Category Archives: Intellectual Freedom

A Book Ban Like No Other

A few weeks ago a newspaper editor from the Panhandle of Florida contacted the Intellectual Freedom Center with a challenge. Following the September school board meeting, the superintendent of the Dixie District Schools issued an Administrative Directive to all the district school directors and principals. The directive stated,

“As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community. However, I do realize that AP and Dual Enrollment classes may have set reading requirements that requirements that contain questionable materials that the local district does not have control over. These will be the only materials allowed to be used in our district, provided they do not substantially violate community standards.”

I’ve never seen such a comprehensive book banning!

As I understand it, a parental complaint about Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying may have been what instigated such a ridiculous directive, one  that flies in the face of three existing district policies on curriculum development, selection of texts, and reconsideration of texts.

NCTE wrote the superintendent and school board a letter standing up for The Students’ Right to Read, pointing out flaws in the directive, and noting that the action, which didn’t follow three school board policies, thereby undermined all the school board’s policies that could, it seems, be ignored at the will of the superintendent and school board. Many other letters were sent, by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCTE signed on this one), the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, and the Florida Library Association. At the October 10 School Board Meeting, students spoke against the ban and the high school English department chair and teacher’s union president, Lindsey Whittington, made a strong plea for the Board to rescind the directive.

Despite all this, one member of the board replied, “We’ll take this stuff into consideration.”

While they’re considering, the Facebook page of the Dixie County Advocate is aflame with comments from members of the community whose views the directive does not represent. Golly, what an authentic purpose for writing!

Here are a few comment from the page:

“Banning books only makes kids want to read them even more. So I guess we should thank these jerks for encouraging our young people to read instead of being upset about them working so hard to dumb down our children. My grandchildren will be able to read whatever they want because I will buy them those forbidden books.”—Penny Williams

“As a high school student it angered me when they read the email to us. What HIGH SCHOOL student doesn’t know about ‘profanity, curiosity or inappropriate subject matter’? Please name one. I would understand if his was elementary students but high school come on. We are gonna learn about it one way or another!”

“This is insanity! My child loves to read and I often buy her books that are not available at school or the local library. I remember having to get her an ‘adult’ library card because she wanted to read books with more substance when she little. This is a slap in the face to parents who want their children to be literate and educated rather than locked in a box!”—Melanie Amrell

“Banning or restricting access to ‘challenged’ or ‘explicit’ material is such a deviation from the philosophy of American education and even of the Dixie County School Board, see link. The students of Dixie District Schools deserve equal access to instructional material approved by federal and state guidelines and not be subjected to the censorship of a few local officials hoping to reinforce their personal/moral agenda. If a directive like this is allowed then the district has no hope of producing truly competitive, well rounded individuals.”—Dylan

Well, you get the idea.

There has been no resolution as of this writing.

Permission to Find Your Own Writing Process

I’ve been thinking about writing more than usual because, as you’ve no doubt heard, the National Day on Writing is October 20. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the writing process, what an individual thinks it is and how, as teachers, we need to respect and encourage students’ individual processes. In fact, in my courses, my practice after every writing assignment was to focus a class session on each student describing the process that student used for the assignment and how that process worked for them—and how it didn’t. I’m not surprised that one of the beliefs in NCTE’s Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing  is “Writing is a process.”

Acquainting students with their own writing processes, with others’ processes, and with different processes that may work better in certain instances is one of the best things we can do when teaching writing. And, students and others who may have a look at student writing in-process, need to recognize that the process is individualistic and can be messy—that what is written first may or may not stay first or stay at all, that clean-up happens way later. Writers and particularly their early readers need to know that, as the first of the NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write states, “The expression of ideas without fear of censorship is a fundamental right.”

I have consulted a few famous people about writing process and found, of course, that it’s highly individualistic and that writers look at writing, their own and others’, differently. I found a few of these in a wonderful project, “By Heart” in The Atlantic. I’d like to share what they have to say.

Celeste Ng notes, “When I was teaching, many of my students were beginning writers who were nervous about starting a story. To get them going, we’d play a kind of word-association game. I’d ask them to list two people, a location, two objects, an adjective, and an abstraction. I’d write everything on the board, then give them five minutes to try to work everything into the beginning of a story.”

Angela Flourney  talks about a technique Zora Neale Huston used, “But Mules and Men is a book that’s unapologetically messy. . .To me, that’s one of the most appealing things about Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction: She’s never been big on cleaning up black lives to make them seem a little more palatable to a population that’s maybe just discovering them. She’s just not interested in that. Even today, in 2015, I know a lot of writers probably struggle with wanting to represent us in a “good light.” The fact that she didn’t care, 80 years ago, is just amazing.”

Laurie Halse Anderson  describes her writing process as a “terrifying, a hot mess with a lot of tears involved …taking long walks with index cards in my hands…”

 

Ben McKenzie who describes his writing process for the TV show Gotham gives us a last word, “It’s like being a racecar driver, but you’re also a mechanic,” McKenzie says, in a very writerly moment.
“You can get into the engine and fix it, if you need to.”

The Right to Write Ourselves

Just as our students must have the right to read, broadly and with choice, they also must have the right to write. Our job is to help our students “find their words,” to guide them

“[t]hrough the often messy process of writing. . .[as they] develop strategies to help them come to understand lessons within the curriculum as well as how their language and ideas can be used to communicate, influence, reflect, explain, analyze, and create.”
NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write

The magic of writing, as the Voices from the Middle Facebook Live Event with Penny Kittle so aptly demonstrates, is connection to self. We can’t deny students this.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Speakerly Texts: Models for Young Writers” points out the importance of having students analyze the language used by Andrea Pinkney in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride, for example, to learn that

“All good writers think very carefully about the choices they make . . . in order to express their ideas in ways that are most powerful and true.”

In her 1995 CCC article “Freedom, Form, Function: Varieties of Academic Discourse,” Lillian Bridwell-Bowles claims academic writing still needs the upset and complement of alternate writing:

“writing that is not always about later, about jobs and careers, but writing that is about themselves as people, as individuals and citizens of various communities.”

The Students’ Right To Read Redux

Following is a collection of the best of the blogs on The Students’ Right to Read, what it is, how it works, and how to protect it.

“How many times can you fall in love? By reading, you can fall in love every time you begin a new book or reread a treasured one.”

Donalyn Miller says this in The Council Chronicle article, “A Conversation with the Book Whisperer,” where she tells how she helps her students fall in love with books, about building a culture of reading and a community of readers in her classroom.  Her ideas embody the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center’s mission. The Center advocates for giving students access to books and choice so they can grow into the best citizens that our democracy needs. And, we trust educators to know what is best for their kids.

Laurie Halse Anderson, in her acceptance speech for the 2015 NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award spells this out:

“The two greatest promises that America made to herself and to her children were that all people are created equal and that Americans are granted the rights to think, to speak, and to write what we want. We are accorded intellectual freedoms that are astounding and rare when viewed through the long lens of history…Without our intellectual freedoms, we will never be able to fulfill the glorious dream of equality, or the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our people.”

This echoes what what Thomas Jefferson said several centuries ago,

“The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…”

Nancie Atwell spells out the importance of the students’ right to choose what they read and write and proves the worth of student choice by repeating an old John Goodlad survey with the current students at her K-8 school–a school where these students make their own choices for reading and writing. The results of this survey, much different than Goodlad’s results, demonstrate the positive results of student choice in their own learning:

“When asked, ‘What’s the one best thing about this school?’ 35 percent named choices they were empowered to make, starting with books to read, ideas to write about, and topics to research in history, math, and science.”

One student added that “a school environment in which she was invited ‘to love writing and to practice, regularly and passionately’ taught her how to write, period.”

Choosing for oneself makes that important difference.

The Bowtie Boys and their teacher Jason Augustowski second these results.

Jeff Kaplan’s blog The Censors Are Coming—What You Need to Know walks you through everything you need to know from the moment you decide to select a text.

NCTE Policies such as The Students’ Right to Read  and Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs form the basis for good text selection and protection.  Teachers’ expertise in choosing texts is spelled out in Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines and in a blog where Louann Reid explains how she handles this, “I’m not going to say, ‘this book is about rape, child abuse, and so-and-so,’ because that doesn’t do justice to the literature.”

In this blog on challenged books, we can look at the Top Ten List of Challenged Books in 2016 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 or a school be a “temple 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 or out of classrooms?

I don’t think they can. NCTE doesn’t think they can. That’s why the students’ right to read is so very important.

More Than the Right to Read

This post is written by NCTE historian Jonna Perrillo.  It also appeared in Education Week’s Commentary Section on September 25.

September 25 marks the start of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of academic freedom and students’ right to read. It is an important occasion to observe, as the Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” might remind us. But this year especially it should serve as an invitation to reflect on not just what young Americans read but also the ways in which they are encouraged to think and talk about books.

Students’ right to read was never in greater peril than during the 1950s. In an audacious display, parents in Oklahoma and Alabama took to burning “subversive” textbooks. Special interest groups across the nation effectively pressured schools and libraries to remove trade and textbooks that might poison students’ minds.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) waged its own battle in response. In 1953 it urged that during “a time of tension and fear” it was vital that teachers not become prey to “the rise of un-American tactics in public discussion and the violence of selfish interests.” Its primer for teachers on how to resist public pressure to ban books, Censorship and Controversy, set a clear, comprehensive argument for the importance of academic freedom.

In a Cold War culture that often prized conformity and opacity, teachers were in the frontlines of keeping American schools truly free.

NCTE’s attack on book banning was important but also obscured the larger problem at hand: teachers’ avoidance of anything controversial or “political” in the first place. Public education was supposed to offer students “a steadily developing understanding of life in their time, a reasonable and maturing response to this life, and full participation in it,” but too often, the organization found, teachers evaded anything potentially contentious. Parents might have called for books to be banned, but it is unclear that many teachers were assigning them anyway.

This was certainly the case with The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most contested books of the 1950s and 1960s. When NCTE endorsed it for the high school classroom in 1962, teachers roundly rejected the suggestion. “I would not consider teaching it regardless of the community’s feeling,” explained one Minnesota teacher, echoing others. “My students’ reaction would be one of embarrassment and bafflement.”

This problem is not unique to the Cold War era or to English teachers. Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson’s recent book, The Case for Contention, shows that teachers’ willingness to address controversial subjects has waxed and waned over time, but it has been consistently low since the 1980s. They argue that this is often the case because teachers are unsure how to help students work their way through questions that lack consensus or what the ends of democratic debate should be.

The problem, then, is not just a matter of the topics or texts we teach but with how we teach them. Even as reading lists and textbooks have become more inclusive, many classroom conversations remain stuck in the past.

Take, for example, the ever popular yet frequently contested To Kill a Mockingbird. How many teachers encourage students to debate the adequacy of Atticus’s moralism? How can students “walk in another person’s shoes” with schools more racially and economically segregated now than they have been in sixty years? How have the courts and criminal justice system changed and not changed in the eighty years since the novel was set? The book begs these questions precisely because it continues to be taught as a lesson in overcoming prejudice.

Instead, classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages that compel little questioning or introspection. Students can learn to lionize Atticus without considering how privilege works in the novel and in the world. They accept his explanation that the KKK never took hold in Maycomb, even as other parts of the novel indicate that the town was ripe for organized white supremacy movements.

In missing out on more nuanced and complex conversations, students fail to learn that it is possible to question a book and still value it. And they lose an opportunity to develop a more multifaceted understanding of civic life and their role in it.

Our current political period shares several qualities with the early Cold War days, including a testing of democratic institutions, an embittered public discourse, and a regression in civil rights. Teachers know better than anyone how aware youth are of these developments and how potentially powerless they can feel in response. School, educators realized sixty years ago, should act as a counterweight, to draw students in, to teach them how to think through debates, and to empower them to participate in ways that are rational, intelligent, productive, and democratic.

Banned Books Week can and should provide educators with an opportunity to consider the books we teach and, even more, the important conversations we want them to spur. But we shouldn’t feel too comfortable or self-congratulatory. Celebrating academic freedom is about more than the right to teach texts that might offend some; it is about teachers’—and parents’—responsibility in helping students wrestle with difference and complexity without becoming offended.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity.