the book contains.
“A common claim from critics is that a book is not deemed age appropriate,” she said. “This is less due to the fact that they do not believe that students cannot comprehend the material, but rather that they simply do not want students to read it. If a professional educator can show a reasonable rationale that it should be included in a curriculum, it is unlikely that it would be removed via a court.”
Diffenbaugh believes that while parents have control over their own child’s education, they do not have the right to limit what other students and families have access to solely based on their opinion.
“If we were to exclude students from realistic fiction including controversial topics without happy endings, it would hardly address student concerns, curiosities or prepare them for real life,” she said.
Diffenbaugh believes removing “Two Degrees” from the middle school curriculum solely based on hostility toward the topic is a direct violation of a students’ constitutional rights.
“This is not about what community members feel about the topic; this is about students’ lawful rights,” said Diffenbaugh. “Historically speaking, courts side with the students.”
Daniel Wismer of Greenwich Township, a parent of two students, said this is a book that goes far beyond anything that has to do with climate and feels there was no reason for “Two Degrees” to be selected.
“This is a reading program which is supposed to promote reading,” said Wismer, who read the book. “There are messages that are really directed to middle schoolers to feel guilty about a whole host of things. And that guilt is designed to spur them into action. One of those actions is with their parents.”
After reading an excerpt, Wismer shared that this is when the book went from silently promoting ideologies and political views to inappropriate.
“It’s obviously promoting very liberal ideologies,” he said. “What I think is most disturbing about all of this is it’s subtle. It puts these kids in this situation where it empowers them to make all these decisions. And they’re not even aware of what they’re being encouraged to do.”
Wismer said there is nothing wrong with choosing a book that encourages conversation, but it has to be done in a forum where it’s appropriate for that conversation to take place and for critical thinking to take place.
“It is not a book that promotes critical thinking,” he said.
Eric Johnson of Kutztown, also a parent of two students, pointed out that two different people read the same book and came back with two very different perspectives.
“I think that’s what a book should be doing, that’s what a literacy project should be doing,” said Johnson. “This is a challenging topic and unavoidable that our students are getting it, maybe not directly from the school, but in this day of cellphones and social media and everything, they’re hearing about this. They’re also watching how the grown-ups are reacting to it.”
Johnson feels any efforts to block students from a book or any activity like this is going to have the opposite effect.
“I agree with the comment that we do underestimate people in middle school quite often. I’m starting to see that myself as my own kids make their way through middle school,” he said.
Johnson also believes there are some additional benefits to this being a challenging topic, that different people can read the same thing and have different interpretations.
“That is a literacy project; that is a critical thinking project,” he said. “Those skills are the types of skills that we want our students to be acquiring. These kids are four or five years from voting. We want them to get engaged. We shouldn’t wait until they’re 18 years old.”
Diana Rydzewski of Greenwich Township believes that staff would need to be trained before teaching on controversial issues.
“This cannot be a political thing; it has to be a scientific thing. I have a biology and agriculture background. I don’t know climate that much and nobody in this room knows climate that much,” said Rydzewski. “Staff is not prepared to teach these classes.”
Darion said his first response was disappointment, then anger, but after giving it some thought, he could not oppose the superintendent’s decision.
“This project was a literacy project,” said Darion. “I think if we continued with this project it would be changed to be a debate or information about climate change. While that is extremely vital, I think what I’d like to see is if we’re going to put climate change into our curriculum, let’s develop it the way we develop all curriculum. Not have it occur haphazardly because it’s part of this reading project.”
Dennis Ritter was angered by the decision and extremely sorry that students will not be able to read the book together and have a chance to talk about it.
“This book has been mischaracterized by a number of folks. I’ve read the book cover to cover; it’s a page turner. Probably not going to be a classic, like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ but for middle schoolers, it would keep their interest,” said Ritter.
“To me, it was a book about agency,” he continued. “The four students that are highlighted in the book show a tremendous amount of agency, of thinking through things, parental teachings about various things, living with their environment, and all of that growing and seeing the opportunity that the world is bigger than their area is.”
As a pastor, board member and community member, he is deeply saddened but respects the superintendent’s decision.
While the majority of the purchased books were untouched and will be returned, about 50 copies — read by board members, staff and administration — will remain available to students via teachers’ classrooms. There is no cost to the district since funding was provided by a minigrant.