The English curriculum should be engaging, challenging and thought-provoking, but how do you respond when parents raise concerns about your text choices?
For me, one of the unexpected positives of months of online learning has been remote parents’ evenings. It is great to speak to more parents than ever before, as they join from home, work, or sometimes even their commute.
However, at two remote parents’ evenings, I have received many questions about texts on our English curriculum at key stage 3 and KS4. This is interesting considering we have not made any major changes to the curriculum this year.
What has changed is how much parents see. Remote learning has given parents the opportunity to see exactly what happens in lessons every day, and therefore pay more attention to the texts and topics their children study.
So how do you respond to parents that don’t think the syllabus texts are suitable?
Teacher tips for responding to parents' concerns about curriculum texts
1. Listen and get to the heart of the issue
Ask the parent to explain exactly what they do not like and why – it might surprise you. Is it the content? Explicit use of language? Controversial topics within the text? References to illegal substances?
A parent of a Year 8 child questioned why we teach Macbeth at KS3, as it is very violent and gory and she doesn't think her child should be exposed to this at such a young age.
I listened to the parent describe the scenes she was concerned about. It turns out she had watched a particularly gory and bloody film version of the play, hence why she didn’t think it was suitable.
I showed her the play script to reassure her that it does not contain explicit details, and clarified that the focus of the unit of work is characterisation and power, not violence.
2. Be willing to discuss why a text has been chosen
Your department has chosen to teach 1984, but parents think it contains too many references to sex, violence and torture. What do you do?
This particular parent appreciated it when I told her that 1984 is one of the text choices provided by the exam board, but she still struggled to see why we didn’t choose something less "problematic".
So I talked through the IGCSE English literature curriculum at my school and illustrated how the themes of 1984 complement our other text choices.
I also highlighted the cross-curricular links with history, as topics such as communism and political authority are studied in both subjects, which helps students to think critically and synthesise information.
The parent was satisfied because she could see the academic relevance of the novel, but she did ask that I give her child a heads up before any violent scenes, if we watch the film in class.
3. Explain the benefits of studying challenging and controversial texts
It is natural for parents to want to shield their children from controversy and difficult conversations, so I was not surprised to receive concerns about teaching Of Mice and Men and later To Kill a Mockingbird at KS3.
Both novels are still considered staple texts in most US and UK schools, but this may not be the case internationally as they contain profanities, discuss sexual assault and feature racial and gender discrimination. Novels like these need to be approached with care to ensure cultural sensitivity.
Explain to parents that studying controversial topics will expose their children to alternative points of view, which will develop their empathy and foster a culture of tolerance and respect. It will also encourage them to separate thoughts from emotions, and develop logical, evidence-based arguments.
The parents in this scenario took a little more convincing, as they did not see the academic necessity of teaching these controversial texts – after all, this was just KS3, so the department could make changes.
Despite this initial challenge, I managed to diffuse the situation by explaining to them that these texts are an excellent stepping stone to IGCSE literature study, and that the interpersonal skills students develop by engaging with these texts will benefit them for many years to come.
As English teachers, we are very fortunate to have thousands upon thousands of phenomenal pieces of literature to choose from when designing our curricula.
However, we must be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities, especially in international schools, and respect parents’ concerns when they do raise them.
Karolina Malinowska is an assistant head of English at an international school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia