On June 21, I published my son’s summer reading list for AP Government to a Facebook group asking the question, “Is it just me, or does anyone else have a problem with my son’s AP Government choices for summer reading?”
Within a few hours, I had spoken to the school and the story went viral and then more viral. The list was retracted as an assignment. For the record, I did reach out to the individual teacher. He never responded.
Nine days later, I, and everyone on the Baldwin County Board of Education email list, received an email from the superintendent of the school district. He indicated his lack of concern for the content of the list, opined that he doesn’t care what people in California and Illinois think and even acknowledged he would like to read some of the books on the list in question.
On the evening of July 4, I wrote to Mr. Tyler asking for a meeting to discuss the contents of his email further and to address my concerns as a parent living in Baldwin County. Here is my email:
I am writing in response to your email on Friday regarding the AP Government reading list. I am the parent who originally complained about the list. I would like to request a meeting with you to discuss what I believe is an important issue in this class.
As a parent living in Spanish Fort, not in California as you referenced in your email, who believes this list is inappropriate for any AP class, I do not understand why you did not address my concerns as a part of your response. There are many in Spanish Fort who have concerns and your email seems to assume that is not the case.
I would like to understand why you are unconcerned about the content of this list. To me, the content of any academic class is of utmost importance. The fact the the contents of this list included zero academic or scholarly options is critical to me. This is an AP Government class. It is not a class on politics. There is no opinion about the formation and foundation of our government. There is theory. There is perspective gained from other governments in historical context as well as comparative context.
I would also like to know if you asked Mr. Ponder any questions other than whether or not he had the list approved. Did you ask the context of his using these readings? Did you ask why all of his supplemental resources and presentations consisted of the same type material? Did you ask him or his students if he taught his class from this political perspective? These are important questions. Did you ask if any students ever heard him using derogatory names for liberals after class or in the hallways?
Have you considered how a student who is outside Mr. Ponder's political ideology would feel sitting in his class?
Also, you stated there is a policy for vetting books. I would like to see that policy. I would also like to see your policy regarding LGBT in school and their treatment and rights to protection and inclusion.
Please contact me as soon as possible to arrange a meeting so that I can better understand how to move forward.
By Monday, July 10, six days later, I had not received a response. I sent a follow up email asking if he intended to respond to me and I left a phone message asking for a return call. On July 11, a week after my initial contact and several hours after he received a formal complaint filed with the Mr. Tyler’s office (which I signed) I received the following:
Ms. Denham, the email sent out from my office addressed the failure of the teacher to follow the established procedure for gaining approval for additional reading materials for his students. In the future, I expect this procedure to be followed. In the email, I also stated my position on our students being exposed to as much information as possible from all sources, and for them to be allowed to make up their minds as to their beliefs. The email included my opinion, and it was intended to inform. Likewise, you, and anyone else, are free to form their own opinion. To your comments about communication and transparency, expressing my opinion on the matter and pushing that opinion out to stakeholders is the ultimate form of communication and transparency. I do not intend to meet with you to discuss my email communication. Pursuant to your request, attached is the curriculum procedure for reading selections that are not on the county-approved reading list. In response to your email, you are also welcome to review the Board Policy Manuel, a copy of which is linked to the Board’s website. See specifically policies 105 and 934. Have a nice day.
I find this whole situation incredibly perplexing and bothersome. If Mr. Tyler believes his opinion is relevant in this situation, I fear he does not understand his role as superintendent. His opinion should not be a factor in enforcing policy and equal protection for our students. When students feel marginalized and/or intimidated by the forceful expression of a teacher’s personal ideology, how can they feel protected?
Mr. Tyler also does not understand that he is and should be accountable to his “stakeholders,” students and parents alike. If he refuses to meet with a parent in order to find resolution to an issue that many have expressed outrage and concern over, where is the accountability? Do we, as parents, have no right to question his policy and procedure to ensure our students are not without a voice at school?
I am perplexed that the content of this list did not provide the impetus for further questioning of a teacher who would produce it. It begs so many questions. Was the class taught from that perspective? Was a personal viewpoint advocated by the teacher? Were students intimidated or marginalized by the tone of the class? How much of the supplemental material was used in daily class time? How much of the curriculum was presented in the context of the list and the similar supplemental resources and presentation materials listed on the website? Will there be a review and a corrective plan made so that this teacher understands the problems with this material?
I have spoken to a student who has heard this teacher use the word “libtard” after class when speaking to conservative students. Why on Earth would we support a teacher who influences his students to name-call and perpetuate divisiveness? And how do students with different beliefs feel when they walk by and hear such language from a person in a position of power?
If Mr. Tyler refuses to speak with concerned parents, what is our recourse? Our recourse is to ask for a fair hearing of our concerns and an earnest review of the formal complaint. Our recourse is to ask for a formal review of policy related to this situation and the others listed in the complaint. There are many issues listed in this complaint. I have personal knowledge of a least a few.
I would encourage you to participate in the effort for change and respectfully ask that your concerns be heard. I would have preferred a meeting, but in the alternative, I will continue to express my resolve to effect change in our local culture that diversity of thought and experience not only be accepted, but encouraged.
If you would like to have your voice heard, Mr. Tyler’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case you missed Mr. Tyler’s original email to the county, please see it below.
With the 4th of July Independence Day weekend in sight, I find myself reflecting back over the events of last week centered around a 12th grade social studies summer reading list that was posted at one of our schools.
A teacher posted a summer reading list without first presenting the list for approval by the social studies departmental committee at the school. The list was withdrawn, but almost immediately people started complaining and assuming that the reading list was removed because it was comprised of a list of conservative authors.
Responses posted to websites like the Huffington Post and other social media outlets from California and Illinois started complaining that we, the Baldwin County Public School System, were circulating right wing propaganda to our students.
I can honestly say that I am not losing any sleep over what the folks in California think about what we are doing in the Baldwin County Public School System!
As I looked over the list, I recognized several of the authors. In fact, there are a few books on the list which I’d like to read. The content of the list might be of concern to some people, but it wasn’t my concern. The failure of the teacher to follow the process was my concern.
The Baldwin County Public School System has a process for approving books that are not on the approved reading list.
Even if the books were authored by other well-known people such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi, I would have reacted in the same manner. The problem wasn’t the list, the problem was that the list had not gone through the proper vetting process. After speaking with the teacher, he admitted as much, and I appreciated his honesty.
I encouraged the teacher to read all of the books on the list and if he so chooses recommend the books he feels are important for students to read to the social studies departmental committee for review at the appropriate time next year. If he does not think that the books he submits receive a fair review, I have asked him to contact me to discuss any concerns he may have with the review process. However, I believe that any books placed before the social studies departmental committee will be given a thorough review by those educators.
ALL of our students need a healthy dose of both sides of political arguments and viewpoints, both conservative and liberal. Exposing our students to different thoughts and asking our students to consider differing points of view is what education is all about!
This social studies list does not worry me. What I worry about is exposing students to a book on Jack and Jane showing up in a 2nd grade classroom with inappropriate pictures and talking about a subject that might be offensive to parents. I do not want this to happen. When we don’t adhere to a process for vetting an official reading list we find ourselves in jeopardy of placing inappropriate material in the hands of students. It is my job as superintendent to not allow this to happen at any grade level!
I am very proud of our teachers and the work they do! I want our teachers to push our students to think outside the box and consider many perspectives before arriving at the truth for themselves. I ask that teachers challenge their students and expose them to different ways of thinking! While I encourage this, we have to keep in mind that there is a process in place to allow that exposure to happen. We must ensure that our efforts are appropriate, peer reviewed and approved.
Many complain that public education relies on too much liberal indoctrination. I do not believe that to be the case in Baldwin County Public Schools. I encourage our teachers to balance their teachings of political philosophies so they appropriately reflect the real world we live in today. As superintendent, I want our students to have a balanced education.
As we pause to celebrate our 4th of July Independence Day, please take time to appreciate that we are free to discuss ALL of these ideas. We should be able to celebrate those things on which we agree as well as argue against those on which we disagree.
This is a testament to the awesome country we live in. I am proud of what we teach our students in the Baldwin County Public School System. We want students to be proud of our country’s history and to be able to intelligently engage in discussions on politics.
I am Eddie Tyler, Superintendent of the Baldwin County Public School System and I am BALDWIN PROUD!
I wrote this post in 2012, the day after Obama was re-elected. I fear the need for the same sentiment. And this year, I have two children voting for the first time, a 16 year old who is so interested in the political process, he helped found a young political group at school, helped organize a student debate and is having friends over to watch the returns, a 14 year old who has watched all of the debates and a 10 year old who is very impressionable. Please, lets keep our children in mind as we navigate today and the days to follow. Please read and comment with your thoughts...
I voted for President Obama and thought that today I would feel very happy about his re-election. Instead, I woke up to see anger, sarcasm, resentment and disrespect for the president and those who voted for him being expressed all over my Facebook wall. I am very disappointed that many of you choose to be filled with hate, derision and negativity and choose to express those feelings in such a public way. I have five children and many of you are in our "village" influencing and setting examples for them. Some of you are friends with them on Facebook. Decisions like yours cause me inordinate distress because I believe that you are teaching them all of the wrong lessons.
I am raising my children to be be informed, to be open minded, to be tolerant of everyone alike or different, to question authority without disrespecting it. I am teaching them that they have the power to become informed and educated and by listening to others, make decisions on their own. Your decision goes against every single one of my goals.
By showing them hate and a closed mind, you are teaching them that by having an opinion different from yours, they will be greeted with hate thus making it more difficult for them to form their own opinions and express them without fear. Open- mindedness is taught by exposing children to different people, cultures, and viewpoints. By expressing derision of their government, you are reinforcing the idea that it is not okay to be different from each other.
Tolerance is taught by example. By showing them that when your candidate doesn't win, it is okay to attack those who voted differently from you or to attack the president or the government, you are teaching them to turn their backs on those who are or believe differently, rather than encouraging open and respectful discussion.
Our country was founded by our questioning of an authority with which we disagreed. By allowing our children to see disrespectful attacks instead of respectful discussion you are teaching them to disrespect authority instead of giving them the tools to question or change their futures.
Providing children information from every perspective gives them the belief and the tools to change their futures and impact the world. By attacking one group's views and votes, you are teaching them that they have no power to make their own decisions or to change their futures without fear of retribution.
I would like my village to have the goals that I have listed above to produce educated, informed, tolerant, open-minded and powerful children who will grow to be adults with those same qualities. I would like them armed with knowledge as they go through school and go out into the world.
This time, my candidate won. I have experienced the same disappointment in other elections when my choice lost. I did not attack my friends for their votes. I did not, in dramatic fashion, pray to God that he would save us from the "evil" that loomed. I think the president needs prayers for wise and just decisions whether he is my choice or not. I did not believe that the world would end because my choice didn't win. And it won't now.
We live in a country that provides peaceful election and peaceful transfer of power when a new candidate wins. We need to appreciate this and recognize that many risk much more when they vote. We need to teach our children, by example, that we can win or lose gracefully. That we can respect the office of the president and try to support each other and articulate our opinions in ways that teach our children to be the kind of adults we would like them to be..
I want my children to be politically aware. I want them to learn to watch and think for themselves. I do not want to feel compelled to warn them that talking about politics with friends may not be such a good idea for fear they will be attacked. I believe that this culture of hate and fear can turn the young away from wanting to learn about and participate in the process. I believe that those who express hate and vilify others run the risk of denying my children the experiencing of history by making them afraid.
It does not matter for whom you voted or what your political affiliation, children and adults (because every adult is a part of some child's village) should respect the office of President, even if you do not respect the man or the ideology.
I have written my political views on Facebook. I have made every effort to be respectful, find facts and post articles that I find interesting and support my ideas. I have never called someone (either a political figure or friend) a name or attacked anyone personally. Even I began to feel disillusioned with discussion as people are very angry when you disagree with them. That is not the path I want my children to walk.
Change starts with the individual. If we can come together and work together, it will be harder for those in power to remain so polarized. If you do not like the way things are, instead of ranting in anger, why not do something about it using respectful and intelligent discussion. Call your senator, write your congressman, attend meetings. Take you children and teach them how it works. At the very least, before you speak or post, pause to think if what you are about to say is something you would want your children to hear or see.
We live in an area with a great deal of diversity and however you believe, it is important for all children to know that anything is possible and barriers of all kinds can be conquered. Our president is an historical figure by sheer virtue of the fact that he is our first African-American president. We should at the very least respect that. Maybe if we all pulled together for the greater good, he could actually accomplish something, and we could teach our children in the process.
Three years ago, I wrote an article called, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle” with tips for navigating divorce with children. I still stand by these tips and decided there are things to add after going through every phase of early childhood and up to graduating two seniors this year.
The first article elaborated on the following basic tips:
• Do not speak badly about your ex in front of your children
• Do not make the children responsible for any form of communication between you and your ex
• Never discuss money with your children as it relates to your ex
• Accept the fact that you do not control what goes on at the other parent’s house
• Do not ever make your children feel guilty for being away from you
I have been remarried for almost four years, and between us, we have five children. When we married, they were 14 (two of them), 12, 10, and 6. Now, they are 18 (two of them) 16, 14, and 10. We have spent our marriage making sure that we keep all of the kids out of the middle of our divorces. As you can imagine, dealing with a blended family and with 2 exes who are parents of five children is no easy feat. But we have both managed to develop good relationships with all of our children.
I think most of us imagine that things will get easier over time. But as kids grow and develop, they begin to develop their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives of their situations. They may have opinions based on information someone gave them that may or may not be accurate. They may question their realities as they begin to see things for themselves. This complicates the ability to keep them out of the middle because they can have difficult questions about why and how things have occurred or been handled.
Here are some things we have learned further along the way:
• Answer your children’s questions from the perspective of who you are not who your ex is. When children have questions about a divorce or a situation between you and your ex, it is a difficult conversation to navigate. Answer their questions from your own perspective of who you are and why you are that way. Leave your perspective of your ex out of it. When your children understand your values, they can better understand your decisions.
• When and if your children complain about the behavior of their other parent to you, stay out of it. The correct response to this complaint is, “I am sorry you feel that way (or I am sorry that happened to you). Have you discussed that with your mother/father?” You want to avoid one parent being pitted against the other. Even if your relationship with your ex is not good, this is not something for you to solve for your child. Your child needs to learn to voice these concerns to the one who can change it. If they are very young, I would let the other parent know that this was brought up to you, that you plan to stay out of it, and that he/she may want to address this with the child. This exception, of course, is if the child is in danger.
• Encourage your children to find and use their voices. One of the saddest things that can happen to children of divorce is that they can feel the need to please or the need not to make waves. It is never a child’s job to keep the peace, and children should be encouraged to express their feelings in an appropriate way. Encourage your children to let you know when they are confused, angry, upset or unhappy. And encourage them to tell their other parent. Part of having healthy relationships is being able to articulate what you need. This is especially important to children in a divorce situation.
• Encourage your children to set healthy boundaries. As a child gets older, they need to learn when to say when. If a parent is doing something harmful to the child (speaking badly about the other parent, etc.) a child should be able to say, “I do not like it when you talk about my mother/father” or “It hurts me when you say that.” They should be able to say these things to both parents, you included. And when they do get up the courage to set a boundary, respect it. If you don’t, they will begin to set more and more distant boundaries.
• Trust your children to find their own truths. This is the hardest thing to do, but when you live your life honestly and openly, your children will know who you are. It is not your job to bash the other parent, prove a point or make a case - that will backfire every time. Live a good life, treat your child with respect and honesty and trust the truth.
Nothing about raising kids in a divorce situation is easy, but when they can trust that you will talk to them in an open, objective and non-threatening way - to them and about their other parent - they will trust that they can come to you and be heard. That is the strength of any good relationship.
What’s in a name? Well, when you are in a blended family, a lot! When we remarry, we tend to focus our time and attention on blending the two families; we establish relationships, form new traditions, meld. And that’s all great. We should do those things. We want to feel like a family and find that family dynamic amongst the difficulty of step parenting, forming new sibling relationships and trying to co-parent with the other parents (the ones who don’t live in our house).
But we have to be careful to remember something. Before we blended, our children had established identities. They identified as a family with their biological parents and siblings. Everyone (in general) shared the same last name. When divorced parents remarry, the waters of identity can be muddied for the kids.
All of us divorced parents know the identity crises we have faced when learning to be single adults again. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who are our friends? And divorce can cause identity crises for everyone involved — especially children. When a child’s name is different than their mother’s, which is true in my case, it can be confusing for younger children and a glaring reminder of the separation of parents for older children.
When people have identified our family as “The Denhams” either verbally or even on Christmas cards, my boys have pointed out that they are not Denhams, they are Reostis. No one makes this mistake with any ill will or intent, they just generally identify families by the parents’ names. In the beginning, I didn’t pay as much attention to the comments from the boys because, of course they are Reostis. But they live with a man who, while he treats and loves them as his own, is not their biological father. And has a different name from them. And people often assume (especially if they don’t know their dad) that when they refer to their dad, they are talking about my husband. It is a conflicting place for them to be — not wanting to discount my husband, but also wanting to acknowledge their father.
I have a friend at church who ALWAYS greets our family as the “Denham Reostis.” It is so important because it acknowledges all of our kids. When people say just “the Denhams,” three of our children do not feel identified. So blended families, be aware of the nuance of identity — sign cards with both names, call yourselves with both names and let people know that is how you want to be recognized. Friends of blended families, be sensitive to knowing the last names of the kids and using those names when you identify them.
We are the Denham-Reostis. That is our family name.
After an incredibly difficult and emotional divorce (and aren’t they all), I came to the conclusion that I did not want to live a life filled with anger. The most treasured people in my life, my children, deserved to live with a mother who was happy, calm and peaceful rather than one who was carrying around anger, irritability and tension about a situation that was unchangeable and permanent. The way I found my peace was by acceptance. It is not easy, but it is possible and necessary if you want to nurture your children to find the happiness they deserve and to foster their relationship with the other parent that they deserve.
The first step to acceptance is to recognize that the situation is what it is. You may not like it. It may not be easy. But it is what it is. You are divorced. Your children will now travel between parents. Your financial situation may be less than ideal. But too bad. That’s the way it is, and it’s up to you to make the best of it. Being angry and resentful will not change the situation, but recognizing it and moving forward will change the way you look at it.
The second step is to recognize that your former spouse is who he/she is. He has not changed, may never change and may never want to change. This is not your problem. Once you recognize that your perceived faults and limitations of this person are most likely going to remain status quo, let go of your expectations and accept what is. I am not saying that you will not have moments of anger or frustration. They should just be situational rather than your way of life.
The third step to acceptance is to take responsibility for your life the way it looks now. My whole life changed because of decisions I did not make. It is very difficult not to be pretty ticked off about that. But when I realized that I, and only I, was in charge of my future, I was able to let go of that ticked off feeling and embrace that I was in control of my future. I knew that there was no going back. There was no changing the situation. The only thing I had control over was how I chose to move forward. No matter how I got where I was (and it was pretty low) no one was going to alter my future but me. That is scary and empowering. Be empowered.
The fourth step to acceptance is to recognize that your children do not deserve a life filled with anger and conflict between you and your ex. This is not their problem to own, to fix or to endure. Anger is one of the most destructive emotions to relationships, but the harboring of this feeling can and will destroy any ability to communicate effectively and therefore affect all relationships involved, including relationships with the kids. Any decent parent who truly wants the best for their children will find a way to gain perspective and put kids first. This means fostering a loving and healthy relationship between the kids and the other parent. This means allowing the kids to feel free to love, free to spend time with and free to talk about the other parent with no negativity from you. Do not put adult problems on a child. If the other parent disappoints them, the only response you have is this: “I am sorry that happened, did you talk to your mother/father about how you feel?” If the kids have a great time at the other parent’s house, your response is this: “I am so glad! Tell me all about it!”
I don’t think any of this is easy. I make a conscious effort to continue to feel acceptance And when things come up, it is difficult. But now, when I get angry, I am able to isolate it to the incident at hand and not dredge up all the years of anger and frustration from the past. Letting go of the past and our anger about it often feels unfair. We want to feel validated or compensated for the ways we feel we were wronged. But that is not life, and as all of our parents told us...life is not fair. As parents, we have no right to surround our children with our feelings of anger, resentment and inequity. We have an obligation to be mature adults who accept responsibility for our own situations and surround them with love, joy and peace as best we can.
An amazing thing happens to most of us when we become parents. We change for the better. The gravity of the responsibility and the intensity of the love that we feel toward our children hits us in the heart, and we do everything we know how to do to nurture them. We become better people, trying to lead by example. Often we start eating healthier, working out more, going to church, wearing seat belts. Many times we quit cursing, smoking or driving fast. We are keenly aware of our behavior and the influence it has over our children because we see ourselves reflected in their cherubic little (or not so little) faces.
And then, sometimes, divorces strikes. Divorce hurts. It angers. It scars. It can consume us to the point that it is difficult to remember that our every move, every word, every action is being recorded by the sponges that are our children’s minds, hearts and souls. To be in agony ourselves and to gather the strength to remember that we must put that agony aside for our children takes Herculean effort.
Putting our children first during a divorce means putting aside our own anger, hurt, betrayal and sadness, particularly when directed at our ex-spouse, and putting the emotional needs of our children ahead of our own. Unless there are real and grave safety issues, everything must be done to preserve the relationships the children have with both parents. No matter what your ex did or how you feel about him/her, that person will always be your children’s parent. And that is okay. You are responsible for making it okay for your children to love that parent when they are around you.
In eight years of being divorced, I have had a lot of practice in learning how to navigate co-parenting. There is no easy solution, but I have realized that, as bad as it can seem at the time, nothing is really the end of the world. This realization has helped me let go of control and anger and has helped me to make sure my children have a relationship with their father. I have recently remarried, and my husband and I must try to balance our children’s relationships with each other and with both of our former spouses. Here are some things we have learned along the way:
Going back and forth between homes is not your children’s fault and not their choice. Give them the freedom to be happy wherever they are. It is the greatest gift you can give to them after their family has broken. They will love you and respect you for allowing them their own relationships, their own feelings and their own time. So send them off with a smile and an “I can’t wait to hear all about it when you come back!”