Monday, October 11, 2010

Risha Mullins' Story

I recently read Risha Mullins' story on SpeakLoudly and was almost brought to tears by the injustice of the entire situation that occurred.  Risha Mullins was a teacher who brought a love of reading to the classroom, creating an environment of open appreciation rather than stifled analysis.  Not desiring to burden the students with classics that they could not and did not want to read, she brought forward texts that the students would enjoy, could relate to, and ultimately those novels created a desire to continue reading outside of the classroom.  The Moo Moo Book Club is particularly inspiring, being nurtured from a starting group of 15 kids and growing to 130.  In her post Mullins writes,
Remembering when the Moo Moo Book Club kids taped posters of their favorite books all over the school—totally taking ownership of their books by taping “recommended by” plaques beneath each poster—and how after that, non-club kids would stop by my room and ask to borrow a book. Remembering Teen Read Week of 2008 when the 130 book club kids marched through the school, boom box blaring, tossing bookmarks through the Ag. department, the Science and Math wing, the Freshman hall, and the Board of Education building, dancing, chanting “Moo Moo Book Club,” proudly sporting their recommended book posters on strings around their necks.
This account is enough to remind anyone that kids don't hate reading if they can relate to and enjoy what they have in their hands.  They hate reading when they are stifled by expectations of reading and understanding The Classics.  And then it all changed with one email from an ignorant adult:
Remembering the email that stopped it all. Two years ago this week. A parent whose child had chosen to read Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles, and how that parent sent an email to the superintendent, the board members, the principals, and me saying that I taught “soft pornography.”
After that email, my curriculum coach told me—in the principal’s office, with him present—that she had to beg the superintendent not to shut down the Moo Moo Book Club, and that she quoted him when she said, “one more problem with books and the club is gone.” I remember asking if he could do that. And I remember her laughing. Then on October 10, 2008, I received the edict—on signed letterhead: “After investigating the situation and discussing it with Ms. X, I have decided that all books in question in your classroom library and on the Moo Moo Club reading list will be pulled and reviewed…” Every book. Class and club. And yet not a single official challenge had been filed, as board policy required for a book to be suspended.
And the situation got worse.  Risha Mullins was subjected to interrogation and intellectual abuse, in my opinion.  She was constantly under surveillance, had her book choices challenged at every turn, and was required to follow procedures that no other teacher was subjected to.  And yet it still got worse:
That’s when the letters to the editor started. The entire community suddenly had opinions of me and my books. As a result, the faculty got heated. Students came to me several times saying what this teacher and that had said about me and the “godless” books I forced students to read to “advance the ALA’s gay propaganda.” Yes, a student said that to me. Several district administrators, teachers, and lunch ladies stopped speaking to me after the letters in the paper. And one Sunday, while working in my room after church, I heard mumbling in the hallway. Parents were praying in the hallway outside my door. Defeated, I retreated to my room where I proceeded to work with Jimmy Buffett blaring in the background.
To be subjected to this kind of treatment is beyond an issue of fairness.  This is despicable.  A teacher is hired to help children learn, to introduce them to subjects that they can be interested in, and to engage them in critical thinking so they can go out into the world with a mind that can work independently of some rigid structure that some would use in the classroom.  She was later forced to resign and was unable to obtain another job for a while because of all the pressure and the negative press from the situation.  She did, however, have the opportunity to speak in a number of conferences and was backed up by the NCAC as well as a number of prominent authors (Chris Crutcher, Ellen Hopkins, etc).  Her story highlights the usefulness of YA books and shows how well students can perform when introduced to literature they want to read.
Last month, Montgomery County’s test scores came out. Reading went down six points. As I sit here right now, still remembering, I think of how my students’ predictive assessment scores had been amazing all year before the test. According to the data, my classes had surpassed the Honors-track sophomores’ reading scores. I’m remembering the discussions I had with my classes about peaceful resistance, about trying on the tests because it was our only way of showing the district that reading YA worked.
This story is tragic, but at least it brings greater publicity to the injustices of imposing moral boundaries on books.  Read the whole story.  It's inspiring and amazing.  And maybe even send off a note to Risha Mullins and let her know that she is appreciated and her bravery is inspiring. 

Thanks for reading!


  1. "She ... was backed up by ... a number of prominent authors (Chris Crutcher, Ellen Hopkins, etc)." To see some of that support, look in the comments to my blog post here: "SafeLibraries: Kentucky School Superintendent Exposes False Cries of Censorship; Removes Educationally Unsuitable Books from Curriculum Despite Being on ALA's List for Reluctant Readers."

  2. No prob. The story is quite interesting and sad at the same time. Thanks for writing about it.

  3. I was a student of Risha's when I went to another high school that she taught at. I can't believe how people can be so crude.

    Natasha Gray