Book Binds

According to some observers, there is a lingering sense of mistrust and fear that has significantly impacted the education system in this area. Despite the lack of visible scars from past incidents, such as bombings, shootings, and threats, the painful memories of the violent textbook controversy still haunt the educators who were targeted during one of the largest conflicts in the nation’s history. While on the surface it may seem like everything has returned to normal in this district with 30,000 students, there are still lingering effects from the events of 1974.

These aftershocks continue to affect the community, surfacing during debates on topics like sex education and drug prevention programs. Teachers are constantly reminded of the past when they approach potentially controversial passages in literature. Textbook committees also face challenges when trying to select instructional materials that are both high-quality and sensitive to the religious and parental preferences in the county.

Even in smaller ways, the troubled history of the Kanawha County public schools remains ever-present. Some observers believe that there is an underlying sense of mistrust and fear that has left a lasting impact on the education system. Teachers who experienced the turmoil of the past are cautious about the materials they use and fear backlash for teaching certain topics.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the "Storm in the Mountains," as described in a book about the conflict, caution still permeates the school board chambers, central office, and classrooms. This caution is believed by some to hinder innovation and push many teachers towards the path of least resistance.

For those who have been part of the education system for many years, the current debate is reminiscent of the dark days of the past.

In the autumn of the school board elections, Moore was convinced to run by community leaders who believed that she would closely monitor the curriculum and help parents have a stronger voice in district decisions. Moore, described as attractive and well-spoken, had limited formal education beyond high school, but possessed the conservative perspective that rural residents desired.

"People were frustrated with the intellectual snobbery of the board and the attitude that the public was too ignorant or too religiously motivated to have a say," says Karl Priest, a middle school science teacher who supported Moore.

Although the majority of the 210,000 residents of Kanawha County were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, there were significant social and cultural divisions reflecting differences in wealth, education, and worldview. The city of Charleston attracted white-collar residents and, by the 1970s, more liberal newcomers. The remote areas of the county, where the valley narrows and isolated communities exist, were home to Appalachian communities that were poor and less educated, relying on coal mines and factories, and holding strong religious beliefs.

These rural residents rallied behind Moore to gain political power from the wealthier and more sophisticated metropolitan area. In a surprising upset, Moore won the election and quickly became one of the most vocal and dedicated members of the school board. However, it wasn’t until three years later that she began to emerge as a legendary figure in Kanawha County history.

That’s when she gained media attention from television networks, national magazines, and prestigious publications like The New York Times. Sympathetic songwriters began composing folk songs about her, and ministers joined her cause. A typical verse from Mary Rose’s "Ballad of Kanawha County" captures the sentiment:

"Sweet Alice, Little Avis, Graley, Quigley, Horan

What are you doing in those mountains stirring up a storm?

Don’t you know you’re inspiring people all across the U.S.A.,

Teaching them right from wrong and guiding them towards God-fearing ways?"

In April 1974, Moore began examining approximately 325 English/language arts books that the district had approved for adoption. She was shocked by what she perceived as anti-Christian and anti-American themes, as well as the prevalence of inappropriate language, improper English usage, and morally relativistic messages in the stories.

After marking offensive passages, Moore took armfuls of books to public libraries, churches, and community gatherings, asking people for their opinions. She even read one of the objectionable stories on a local television station, albeit with a warning that the content might not be suitable for children.

The new textbooks aimed to expose children in the isolated Appalachian region to other cultures and new ideas, aligning with the state’s policy on diversity in instructional materials. Following a national trend inspired by the civil rights movement, the new generation of textbooks included stories and poems by and about African-Americans and other minorities, as well as fables that emphasized tolerance and acceptance of diverse traditions and cultures. They also incorporated progressive teaching techniques, such as role-playing and thought-provoking follow-up questions.

When objections were raised, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society joined the movement, supporters of the new books attributed the opposition to racism and resistance to progress. Moore, however, argued that the promoted diversity in the books was itself racist, portraying Blacks as inner-city delinquents. She also objected to certain exercises at the end of each unit. One such exercise asked children to compare the tale of Androcles and the lion to the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den, which she believed implied that the latter was fiction.

The community reacted swiftly and harshly. Hundreds of residents from the rural outskirts of the county crowded into a board meeting to oppose the books. By the time school was scheduled to start in September that year, thousands of people had expressed their anger or fear by keeping over three-fourths of the district’s students, totaling more than 45,000, from attending school.

Researchers and writers who have extensively studied the conflict claim that there was a wider backlash, as rural communities in West Virginia and other places took inspiration from Kanawha and organized their own protests. These events also caught the attention of textbook publishers, who became more careful about the content they included in their books. In fact, one of the reading series that received condemnation in West Virginia, Houghton Mifflin’s Interaction, quickly went out of print. The superintendent of Kanawha County at the time, Jorea Marple, states that a climate of mistrust was created, which led to her resignation and has since resulted in the turnover of several superintendents, administrators, and teachers over the past 25 years. Some teachers claim that this climate has also created a divide between the schools and the communities they serve. They believe that discretion is still an essential skill, as they feel constantly monitored and distrusted by certain members of the community.

Linda Hoffman, a 2nd grade teacher at Marmet Elementary, recalls a time when district officials ordered the removal of two systems of the human body from the curriculum. She was no longer allowed to teach about the excretory and reproductive systems due to parental objections. This incident exemplifies how the parental voice has become stronger than the teacher’s voice in the education system. Other teachers, like Hoffman, carefully consider what they teach, fearing potential backlash. Some even request that their comments remain off the record or be struck from the record out of concern for misinterpretation.

However, some veteran educators argue that the memories of the past events have faded and have little influence on them today. They do not feel the pressure to censor or carefully examine the content they use in their teaching. Patricia Clendenen, an English teacher at Elkview Middle School, shares that despite receiving threats, she continues to teach controversial materials such as "The Diary of Anne Frank." While some educators deny feeling intimidated, Perry Bryant, the local representative for the West Virginia Education Association, asserts that teachers have become increasingly cautious in the classroom, fearing any offense to students and parents.

John Clendenen, the principal of Capital High School and a 35-year veteran of the education system, acknowledges that remnants of the past controversy still exist. However, he believes that the link to the events of 1974 is not always clear-cut, as many things happening today have been influenced by the textbook controversy. Textbook-screening committees, for example, now involve parents and community groups to ensure book adoption meets their standards. Additionally, local improvement councils, which consist of parents and teachers and discuss school issues, have become a symbol of the rights parents gained from the textbook battle.

The composition and behavior of the Kanawha County school board has also changed. Previously, board members served quietly and rarely questioned recommendations from district personnel. However, today board members are more prominent in the political system and are often identified with their own causes or special-interest groups.

During her final year in charge, Marple had to attend over 90 board meetings, most of them dedicated to discussing insignificant details, according to her. A few other current and former officials, including Marple, have filed a complaint against the county, accusing the board of harassment. These confrontational interactions are not limited to private board discussions. Board meetings have been known to be filled with shouting matches, disorderly speakers, spectators in costumes, and other distractions that disrupt the proceedings. Board members publicly reprimand administrators for what they perceive as poor judgment or subpar work. Critics argue that the micromanagers on the board are more focused on trivial matters such as the amount of cheese served on pizza in school cafeterias, rather than the quality of the academic program. They also claim that influential board members fail to realize the importance of recruiting excellent teachers, especially with more than half of the current teaching staff due to retire in the next five years. Additionally, the critics complain that the board members don’t understand the significance of professional development for teachers, and are hesitant to invest in innovative initiatives like the International Baccalaureate program and school-to-work efforts. Longtime educators suggest that education in the Kanawha Valley, which used to be recognized for its progressive approach and received numerous national accolades, has been stagnant for the past 25 years and has never fully recovered. However, this assessment is not shared by everyone. Marple, despite not being a fan of the board, believes that the progress made in the past five years is evidence that the system is beginning to regain its former glory.

In the 1997-98 school year, there was significant improvement in test scores across most grade levels, including students’ SAT scores. Additionally, hundreds of high school students started earning college credit through dual-enrollment courses, every school gained access to the internet, music and art programs were expanded, and several staff members received recognition at the national or state level. The current school year saw the opening of a state-of-the-art high school in the county’s eastern end, equipped with a bank, health clinic, and public library that provide students with school-to-work experience. Ron Duerring, who became the superintendent in the 1998-99 school year, describes Kanawha as a progressive school system, but one that faces challenges. The system and various communities are engaged in a debate over consolidation due to a declining student population. Student achievement is lacking in several areas, and budget cuts are being implemented at a time when the system aims to improve counseling and health services. However, Duerring notes that the district is open to innovation. They have initiated programs on multiculturalism and character education, which would have been deemed sensitive in the past. The curriculum is being redesigned to meet state instructional goals, high school requirements are being standardized, and academic standards are being raised. With an influx of new teachers who are unfamiliar with the district’s turbulent history, the fears and concerns are expected to diminish. Overall, it appears that the system is progressing. Therefore, when there were recent murmurs regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism, many educators and residents were alarmed, perceiving it as another attempt by a vocal minority with extreme beliefs to impose their views on the schools. Kanawha residents continue to question the content being taught and advocate for their values to be reflected in the curriculum.

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  • baileywilliams

    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!