Friday, December 31, 2010

Books and Correctional Facilities

I hope all of you readers out there have had a fabulous holiday season and a wonderful Christmas.  Before the New Year comes along this evening, I thought I would pass along one story that ended up in my Inbox recently.  Best Wishes and Happy Party-Times!

David Hudson Jr, a First Amendment Scholar, writes, "A recent decision by a federal judge in Indiana shows that prison officials must provide at least some justification for broad-based bans on reading material."  This comes in response to a situation in which an ex-inmate's Hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was confiscated and destroyed.
Plainfield [Correctional Facility, apparently,] has a policy of banning all hardcover books as inmate personal property, claiming that they present security risks and could be used to smuggle contraband. However, inmates can check hardcover books out of the prison library and can possess softcover books.
This policy was challenged by Michael N. Newsom, a former inmate at Plainfield, after the incident.  While I understand that inmates are under more strict rules, and safety and security are incredibly delicate, books in prisons should be allowed if they pass certain criteria.  The inmates are allowed to take hardcover books out of the prison library, so should they not be allowed hardcover books that have been searched and that present no threat in terms of their subject matter.  I can hardly see how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would threaten security in the prison environment, unless one of them happens to be looking for the Deathly Hallows themselves!
U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson refused to grant [Superintendent Wendy] Knight and the other defendants their request for summary judgment — to have Newsom's case thrown out. She wrote in her Dec. 21 opinion in Newsom v. Knight that “defendants have not shown that a wholesale prohibition on the receipt or possession of hardcover books, even those sent directly from the publisher, is a reasonable response to these security concerns.”
What do you think of this situation?  I have done some research on the ways in which literature can help in the rehabilitation of inmates, especially juvenile delinquents.  In light of this, I think the Judges ruling is very much appropriate and I applaud her decision.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Hello Everyone! 

I apologize for the lack of posts during this time of the year, but I am sure most of you understand how busy things can be with final assignments, family get-togethers, Christmas in general, etc, etc.  I am just checking in to let you all know that I will start posting again once I get back from a trip to see my family, so hopefully I will back to full-steam by next week Friday.

Also, a huge Thank You to all of you who read my blog on a regular basis.  This site has been read no less than 6,000 times (and no, I'm not counting my own times checking in!)  Have a wonderful Christmas and see you in the New Year!



Friday, December 17, 2010

Books on Stevenson High's reading list offensive...

What is the role of a school?  I have started to question this more as I read story after story of parents saying what schools should and shouldn't do with their public funding.  As far as I'm concerned, the public funding aspect is exactly what allows schools to teach things that challenge the status quo and to encourage students to think about issues they wouldn't normally think about at home.  Teachers are not the same as parents in a school situation.  They are there to teach many perspectives and opinions.  Parents, on the other hand, are there to teach children certain morals and values at home, and if they have taught their children well, then the introduction of other perspectives should not be seen as such a threat! 

Do parents these days have so little faith in their own ability to give their children a moral compass that they think schools should start whitewashing the world?  Once these children leave school and leave their homes for university or to start their own families, they will encounter the things they could have been taught in school.  But without being taught to look at different perspectives and how to defend their own ideas, these young people will only flounder and be more likely to desert what many are calling "traditional values."  I won't even start on what that means because I really have no idea what a "traditional" value is.  If anyone can give me a workable definition, I would be most grateful.

The article in question today is found in the Daily Herald and concerns Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL.  A parent at the school became concerned after reading a few titles on the reading list that his children are asked to follow.  Some titles include The Flamingo Rising and a short story entitled "The Casual Carpool."  Mr. Dreyer is opposed to both of these stories for the ways in which they undermine these so-called "traditional values" that he holds so dear.
A sexual encounter depicted in the novel was definitely something you could consider “X-rated,” he said. He called the book offensive.
Dreyer also objected to “The Casual Carpool,” a short story that his youngest son recently was assigned in class. He was critical of a lesbian character's desire to find a sperm donor so she could have a baby.
“The values that I've held dear my whole life are being redefined,” Dreyer said. “I don't believe for a minute that the majority of the parents in this community think this is OK.”

The thing to pay attention to here is not necessarily that the stories are that "objectionable" (methinks he's overstating the "X-rated" sex scene in Flamingo) but that the values Mr. Dreyer holds close are being challenged.  Are these values built on such a weak foundation that a novel and short story in a classroom are enough to shake them to the core?

At least one parent stood up for the other side during the meeting:
“My children all read ‘Flamingo Rising' and they found it a very thought-provoking piece of literature,” Slivnick said. “The opening of ideas … is the way to have our children learn.”
Now, before anyone jumps down my throat over the issue of free speech, I want to say this: I am glad that these parents are able to express their views, and I actually applaud them for taking a stand.  I also think it is great that they are taking part in their children's education.  What I have a problem with is the reason for their intervention.  Children need to start learning to think for themselves, especially by the time they get to High School.  The majority of students are already being influenced by peers and the real world more than they are by the fictional narratives they are being asked to read.

I could go on for hours, but I'm still flummoxed, trying to figure out the definition of a "Traditional value."  Well, I will sign off now.  I think this rant is suitably exhausted for today.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nickel and Dimed [Updated]

Recently a debate was started over the appropriateness of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  The Nashua Telegraph recently reported that the debate was taken to new heights at a "School Board meeting Monday night, as dozens of parents, teachers, residents and students showed up to speak their minds on the issue."  Bedford High's personal finance class was using the text until someone found an excerpts that contained profanity and some apparently objectionable statements about Jesus Christ.  Dennis Taylor, one of the parents who originally complained, said, “I believe the school, by purchasing this book, by looking at it, is either intentionally agreeing with (Barbara) Ehrenreich by taking the position that Jesus was a drunken bum or that they’re careless with their students."
They offered their own alternatives that offer the “same message,” including Adam Shepard’s “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream,” Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”
Dennis Taylor also suggested the administration establish committees that would rate books in a similar way that movies are rated, with PG-13 and R-rated books only given to students who want them.
The problem does not seem to be regarding the merits of the book as a whole, considering it has won a number of awards and contains valuable lessons about finances and those who are poor.  The problem here seems to be that one sentence in the book was taken badly by a couple of people and now they want to upset the system by replacing the book and challenging the merits of the text, which not only costs money that need not be spent, and it disrupts teaching because suddenly the text being used is challenged.
Jordan Dempsey, senior class president at Bedford high, defended the book and said the accusations against it were “absurd.”
“A book cannot be judged by a few lines within it,” he said.
Chad Johansen, also a senior at Bedford High and member of the student government, said the book “sparked discussion about the working poor” and he thought it was interesting how the book started a conversation about how to help the less fortunate.
“It widened my view on the world and outside of Bedford,” he said.
Some are upset that it is taking so long for the situation to proceed, but such a decision is not something to be rushed.  Daniel Rosenbaum, "a resident and member of the curriculum committee, said no matter what people think of the book, the process to remove it 'should not be easy.  No matter how just you are in wanting a book to be removed, it takes time to get other parents and representatives involved.'”

What do you think? Are one or two instances of profanity or religious disdain cause for a challenge, especially if the book as a whole is helping kids think about finances and economy, and sparking discussions?


The Infamous Passage:
The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful "amens." It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. (p. 68-69)

A response from the blog Total Drek:
The interesting thing about this passage is that Ehrenreich isn't insulting Christ or Christianity per se, but rather a practice of it that ignores Jesus' deep concern for the poor and less fortunate. In other words, she's making an admittedly flowery argument that one can't be Christian and holy and yet unconcerned with the deep and serious economic inequalities that characterize American society. It's a provocative point and my students and I often have an interesting time discussing it. Often one or more students ask whether anyone is really like this, whether anyone can consider themselves a devout and committed Christian and yet miss the essential need for concern for the poor.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Brave New World" lives on...

I am happy to announce that Brave New World  "will remain on the list of approved materials Seattle high school teachers may use in their language arts curriculum" writes Linda Thomas on  "The Seattle School Board vote last night to continue allowing its schools to use the book was unanimous."

In case you missed the earlier post this decision is in response to a mother who wanted all schools in the Seattle area to remove Brave New World from their curricula because of the treatment of Native Americans within the text.  I wrote in the earlier post about context and the tone of the book, hoping beyond hope that others would note these aspects of the text somewhere in the process of reviewing the title.  It would appear a number of people actually responded directly to these issues:
"I am opposed to banning of any book," says Harium Martin-Morris. "If we go down that road, it is a road that is a dangerous one. Do we now say we won't do Huckleberry Finn because of its portrayal of African Americans. Do we get rid of Native Sun ? The list goes on and on."  He called these kinds of books an "opportunity to talk candidly with our students - our very capable and knowledgeable and quite frankly very savvy high school students - about these topics."
Another board member, Peter Maier, says he re-read the book recently and it is clearly satirical. He supports making the Aldous Huxley novel available as a high school text.
"I don't believe that censorship is the right answer," says Steve Sundquist, board vice president. "If a teacher wants to teach this text, clearly I want it done in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way."
It's nice to know I'm not totally "out there" while I'm writing these blog posts.  I sometimes get caught up in my own personal objections and then rant and rave about this and that while making points that can be considered questionable at best.  But this time, I was not far off the mark.  It's nice to know that a school board is finally standing up for a text based on it's merit and teachability rather than backing down based on an unwillingness to deal with conflict.

Way to go Seattle!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Let's Set Things Straight...

Due to recent feedback about my blog, today will focus more on the concepts of censorship and book challenges rather than on one specific instance.  The purpose of this blog is not to argue the existence of censorship or book banning, but to act under the assumption that these acts occur and so bring to light current instances of censorship.  There is some indecision that keeps surfacing surrounding parenting vs. censorship.  I believe (and therefore this blog acts under the assumption that) parenting can involve acts of censorship for the purposes of child protection. 

I have no problem with parents taking an interest in what their children are reading, and therefore, at times, deciding that something is inappropriate for their own child.  What I find reprehensible is the decision of some parents to take their own views and attempt to spread them over entire schools or school districts.  This sort of behavior expands parental rights into a form of attempted dictatorship.  Strong words, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

I would also like to point out that while I have links to certain larger organizations in the sidebar of this site, that does not mean that I believe any of them are the be-all or end-all of censorship authority.  Each organization does valuable work and therefore deserves to be heard, but this does not endorse any group as the final word on the subject.  With that in mind, I would like to turn to the 2009-2010 list of banned and challenged books by Robert P. Doyle.  This is a resource put out by the ALA, but also endorsed by a multitude of other organizations.  The foreword contains some valuable information and defines censorship and challenges in a particularly enlightening and simple way.  So without further adieu, I end today's entry with these words:

Sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries. Frequently, challenges are motivated by the desire to protect children. While the intent is commendable, this method of protection contains hazards far greater than exposure to the “evil” against which it is leveled. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in Texas v. Johnson, said, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Individuals may restrict what they themselves or their children read, but they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material.

The challenges documented in this list are not brought by people merely expressing a point of view; rather, they represent requests to remove materials from schools or libraries, thus restricting access to them by others. Even when the eventual outcome allows the book to stay on the library shelves and even when the person is a lone protester, the censorship attempt is real. Someone has tried to restrict another person’s ability to choose. Challenges are as important to document as actual bannings, in which a book is removed from the shelves of a library or bookstore or from the curriculum at a school. Attempts to censor can lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Parent your own kids...

Check out Neil Gaiman's comment!
I find it disrespectful and overbearing when a parent decides that they know what's best for everyone's children, over and above their own.  This is the problem at the center of yet another challenge aimed at Sherman Alexie's incredibly popular text, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  “I feel protective not only for my own daughter but of all children,” said Michele Smith in an article on the Helena Independent Record.  This comes after a teacher already helped Michele's daughter to find a different book to study in place of Alexie's.  But this, yet again, is not enough for some parents.
Michele Smith submitted a request for reconsideration of educational materials to the central office for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. A public hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, at the Front Street Learning Center.
There have obviously been objections, though mostly from those who are the educators.  And we all know educators know nothing about how to educate children or teach literature in an insightful and critical manner (sarcasm is intended here).
Padraic McCracken, teen services librarian at the Lewis and Clark Library, has read the book multiple times. McCracken said feeling like an outcast is a fairly universal experience for adolescents and, therefore, most young people can relate to the story. The parts that may be objectionable are brief, he says.
“Any kid who’s ever felt like an outsider, being the new kid, being different and all that comes with that will be able to relate,” he said.  “And, honestly, they help make the book more engaging to young readers because they are honest. … Thank God there is someone like Sherman Alexie to talk honestly about that.”
I would like to point out something incredibly profound and worthy of mention about this librarian.  "He applauds parents for getting involved and monitoring what their children are reading, but says any sexual parts are more heartfelt and touching than they are filthy."  He not only defends the novel, but that he also defends the right of the parents to monitor their children's reading materials.  But that's just the thing, each parent has the right to protect their own children.  Parents are not responsible for the reading habits of all of the children in the school.

He also acknowledges the needs of the children who are reading books at this level: 
“At that age you are talking about trying to engage kids with books when there are a million other things to be distracted with,” McCracken said. “This could be the book for some.”
I applaud Mr. McCracken and his well-rounded response to this situation.  I do not applaud Mrs. Smith and her desire to parent all children in the school while also depriving them of relevant and powerful reading materials.  I know some will disagree with me, but I find this to be yet another disturbing instance of book challenging with a very poor argument behind it.  I only hope that the review committee meeting in February will vote to keep the book in the system.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Poof! They're gone...

Many library books simply disappear from circulation, suggests Judith John, a scholar who has been studying book challenges since 1993.  This isn't new, but it's a disturbing aspect of book bans and challenges and it makes it difficult for groups such as the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship to track such challenges.

Fortunately, there have been a number of publicized challenges in the last decade, which has made it slightly better for these groups to get an idea of which titles are under fire most frequently.  This also makes it possible to hold Schools and other institutions accountable for following proper procedures, something which has been ignored in a number of recent challenges.  I will cover these later in the post.

An article in USA Today, by Didi Tang and Mary Beth Marklein, takes these issues into consideration and discusses the increase in groups, as opposed to individuals, who are responsible for book challenges today.
Whereas challenges once were mostly launched by a lone parent, Caldwell-Stone says she has noticed "an uptick in organized efforts" to remove books from public and school libraries. A number of challenges appear to draw from information provided on websites such as Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, or, and, [Deborah Caldwell-Stone, and attorney with the American Library Association] says.
This can be seen throughout a number of my posts over the last month or so.  A few complaints have been made by one or two parents, but a number have come from larger organizations as well.  These groups have more clout than an individual and are therefore able to put more pressure on schools and libraries to remove texts.  The problem here is that a lot of these School Districts and Libraries do not want to be publicly denounced and so they attempt to quietly remove the books without following proper procedure.  The article from USA Today points out three instances:
• In Plano, Texas, last month, the school district collected a textbook, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, from classrooms after a parent voiced concern, then reissued the book after former students launched a social-media campaign to object. "This decision was made behind closed doors without discussion," says Ashley Meyers, 22, a 2006 graduate who had used the book.
• After the school board in Stockton, Mo., voted in April to ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, English teachers who assign the book said they should have been consulted about its educational value. "We expected a more thorough, well-developed process before a book was banned," English teacher Kim Chism Jasper said during a public forum in September.
• A chapter of Glenn Beck's 9.12 Project, a conservative watchdog network, was a force behind the removal of Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from the school library at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Burlington County, N.J. The ACLU of New Jersey requested documentation from school officials regarding how the decision was made.
These controversial instances of book challenges make it possible for anti-censorship groups to track such cases.  It is necessary to see evidence of these challenges, otherwise people won't realize how prevalent it really is.  This follows the whole purpose of my blog, to bring attention to challenges and censorship issues relating to books in the hope of enlightening people to the fact that this isn't a thing of the past.

Book banning still happens, and censoring of valuable literature is still a problem.