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?
It’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 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 , 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).
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.
“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.”
It’s become a personal quest of mine, something that I repeatedly profess in professional meetings, in presentations, on Twitter, and on my own personal blog.
The terms “struggling” and “reluctant” cannot be allowed to reference readers who need our support. Those terms come from a deficit model of thinking, in which somehow these students will never become the readers we want them to be but, rather, will continually fail according to some district initiated benchmark or criterion.
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term “struggling,” means to “proceed with difficulty or with great effort,” and reluctant means “feeling or showing aversion, hesitation, or unwillingness.” Imagine showing these definitions to a student and explaining that they referred to the student’s reading talent? Of course the student would feel disgruntled and frustrated.
I’ve modified these terms to “developing” because we simply are not there – yet. If I were labeled a “struggling” runner, the idea is that no matter how hard I try, no matter the small bursts of progress I make, the label would become so engrained in who I am that it could actually define me. In truth, I have been progressing at running and while I may (notice the use of the qualifier) never run a marathon, I continue to make gains in my running.
Now imagine explaining to a student that he/she is a developing reader. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “developing” means “to acquire gradually.” That’s a definition a student can live with and grow into. It means we can work together for a successful outcome.
So the next time you’re tempted to refer to a student as “struggling” or “reluctant,” please consider eliminating that deficit thinking, and instead, replace with the word, “developing.” In that way, all students will have a chance to proceed, progress, and promote!
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach and reading specialist at a large urban high school. Peg draws on her nearly 23 years of experience and expertise to focus on engagement, motivation, and interventions to create student opportunities of learning and inquiry.
This post is written by memberRaven Jones Stanbrough.
Parent-Teacher Conferencing with a One-Year-Old
Like most new mothers, I used to sometimes attempt to get my daughter to silently play (as if that even makes sense) when I’m on “important” phone calls, at meetings, or out in certain public spaces. I pretty much failed each and every time because Zuri Hudson wasn’t born to “be quiet,” and I’m so here for her purposeful verbal insertions, regardless of the setting.
During my pregnancy, my partner Darryl—also an educator—and I read to, talked to, and sang to Zuri Hudson. At seven months, her first word was “book.” As educators with almost 20 years of collective teaching experiences with K–16 students, we conference each and every day about what we want to teach our students and our child. In fact, Darryl and I first met as classroom co-teachers in Detroit. When asked, we happily share advice and suggestions with our family and friends about the educational practices we engage in with our daughter and students in our classrooms.
One of our main pieces of advice for others is to begin to build a library for their children— whether it’s filled with books, art, pictures, flashcards, music, blocks, coins, notebooks, or other artifacts that interest them. When we drove to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in Atlanta, Georgia—we had all of those things for our 23-hour roundtrip car ride and for our time in Atlanta with Zuri Hudson.
On the morning of Saturday, November 19, when I sat at the table with Darryl and our ready-for-the-wor(l)d baby girl (who was 18 months at the time) to accept the 2016 Early Career Educator of Color (ECEOC) Leadership Award, we did not seek to silence her. So when her louder-than-a-whisper shouts of, “1,2,3,4,5” K,” and “T” filled the room with smiles, laughter, and affirming head nods from others, I picked her up from the floor where her toys were spread, pulled her closer to me, and said, “I love you” and “I’m so proud of you” as I hugged her and removed one of her half-torn alphabet stickers from her afro.
During her emphatic outbursts, I could’ve said, “Shhhh” or “Be quiet, Z,” but I didn’t have the desire to do so. I strongly believe that children and students need the freedom and opportunities to be curious and exploratory—even when it may be an inconvenience for their parent-teachers and other loved ones. Considering this, it was no surprise to me, when I walked across the stage to accept my plaque that Darryl had to release a squirming Zuri Hudson from his arms because she wanted to run to and love on her mama, near the stage.
In that moment, I was reminded that my roles as a parent and teacher are to continue to assist children and students with finding their voices and using them to be loud when necessary.
Counting Children in Seven Days a Week
As a former K–12 educator, it has brought me tremendous joy to teach other people’s children. I always told myself that whenever I had my own child, I’d be conscious and deliberate about teaching her or him some of what I taught my previous students.
Last week, I shared a photo of Zuri Hudson on Facebook during our storytelling time. We purchased a podium for her that sits in the center of our living room and we all use it to share stories. This is something that’s very important to for us as parent-teachers and debate coaches. Since Darryl and I have flexible teaching schedules, Zuri Hudson is home with us every single day and has not had to be enrolled in a daycare facility. While I understand that every household is different, I want to offer a few tips that may be helpful when teaching or working with your child(ren) throughout the week.
Talk to your child(ren) throughout the day. Sometimes, they may have a lot on their minds, especially if they’re in school. Ask them open-ended questions, offer affirming words, and embrace them to remind them that they’re important and are loved.
Allow your child(ren) to play in a designated area and clean it up later. This used to be difficult for me, given that I’m very clean and dislike for things to be out of order. However, allowing our daughter to play without too many restrictions teaches us as her parents what her interests are and how she comprehends what we teach her.
Turn the television off. While there are great television shows that provide educational value for young people, don’t be afraid to turn the television off from time to time. Instead, take a walk around the house or outside and name various objects you see along the way. Create index cards that correspond to the items in your home and discuss these with your learners.
Create a growing library. Take advantage of secondhand stores and libraries that sell books for cheap, in an effort to build a library for your child(ren). Ask loved ones to donate books to your cause or, in lieu of toys for birthdays, ask for books.
Make every day fun! Tell your child(ren) stories, sing to or with them, and dance with them. Show them that you can have fun too. Have weekly talent shows that allow them to showcase their talents and interests.
Raven Jones Stanbrough, Ph.D., is a Detroit native and a K–12 product of Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Jones Stanbrough is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and is the co-founder of the The Zuri Reads Initiative, an effort to provide and organize literacy-related events and resources for Detroit-area children, students, and families.