British Columbia

Dr. Seuss quote too political for B.C. school

A quote from a Dr. Seuss book about a turtle trying to assert his rights is too political for students who shouldn't be caught in the middle of the current teachers' dispute in B.C., says a school administrator in Prince Rupert.

Official says teacher would use Yertle the Tertle quote in contract dispute context

A quote from a Dr. Seuss book about a turtle trying to assert his rights is too political for students who shouldn't be caught in the middle of the current teachers' dispute, says a school administrator in Prince Rupert, B.C.

Dave Stigant, acting director of instruction for the local school district, said Wednesday he vetoed a quote from Yertle the Turtle when a teacher asked him to look at about 20 quotes to determine if they would be appropriate to expose students to during the ongoing labour dispute.

The quote was: "I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here on the bottom, we too should have rights."

Stigant said he doesn't care if the quote or the whole book is used in a classroom, but it's not OK for teachers to wear political slogans on buttons or T-shirts or display them in their cars on school property.

He said the teacher who asked about the quote wanted to meet with him after she was directed to stop wearing buttons bearing political slogans or having any related placards at school.

"This is simply an attempt to make the district look absurd," Stigant said, calling the Yertle the Turtle issue a red herring.

Stigant said he based his decision on an arbitration award last November, when teachers' rights to freedom of expression were trumped by students' rights to be insulated from political messages.

"What I said was `If you put that quote beside a placard that is objecting to a loss of bargaining rights or some other right it becomes part of that political message.' I never did direct that teacher not to use that quote in her classroom," he said.

"It has nothing to do with Yertle the Turtle. It has to do with the [B.C. Teachers Federation] protesting Bill 22 and undertaking a year of resistance."

Bill 22, which came into effect in March, ended a protracted strike as the government appointed a mediator to work on a new contract with the teachers' union after its members staged a three-day strike following limited job action since last September.

Decision ridiculed

Joanna Larson, president of the Prince Rupert local of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said the district's stance is ridiculous and oppressive.

"It's not even just limiting the teachers' right to freedom of expression," she said. "It limits students' access to the world around them and what's going on in current events. And I think that's the purpose of public school, to educate and use what's happening around them as teachable moments."

But Stigant said if teachers want to talk to students about labour disputes in general as part of a curriculum, that's one thing. To expose their captive audience to their own job issues through discussions, posters or buttons is going too far.

"I would not think it was appropriate for my child to go to an art class and be engaged in instruction and conversation about political rights and disputes and that kind of thing. That's not the teachers' job."

He said messages such as "Negotiate, Don't Legislate," are also too political when they're sprawled on T-shirts worn by teachers, as are messages about 10 years of cuts to school budgets.

Judith Saltman, a University of British Columbia professor who is chairwoman of the of Master of Arts in the children's literature program, said children wouldn't interpret the Yertle the Turtle quote — or anything similar about equality — as applying to any specific situation.

"They will see it as something broader, what they see in the playground or at home, which is the difference between what people at the bottom and the top are saying and need," Saltman said, although she refrained from commenting about the teachers' dispute.

She said political messages about rights, which are prevalent in Dr. Seuss books, develop critical thinking skills and children who are exposed to them are better able to discuss social issues.

Last November, an arbitrator denied a grievance by the Cranbrook and Fernie Teachers' Association, saying political messages on teachers' clothing, in classrooms or on school property are political and students should be insulated from them.

Mark Thompson said while the messages in question were worded to influence parents, they were located where students would see them.