May 25

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Read, Rise, Resist, Repeat by Kacy Smith

A few short months ago, my district was in the middle of a comprehensive ELA adoption, which had a focus of providing diverse and engaging classroom libraries. Expected growing pains had arrived and passed, replaced with increased reading volume, stamina, and enjoyment. That all changed after a parent filed a complaint to have Andrew Smith’s novel Stick removed from all classrooms and libraries. The parent had concerns over the sexuality and language in the novel.

Despite the unanimous recommendation by a committee of teachers, administrators, and community members to retain Stick, the deputy superintendent disagreed, and for possibly the first time in my district, edited the recommendation to create what was essentially a ban. It was removed from all middle schools and from high school classrooms that did not serve primarily eleventh and twelfth graders. Where the committee had seen representation of lives of some of our students and a path to empathy for others, the deputy superintendent saw vulgar content inappropriate for his children, and thus all students.

At this point, the energy of district-wide book choice, diverse classroom libraries, and teacher empowerment ended. Teachers were upset, angry, and saw clearly the dangerous potential of this decision in future book purchases.

Luckily, the community, once informed, were a tremendous and vocal support for book choice, and there was a backlash against the deputy superintendent’s decision. Teachers, parents, and community members testified in support of Stick at school board meetings, posted on social media, and commented on news stories. Of course, sales of Stick increased to the point it was sold out at local bookstores and online. There were so many requests for it at the city libraries that it triggered a reorder. In an attempt to banish Stick, the deputy superintendent had instead created a city-wide book club.

Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower was also challenged. Once again we had a committee hearing. This time, it was a longer hearing, with lots of attendants, mostly in support of this book. Again, after a lengthy debate, the committee of teachers, administrators, and community members voted unanimously to keep Perks in school and classroom libraries. As the district’s Secondary ELA TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment), I participated in both hearings. My experience after the ruling for Stick filled me with trepidation and concern for the future of classroom libraries and book choice. This time, however, the deputy superintendent upheld the committee’s decision.

Today, we are still moving forward with a comprehensive ELA adoption. Teachers still promote vibrant and diverse classroom libraries, design lessons and units, and share knowledge about reading. We have added libraries in Dual Language Language Arts, Sheltered Language Arts, and some SPED classrooms. We believe that providing multiple opportunities to read, hear, consider, discuss, research and write about reading is the cornerstone of literacy education. I myself waver between fear and empowerment. I hope you do not have to ever deal with challenges, but if you do, here is what we’ve learned and how we will move forward:

  1. A diverse classroom library, rich with books exploring all lives, cultures, and beliefs is still the best path to turn students into lifelong readers and learners. Jennifer LaGarde and Travis Crowder have eloquently written about diverse books and banning in this blog; it a very worthy read. As Barbara Tuchman said, “Books are humanity in print.”
  2. Communication makes almost all the difference. Aside from letters to families at the beginning of year (Penny Kittle has a terrific one), teachers are very focused on establishing a culture where students feel empowered advocating for themselves. If a student does not feel comfortable with a book- whether it clashes with a moral code or reading level, we need to know that. There are more conversations about choice and responsibility now. Families need to know the reasons why we teach literacy and literature differently now. However, it shouldn’t be just the responsibility of the teachers. Next August, the district will send out communication (in multiple languages) about book choice to all families, including the ways to help students pick suitable books and how to communicate potential concerns to teachers. Having a published and comprehensive administrative regulation helped ensure an open and fair reconsideration process. Librarians are a resource beyond powerful with recommendations. If you have technology staff at school, see if that person(s) can help with book trailers or slideshows about book clubs choices. Student book talks are always a powerful (and honest) litmus test for books.
  3. Find your allies, and your allies are everywhere: Teachers, administrators, community members, and parents were marvelous. They are your support, they are their own voices, they are the diversity. Our union president spoke and wrote eloquently on book choice and teacher independence. The American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom supported rescinding the ban and sent letters to the school board, even Andrew Smith himself spoke out on social media.
  4. Be an ally to all: Seeing and understanding multiple perspectives is essential, especially those opposed to your own. Despite my personal work in culturally competent teaching, I had not thought about our ELA adoption through a socially conservative lens. When I did, it helped to speak to both sides. Further, teachers involved in a potential book challenge need support. Even if you don’t know the teacher, a supportive email or communication can make the difference when every move you make is under a microscope. The National Coalition Against Censorship, ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, and the NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Center broadcast challenges to books, including this astoundly comprehensive ban in Florida. Schools need support from the entire community when facing bans. As it turns out, the price of a intellectual freedom might be like that of liberty: eternal vigilance.

Kacy Smith is almost done with her first year as the Secondary ELA TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment). When not working with teachers, students, or fellow TOSAs (especially the librarians, who are awesome) in the Beaverton School District, she is raising bees, bulldogs, and a bookish daughter with her partner, James. Kacy recommends you read lots of banned books, especially Stick.