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.

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).

Checking the Facts

 

princintellfreed

Knowing what’s true and what isn’t, what’s opinion and what’s fact are important aspects of intellectual freedom. Fake news is not true and we and our students need to know how to #FactCheckit.

Sunday, April 2, is the first International Fact-Checking Day, a day to point out and celebrate that FACTS MATTER. Dozens of fact-checkers from around the globe have gotten together with the Poynter Institute (and NCTE) to develop a lesson plan for students grades 6 and up , along with fun activities like a Trivia Quiz  and a Hoax-Off. 

One example of the importance of the need to check the facts is the reaction of some to the book Jacob’s New Dress, which was removed from a first grade curriculum in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

jacobsnewdress

“The book, which is about a boy who gets teased by classmates after electing to dress “like a girl” at school one day, sounds like it would’ve been a great addition to an anti-bullying program for 7-year-old kids. Unfortunately, angry teachers and conservative groups have ensured that message won’t be disseminated to young students.”

Teachers, parents, lawmakers and others complained and the authors, Sarah and Ian Hoffman, “have been forced to clarify that reading a book can’t ‘turn someone gay.’” [fact-checking italics mine]

On Facebook NCTE member Jessica Lifshitz stated these wishes and facts:

“I wish we could have heard from the children reading this book. Every time I have read it with students, the students walk away with an increased understanding of the human beings they share this world with. They are not scarred. They are not harmed. They grow. They learn. They develop empathy. Asking at what age students should encounter books about trans and non binary youth is a dangerous question to ask. It is insulting. If you are a transgender or non binary youth or human should young children not be introduced to you either? These books. They give kids a chance to better understand people in this world, often times before they’ve met a transgender or non binary person. It gives them a chance to gain the necessary empathy to then treat others with kindness and respect.”

Living in an Online, Immediate, Political, and Very Visual World

slamlogoHere we are in 2017 with smart phones, computers, comic books, and so much more. A great deal of our world, and our students’, is online, immediate, political, and multimodal. How can we English educators teach students to live The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies, to:

• Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
• Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
• Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

Enter the Studies in Literacies and Multimedia Assembly (SLAM) of NCTE  .

Like me, you may ask, “What is multimedia, anyhow?” SLAM cofounder, Antero Garcia responds in his blog,

“[M]ultimedia is not limited to simply things that can be downloaded, clicked on, animated. From exploring powerful transmedia narratives in comic books to supporting youth music production to designing and playing games that don’t require an electronic console (such as sports games, tabletop board games, card games, social games, and alternate reality games), the term “multimedia” means so much more than just the digital stuff that is filtered to us via screens.

“While we may often be hyper-aware of the digital demands in our classrooms, I believe that multimedia tools should be utilized in ways that foster powerful relationships between students, teachers, and the larger school community. As such, what relationships do you foster vis-à-vis the multimedia used in your classroom?”

Participants in the SLAM-hosted #nctechat “Beyond the Screen: Multimedia in the Classroom” add more.  slamnctechat

 

If you and your students are ready to take action in your communities, check out SLAM School,  a series of short videos for educators and organizers, providing

“guidance and instruction for using specific digital tools and curricular ideas to support civic engagement, protest, and discussion of the crucial issues that are shaping classroom and broader culture.”

Take a look and listen to the recent class on learning to use Facebook Live and Periscope:

and then proceed to the SLAM Assembly YouTube Channel for more.

And, there are SLAM Hangouts , featuring discussions on a variety of multimedia topics. I found Cheryl Ball’s discussion of Kairos, for which she’s the editor, and multimodal composition fascinating.

Speak Up survey after Speak Up survey demonstrates the disconnect students have between in-school and out-of-school literacies. More often than not this disconnect is not only technological but relational. We and they live in an online, immediate, political, and very visual world, and as humans we need to be in relationship. SLAM and its members are eager to share and learn together with us how to help our students utilize and examine in school the multimodal literacies they use after school.

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.”