All posts by Millie Davis

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About Millie Davis

Millie Davis is Senior Developer for Affiliates, and Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In addition she works on NCTE’s communications efforts, particularly on social media. Millie's passion is working with literacy teachers across the country and beyond whose passion for their students and their students' learning is their reason for going to work each day.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

The line between intellectual freedom and censorship is sometimes a fine one. Especially in schools.

Certainly, we are all free to hold our beliefs. But, it’s quite possible that what we believe cannot be part of the school curriculum.

 

Take two recent state bills concerning the teaching of science in the schools: one in South Dakota and one in Oklahoma.  NCTE signed on letters standing against passage of both of these bills.

In South Dakota, Senate Bill 55, entitled “An Act to Protect the Teaching of Certain Scientific Information,”  targeted the teaching of evolution and climate change. The description of the bill reads innocuously enough: “No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.” However, its intent is that counter-arguments to climate change theory and evolution could be presented on equal footing with the teachings on those topics outlined in the state’s science standards.  The House Education Committee defeated this bill.

In Oklahoma, SB. 393,  titled the “Oklahoma Science Education Act,” calls for “providing for the creation of a school environment that encourages the exploration of scientific theories; allowing teachers to help students analyze certain scientific strengths and weaknesses; prohibiting the promotion of religious or non-religious beliefs; providing for certain notification…” This bill has not yet moved.

In both cases, the bills claim to protect academic freedom and each does represent the presentation of different points of view. But, in schools we rely on more than points of view in our teaching. As a National Coalition Against Censorship article notes:

“Academic freedom is a vital pillar of both our education system and our democracy. However it does not entitle teachers to reject the professional standards governing education. Students and teachers must have freedom of inquiry and the freedom to scrutinize scientific, historical, and literary writings. But this freedom does not permit teachers to say whatever they would like in the classroom or promote what educators and experts consider to be misleading, incomplete or false information. Rather than protecting free inquiry, the bill would simply allow teachers to deviate from approved curricula, at the expense of high quality education.”

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The Latest in NCTE Student Affiliates

asulogoIn February the NCTE Executive Committee approved our newest student affiliate, the National Council of English Teachers Conference on English Education—Graduate Student Affiliate (CEE-GSA) at Arizona State University. This is a unique group, as the long moniker might indicate. It’s the only current graduate student assembly and it has at least one foot in NCTE’s Conference on English Education.  Its mission is

“to promote graduate student interdisciplinary learning by providing professional development opportunities for graduate students interested in the English Education Department; in addition, to support for graduate student needs that promote an interdisciplinary learning environment.”

Sometimes a new arrival is the best time to take stock of the numbers. And, so, I began to count.

Did you know there are 36 NCTE Student Affiliates—groups of 10 or more NCTE student members plus a faculty sponsor?  You’ll find them listed by state with the other NCTE affiliates. If you were to read through the list you might note that Pennsylvania is replete with student affiliates—seven total—while Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan each have three; Indiana, Missouri, and South Carolina two; and the rest of the states that have them, one each.

Each of these groups has its own reason and way of being and is highly dependent on two things: 1) the continuity of the faculty sponsor and 2) the ability of fast changing leadership to plot a course for the year and then turn over the reins to the next leaders.

uofiastudentaffInterested in forming an NCTE Student Affiliate? You might want to check out this Affiliate Conversation on Forming an NCTE Student Affiliate featuring the student affiliate at the University of Iowa which is now 25 years old. (This is a link to a webinar recording which will take a few minutes to load. If you’re having trouble, take a look at their troubleshooting website.)

 

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Bonnie Sunstein describes a number of activities the group does, but she adds,

 

 

“We do what we can do and we try to remember our history…[The students] get to do professional things that English teachers will be doing the rest of their lives…An organization like NCTE gives you the family, the cohort.”

“Imagine” – Freedom to Read Week

In the U.S., we celebrate Banned Books Week in late September/early October—this year on September 24-30, 2017. But the Book and Periodical Council of Canada celebrates Freedom to Read Week during this time of the year. We’re in the midst of this celebration now—the week began on February 26 and runs through March 4, 2017.

The Book and Periodical Council’s statement on Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Read speaks to many NCTE’s positions intellectual freedom:

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right…and freedom to read is part of that precious heritage…The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others… Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.”

“Books are the plane, the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are HOME.”
—Anna Quindlen

 

 

A Year’s Worth of Challenges to Intellectual Freedom

milliesummer2014twitterThis post was written by Millie Davis, Director, NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

During the past year, from January 2016 to January 2017, NCTE continued its advocacy for the student’s right to read, write, and learn. We worked on 40 different challenges to trade and text books, classroom and bookstore displays, publishers, and instructional materials. For each, NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read has anchored our responses, with position statements on Red-Flagging, Academic Freedom, and Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs buttressing those responses.

At times we have worked alone but more often we’ve partnered with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the 6-8 other free-speech organizations that join us on letters to school boards and superintendents, sometimes to a college president or a legislator, and even once to a governor. And, in the case of Virginia’s “Beloved” Bill, which we’ve been fighting since 2013, we have also worked closely with the Virginia affiliate (VATE), Virginia’s Social Studies and Science Teachers, and the Virginia ACLU.

In addition, NCAC and NCTE have collaborated on two big projects: 1) a survey of a very large sample of NCTE members and friends about instructional materials, how they select them, and what they choose not to select; and 2) a survey of often-challenged young adult authors about comments they have received in support of their books from their readers. Learn about these in articles about our initial findings: “Comparing Librarians’ and Teachers’ Self-Censoring Patterns” and “Kids Explain How Banned and Challenged Books Helped Them and Even Saved Their Lives,” respectively.

By far, the challenge that has demanded the most time has been the “Beloved” bill in Virginia. This bill/regulation arose in 2013 when a parent, dissatisfied with her district’s ruling to keep Beloved in the 12th Grade AP class, petitioned the state school board. She claimed the book upset her son, and that therefore, any text featuring “sexually explicit content” should be labeled as such on the syllabi of courses that are sent home to parents at the beginning of the year. In 2014, NCTE wrote a letter opposing the regulation as red-flagging and posted it on the state school board’s online public forum.

belovedAn election happened, a new school board was appointed, and the issue lay dormant for two years. Then last spring HB516, a bill about parental notification of “sexually explicit content” and required alternative “nonexplict” assignments, flew through the Virginia House and Senate. NCTE and the Virginia affiliate conducted a letter-writing campaign to the Govenor asking him to veto the bill, which fortunately, he did. But this fall the bill was resurrected in the form of amendments first to the state’s accreditation standards and then to state school board regulations, with NCTE and VATE and members of both writing letters to the state school board opposing the amendments. The Virginia Board of Education agreed with our stance and rejected the amendments this January. NCTE members Leila Christenbury, Chuck Miller, and Sarah Crain gave brilliant and poignant testimony to the board. But at the same time the state school board rejected the amendments, a new bill, HB2191, was being introduced into the Virginia House, which it passed. And it has passed out of the Senate, 21-18. The Governor has already said he’ll veto the bill, and our next advocacy push will be to make sure there are not enough votes in the Virginia legislature to override his veto.

mpaaratingscaleThis long story of a long-running challenge represents a difference in understanding between some parents/community members and educators about how we best teach critical literacy, about the instructional materials we use. Many parents and community members think ratings, like the MPAA ratings, which by the Motion Picture Association’s own admission are not at all ratings of educational value, are what should be used when texts are selected. These same individuals think that an event that happens on page 32 of a text should define that text and nix the whole text from the curriculum. These same individuals have their own ideas about what education, literacy, and reading should mean to their students and they believe that their own ideas should apply to everyone else’s students. This, of course, is illegal—parents/guardians can decide for their own children but not for everyone else’s. And, last, most of these individuals underestimate their students’ ability to handle and learn from complex literature. This is an issue that will continue to arise in the future.

Another issue that has drawn challenges over this past year is what I would describe as abook-cover-huck-finn “sensitivity issue”—when a challenger finds a text to be insensitive to beliefs, race, culture, or sensibilities. This issue has resulted both in challenges against texts like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird recently in Virginia and in publishers’ deciding to pull books they’d already published or planned to publish or not promote them, books such as A Birthday Cake for George Washingon, We Was Fierce, Bad Little Children’s Books (adult series) and a proposed book by Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s likely that sensitivity, the student’s right to read, and free speech will continue to be at loggerheads in the future.

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The third issue which has been prevalent this year involves free speech and trigger warnings on college campuses. Much of this has played out in angry battles between students and faculty, in debates about whether students have free press rights or not, in the cancelling of controversial campus speakers, and in the establishment of safe spaces/rooms on campus, speech codes, and statements from the colleges about how they will promote free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is the free speech organization that spends all of its time on free speech issues on campus, as does Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP.

Add these three prevalent issues to ongoing challenges against sexual, racial, profane, or controversial content in literature and on campus, and we are likely to see more battles about what students read and learn in school, pre-K-16+, going forward.

Freedom for Student Press

Discussion of press rights has been much in the news of late. Journalists, even to some extent student journalists, are protected by the First Amendment of the United States:

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Good journalists, of course, investigate because they want to find the underlying cause of an issue. For student journalists, particularly, this has sometimes been a problem.

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), whose mission is

“to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience…”

explains student journalists’ rights in this video:

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC)  advocates for student journalists

Students want to be heard on the social and political issues, including issues of local school policy, directly affecting their lives….Students learn journalism best under a light touch of guidance from a well-trained adviser, not the heavy hand of government “spin control.” Every K-12 student should have the benefit of a sensible free-expression policy modeled on the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, protecting the right to engage in lawful, non-disruptive speech.

NCTE supports press freedom for student journalists as well through the:

NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write,
Resolution on Students’ Right of Expression, and, if you ratify it,
• A new NCTE Resolution on Legislation to Protect the Rights of Student Journalists