GARDINER — After “concerned” community members complained about a summer reading list for students electing to take an Advanced Placement English course at Gardiner Area High School, Maine School Administrative District 11 officials opted to eliminate it.

Instead of choosing from a list of 33 books put forth by the school district, students will be allowed to self-select a nonfiction title for summer reading.

The issue was raised at a special MSAD 11 school board meeting Thursday night, with Superintendent Pat Hopkins read letters from members of the Gardiner-area community. Some of those were written by parents with children enrolled in the college-level course, some only had students at the high school and others were taxpayers with no children in attendance.

The letters of complaint alleged the books on the list would teach the students critical race theory, which is an academic concept that has been around for decades. The main tenet of the theory is that racism is a social construct that is ingrained in legal systems and policies, not just individual bias or prejudice.

MSAD 11 Curriculum Coordinator Angela Hardy said Thursday night that was “not the intention” of the list, nor was critical race theory ever outlined in the course descriptions.

Because of the community feedback, however, Hardy and the high school’s English teachers reworked the class objectives and eliminated the 33 book list. Instead students will be able to choose a nonfiction book they want to read, which could be one from the original list.

“The AP course is a college level course, optional for students,” Hardy said. “The introduction has been rewritten to focus on learning objectives, the type of books that needs to be read and allow self-selection that reflects that.”

AP Language and Composition is an elective at Gardiner Area High School and a college-equivalent course. The learning standards are set by College Board, a national nonprofit organization. In AP Language and Composition, students are asked by the national course standards to “learn about elements of argument and composition as you develop critical-reading and writing skills.” At the end of the course, students take an exam for the chance to receive college credit.

The course focuses on rhetoric, which according to the class description provided by Hardy, is “the study of effective speaking and writing used to persuade the audience.”

In the GAHS original course description, students were given a list of 33 texts to choose from and asked to think ahead of reading, how they would define “social justice and racial reckoning,” “antiracism and structural racism” and “white privilege and authority.” After reading, they were asked to answer a set of questions related to how the author wrote the nonfiction book they picked from the list.

Some of the original texts included course material from a University of Maine-level English course, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Brian Stevenson, “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo.

Students were encouraged to research the texts before reading and gave a list of resources, like Goodreads, The New York Times and Kirkus Reviews to help make their decision on what they wanted to read.

“In developmentally appropriate ways, our students will engage in learning experiences where contentious topics may be raised,” Hardy said. “In these instances, the educator’s role is to ensure students will examine the varied perspectives, have skills to discuss the topic with others using evidence, learn to listen to opposing views and develop their own opinions.

“A common goal of our educators is to equip the students with the skills and tools to move through that process effectively while facilitating respectful dialogue,” she added.

In the updated course description, recommendations were made to choose texts like science writing, nature writing and memoir, among others. It also noted the type of books College Board would approve — books around “issues that might, from particular social, historical or cultural viewpoints, be considered controversial, including references to ethnicities, nationalities, religions, races, dialects, gender or class, may be addressed in texts that are appropriate for the AP English Language and Composition course.”

James Cook, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine, said social scientists can “study race and not be a critical race theorist.” He himself is not a critical race theorist, but studies politics, gender and social network sociology.

“People working on projects on critical race theory is not equivalent to all scholarship on race,” Cook said.

To break down critical race theory in simple terms, he gave the popular example of a job application — identical in every way regarding work experience, location, education with the only difference being race — statistically, the white person will be hired over the black person.

One outspoken member of the community on the topic is Jon James, who is an alumni of MSAD 11.

James has an on-air radio show, where the original book list was a topic of discussion. He does not have children in the district, but said he became aware of the “dangerous” summer reading list for the AP English elective when a parent reached out to him. James then shared the snapshot of the 33 books on Facebook, but not the given course instructions.

He has not read any of the books on the list, but alleges, from parent opinion, the books discuss “critical race theory.”

“Students would be better served with both sides, not just one side,” James told the Kennebec Journal. “Then, they can pick and choose, but they were not given that option, they were being given one with different books, but same basic line being told.”

The responses read by Hopkins from community members, align with James’ stance of being “completely against” the book choices.

Matthew Marshall, who leads the school board’s curriculum committee, is planning on meeting with Hardy every month until school resumes to “continue reviewing the district developed curriculum and instructional resources” and “start the conversation on equity in the educational space.”

The first meeting will be at 4:30 p.m. July 12, which will be open to the public via Google Meet.

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