By Jennifer Eisenbart
Depending on the point of view, a selection of DVDs donated to Burlington High School by a retiring teacher could be a simple farewell gift – or a sign of dangerous political leanings.
Sharon Kelley, a social studies teacher who retired from BHS at the end of the school year, decided to leave behind a collection of DVDs – films that included Academy Award Best Picture winners “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Gandhi,” as well as Best Picture nominee “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
The Burlington Area School District School Board voted to accept the donation Monday night at the monthly board meeting, but not before Board Member Phil Ketterhagen blasted the donations as not necessarily being proper for use in the social studies classroom.
“There’s only three I’d consider accurate enough to be used in the classroom,” said Ketterhagen, who then outlined considerable objections against some of the films.
He also suggested an amendment that the films be accepted but reviewed by the School Board Curriculum Committee before any classroom use. That amendment was voted down 4-3, with Ketterhagen, Koldeway and Jim Bousman voting in favor of it.
The DVDs, along with the book “First Person Plural” by Cameron West, were accepted for entry into the school library only by a 6-1 vote.
The lone nay vote came from Roger Koldeway, who said after the meeting that “what we put in the library should be reviewed by content, at least by the administration, as they would any other curriculum they use.”
Ketterhagen wanted the DVDs to be reviewed by the Curriculum Committee before being used in the classroom.
“We have an obligation to know what is going on,” he said.
While he had a number of issues with various films – calling “Slumdog Millionaire” a Hollywood dramatization, and using the term “drama” to describe the film “Osama,” which depicts life for women in Afghanistan in the early 2000s – Ketterhagen’s biggest objection came with “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
The 2005 film portrays the conflict between Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and veteran radio/TV journalist Edward R. Murrow during the height of the anti-Communist sentiments McCarthy fueled in the 1950s.
At the meeting, Ketterhagen said the film “does not portray the opposite side at all,” and could influence “the young mind” the wrong way about America.
In an email Tuesday, Ketterhagen said that he saw “no rebuttal to the ideology in the films and there was no opposing films in the list to state a different opinion.”
He said “Good Night, and Good Luck” vilified McCarthy, and didn’t address the historical context of the senator’s behavior.
“Correct info should come from the Venona Papers which were released in 1994 from the Russian archives which shows McCarthy was totally correct in his findings,” said Ketterhagen about a U.S. counter-intelligence program that was conducted from 1943-1980. “Other slants in movie style can create an impression on the student which may or may not be complete or correct.”
“As a Curriculum Committee member, I felt the need to have them critiqued since they were donated for the express purpose of teaching activities.”
Ketterhagen also said at the meeting that he had reviewed teaching materials in the past, and had found a disproportionate amount of communist or socialist authors.
“I found the teaching staff did not know the author’s affiliation and probably took the text as true historically and culturally for the time period under discussion,” he said later in an email.
Kelley, when contacted on Tuesday, explained where the films had come from. The former teacher said she bought them at “rock bottom” prices from a company that was going out of business, and in many cases, did not even use them in teaching.
“They were just movies that I found that were relevant to curriculum,” said Kelley, who added that course curriculums continue to evolve and the films may not even have a place in the classroom right now.
Kelley added that the idea was to put the films into the school, rather than just donate them to someplace like Love Inc., so perhaps they could be of use in teaching.
“It’s a donation,” she explained. “I would think they would be happy people are donating.”
BHS media use
According to BASD Assistant Superintendent and Curriculum Director Connie Zinnen, full films are rarely shown now in the classroom setting. In fact, the district discourages the practice.
Instead, she said, teachers often use clips or excerpts to spur classroom discussion, and “to perhaps emphasize the bias that may exist in the representation leading to thoughtful debate on an issue.”
In order to use the films in the classroom, teachers have to fill out a “Media Request Form,” to use something not owned by the district. Media that has been purchased by the department or the library doesn’t need to have the form, “because the assumption made is that those materials have been previewed and vetted by those working most closely with the curriculum for those courses.”
The form asks teachers to state the intended use and how it relates to the subject matter, and then give it to the building principal for review.
Zinnen added Tuesday that Kelley had filled out the proper forms, and in some cases, used material that had a bias to spur classroom discussion on that particular topic.
However, in further discussion on the topic Monday night, there was even concern about whether the films belonged in the BHS library. Koldeway and Ketterhagen both questioned who would make the decision about who approved what went into the library.
Ketterhagen also pointed out that, under the current system, there is no way for the board to know who is using what, that teachers and building administrators essentially have “carte blanche” in building curriculums.
“I’m not going to allow the teaching of a philosophy, or a ‘left’ thing,” Ketterhagen said. He also held up a number of films he personally brought to the meeting, saying that most of the board would consider them too biased toward the “right” for use in the district.
When asked, Ketterhagen declined to give the names of the films.
Board member Rosanne Hahn asked if, by considering review of these materials, the board would then be looking into all multi-media use in the district.
Ketterhagen told her, “Don’t change the subject.” When Hahn said she wasn’t, Ketterhagen responded with, “Yes, you are.”
Former BASD School Board President David Thompson weighed in on the issue Tuesday night when contacted by the Standard Press.
“That’s the beauty of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech,” Thompson said. “The Constitutional allows different people with different viewpoints to express themselves and to be studied as well.
“This means that Mr. Ketterhagen has the right to raise objections,” Thompson added. “But it also means that our students have the opportunity to hear various other perspectives on history.”
Thompson said he also trusted that students would be inspired enough by those discussions to do further research and form their own opinions.
As for the review of materials, Thompson said that the board’s job was to set policy. In this case, that would mean asking for a review of the material – but allowing staff and administration to conduct the review.
After debating back and forth on the subject, the vote was called on Ketterhagen’s proposed amendment. New board member Todd Terry said simply he would vote against it.
“I think it’s micromanaging at its finest,” Terry said.
Bousman suggested that a review might not be a bad thing, and voted in favor of the amendment to the motion, though the amendment did fail.
Board member Larry Anderson then made the motion to accept the DVDs – and the book – into the library, which passed 5-2.
After that amendment passed, Koldeway specifically asked if the school librarian should look over the materials and consider their appropriateness.
He moved that the district decline the donation all together, but that motion died due to lack of a second.