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.

100,000 Forbidden Books and Counting

“Books are the maker of culture, ” notes Argentinian artist Marta Minujín, who is promising that her performance art installation, The Parthenon of Books, will be one of the top ten moments of 2017.

Built into The Parthenon of Books will be books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. See the long list or the short list, both of which are lacking in many commonly challenged books here in the U.S., and donate your favorites that aren’t yet on the list.

This Parthenon will be a visible, participatory structure that encompasses the Athenian ideals of the first democracy and symbolizes “resistance to any banning of writings and the persecution of their authors.”  That the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, “reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature” is not lost on the project which will be constructed in Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, where “on May 19, 1933, some 2,000 books were burned by the Nazis during the so-called ‘Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist’ (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit).”

“A symbol of resistence to political oppression,” the finished Parthenon will actually move, as Minujín’s 1983 Argentinian version did, with the help of cranes;  and two-three times a day people will be allowed to enter and to take home a “forbidden book.”

Who Gets to Speak and Be Heard?

The first rule of free speech is that everyone gets to speak as long as they don’t break the law (like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater or slandering someone).

Yet college campuses are at siege right now over this very issue. Take the University of California, Berkeley, which is known as the home of the free speech movement.  But there, on February 1, the planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos was ended because of riots and violence.  This week Ann Coulter’s April 27 appearance was cancelled, then rescheduled for May 2 when Coulter says she’s unavailable, and now Berkeley being sued, and Coulter is promising to show up on the 27th anyhow.

From an article by Adam Steinbaugh of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education):

“As a public university, Berkeley is unquestionably bound to comply with the First Amendment. The university itself doesn’t have to extend an invitation to any speaker in particular, but a public university — an agency of the government — can’t veto who its students invite to speak. Speech is not deprived of protection under the First Amendment simply because is viewed as offensive or hateful…

“But the First Amendment does not permit law enforcement to ban or burden speech on the basis that some people opposed to the speaker might, or are even likely to, react in a violent manner with the intent of stopping the speaker. When it does impose such a burden for that reason, it has established what is known as the “heckler’s veto.” When this is allowed to happen, it provides an incentive for protesters who wish to silence a speaker to act violently, knowing that the police will do the silencing for them. As the Supreme Court held in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), restrictions based on the expected violent opposition to a speaker would work to inhibit the expression of ‘views unpopular with bottle throwers’:

“In a balance between two important interests — free speech on one hand, and the state’s power to maintain the peace on the other — the scale is heavily weighted in favor of the First Amendment. … Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech…”

English Teachers as Contemporary Shamans

I am always behind in my reading, so today, I finally picked up the Winter 2017 edition of The ALAN Review. The issue’s theme is “Story and the Development of Moral Character,” and it begins with the printed words of Jandy Nelson’s 2015 ALAN Workshop Keynote Address.

I need to stop here and say that I hope you’ve heard of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE), NCTE’s first assembly and the sponsor of that two-day book and author extravaganza on the Monday and Tuesday after the NCTE Annual Convention each year.  If you teach adolescents, you’ll want to join this group, and if you’re lucky, one day you’ll be able to join 499 other book and author loving English teachers for the ALAN Workshop, schmooze with YA Authors, and build your muscles carrying that 40-pound box of YA books you’ll receive.

But back to Jandy Nelson who started off her address by explaining “this belief I have that English teachers are our contemporary shamans: the wakers of sleeping souls, the planters of dreams in heads, the imparters of some of life’s most valuable gifts: compassion, empathy, humanity, ambiguity, wonder, joy.” She went on to describe a few of her own deep learning experiences with English teachers.

There was her 14th year of

“Man’s Inhumanity to Man”…books that explored genocide, poverty, oppression, racism, human cruelty and brutality, existential angst, social alienation, loneliness, moral bankruptcy, spiritual impoverishment…

“Audre Lorde said, ‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.”

Words worth contemplating this week before NCTE Advocacy Day, and all the weeks of your years as shamans for students preK-16+.

By the way, please enjoy the columns from this issue (and others) of The Alan Review. To read the full and future issues, join ALAN.

alan

Bookshelf in orbit around earth.

National Library Week and the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016

This is #NationalLibraryWeek, the week we celebrate those “temples of public education and freedom of thought,” as photographer of “America’s Most Beautiful Libraries,” Thomas R. Schiff calls them.

On the first day of this Week, the American Library Association announces the Top Ten Frequently Challenged Books of 2016.

Let’s look at this Top Ten List and the commonalities about the challenged books side-by-side with the idea of libraries as “temples of public education and freedom of thought.” According to the list, all but Eleanor & Park and Little Bill were challenged for sexual explicitness—Eleanor & Park was challenged for offensive language and Little Bill was challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Four of the challenged books on the list have been challenged for their LGBTQ content/themes. Six of the books are national award winners. NCTE has participated in efforts to defend five of the books.

How can a library be a “temple[s] of public education and freedom of thought” if its books, like these, are removed or kept away from young people because someone finds them offensive? How can children open their minds through books and learn, if books are taken off the library shelves?

I don’t think they can. NCTE doesn’t think they can.

If you are experiencing a challenge to a book or other instructional material, please let the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center know.  We are here to help as you see fit.

By the way, today we’re celebrating book mobiles  and nothing could represent the spirit of a library as a “temple[]s of public education and freedom of thought” than  Roberto Murillo Martin Gomez’s Columbian book mobile.

columbianbookmobile

Books That Get Backs Up

convention bookmarkIt’s no mystery that certain books are challenged more often than others. But what’s interesting to contemplate is why. Are they books that represent issues that are too challenging for some? Are they books that have appeared on someone’s “hit list”? Are they books that just get taught more? Truth is all these reasons are possible and probably a few more.

What is certain is that nearly all challenged books are good literature that draws readers in through the gut-gripping humanity of the characters and the issues they face. Take, for instance, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Judy Blume, Walter Dean Myers, or John Green. Or how about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Beloved, anything Chris Crutcher, and Fun Home.

These books that get some adults’ backs up are also books that are extremely meaningful to kids.

In 1986, Judy Blume gathered Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. She wrote in the Introduction:

“…In 1971 I received my first letter from a young reader. She was 13 and she wrote to tell me that she was exactly like the character of Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…Somehow between then and now [1986], the number of kids who write to me has grown to nearly two thousand each month.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the most censored book of 2014 for “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence… depictions of bullying,” yet a 17-year-old reviewer on Common Sense Media says the following:

“…Bullying and racism come together in the story because Arnold gets bullied in the Rez because of his brain damage and his lisp, while at Reardan, he gets bullied because he is the only Indian boy at the school. Where I can relate to this book is because I have been bullied once due to how I look. It was just looks in general, I am still made fun of because of how I look every now and then but I ignore that and try not to make a scene out of the situation. I also relate to how he feels when losing someone special to you can take a toll on your life and make you really depressed, knowing that someone in your family, or a friend of yours is gone…”

A parent reviewer of the same book notes:

“Some educational value does not compensate for a low reading level crass and vulgar book. I read this book because it was on my son’s school required reading list. I felt it was incredibly juvenile for a 10th grade honors English class. The swearing was bothersome but not a deal-killer. Then I got to the masturbation discussion that went on for over a page. Flipping through it I found a variety of sexually related musings. This is like handing my son an R-rated movie with sexual detail and saying it’s okay because the historical aspect is good. Students could learn the cultural and social aspects without reading the vulgarity.”

How do we negotiate these differences of opinion so young readers can read books that prove important to them? Here are a few rules of the road:

• Know your school’s policy – you can usually find this on the district website under school board policies on instruction and curriculum.
• Let parents know how you feel about literacy – see Why Penny Kittle Won’t Censor Books.
• Have a rationale for the text you’re teaching.
• Remember that parents can object to a text for their own student but not for everyone else’s.
• Take time to listen to the parent—often that’s all they want—and to assuage their fears about the power of words over their student—help them see this as a positive.
• Be prepared to offer an alternative if necessary and warranted (e.g. IB and AP texts probably should stand).