Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The End... at least for now

Dear Readers,

Thank you all so much for the last three years of readership.  I thank all of you who are fighting against censorship and book challenges.  Thank you to all of those librarians who fight the difficult fight against parents and other groups who desire to keep books of great merit out of the hands of teens and children who need them and want them.

Due to current and ever-increasing obligations, I must (at least for the moment) take a leave of absence from posting on the blog.  My time is being eaten up by the need to write articles on topics of education and censorship and to pursue further education in the field of queer studies and gender and sexuality studies.

Thank you all again for your loyalty and for making this blog worthwhile!

Keep reading, and keep on taking action,


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Too much skin...

Where did we go wrong?  What happened in society that showing the human body in a children's book is suddenly being equated with pornography?  In a children's book the image is simply being presented as a body, but in porn, the images are highly sexualized and portray adults in sexual acts or posed to invite a sexual gaze.  In The Dirty Cowboy, a children's picture book by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Adam Rex, a cowboy takes a bath (something that usually involves the removal of clothing, if I'm remembering correctly) and his dog, who no longer recognizes his smell, refuses to return his clothes.  The book, therefore, contains images of a cowboy with no clothes on, though with his genitals and bum always covered by various objects, and is in no way sexualized.  How these images are pornographic is beyond me!  How did the human body become so disgusting to some parents?  Are they trying to teach their kids that their bodies are something to be ashamed of?  *sigh*

Because one parent felt that the book was inappropriate for her child, and because this parent decided the images were somehow pornographic in nature, the book was banned from two elementary schools in the Annville-Cleona School District.  A recent article in the Lebanon Daily News had this to say:
The Annville-Cleona School Board's decision to remove an award-winning children's book from the district's elementary schools is "ridiculous," the book's author said. 
Amy Timberlake, author of the "The Dirty Cowboy," said in a phone interview Friday that she was saddened to hear that her book was essentially banned from the district's two elementary schools. 
"I just think it's ridiculous," Timberlake said. "It's sad that now if a child wants to check that book out, they're going to have to go ask their parents for their permission, which is going to involve the parents explaining why they have to get permission to read a story about a bath. 
"They all take baths," she added. "They all remove their clothes to take baths. They're making a situation out of something that isn't really a situation."
Amy continues on her Blog:
Okay, so what if a parent doesn't think this book/this story is appropriate for their child? That's fine. Truly fine. I mean, the parent is the one that is raising the child. They're the one that knows the child and what that child can handle. If they can't handle it, don't let them check it out. Return the book. Whatever. 
But banning a book about a bath gone awry? That's odd. But to call The Dirty Cowboy 'pornographic' is just downright wrong. It's a misapplication of verbiage. Does the library patron have access to a dictionary? Or has that been 'banned' too? (I gotta say I've never been so happy with the way those dictionary companies add new-fangled terminology willy-nilly.)
In a slightly more harsh, but also very true commentary on the situation, the Rogue Librarian Blog has this to say:
I pity the librarian. She gave the student the book because “the little guy is a cowboy fan, and I have provided him with other cowboy books in the library.” She did what librarians are supposed to do—connect readers with books they will enjoy. She praised the boy’s parents for taking an interest in what their son reads, but cautioned that their discomfort with the illustrations did not warrant removal of the book from the library. She spoke publicly that she opposed the challenge to the book. When the board voted unanimously to ban the book from the library, she walked out of the meeting room in protest. What the school board did with their unanimous decision is not just ban a book; they stripped the librarian of her professional authority. The board’s decision told parents that they are better qualified than a licensed professional to decide what should be in the library for their children to read. The school board effectively nullified the librarian’s professional education and experience.
Even with all of this controversy (and actually, probably because of the controversy), the Lebanon Daily News notes that "Amazon.com sales of the book have shot up in the past 48 hours," since April 20, 2012.

I am disappointed, frustrated, and upset with the decision of the school board.  What do they think they are trying to accomplish by taking this book out of the hands of children in their elementary schools?  Do they seriously think children are so dumb that they would view this book as pornography?  Or that they would somehow sexualize the story, and therefore make it something dirtier (excuse the pun) than it was meant to be?  Do the parents of this child seriously believe that a book about a bath and some rather humorous consequences will actually negatively affect the development of their son?  Let me just say this: Argh!!

Thanks for reading, and as always, please feel free to comment.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tucson School Board Fires Ethnic Studies Director

On April 11, 2012, a truly sad even occurred in Tucson, AZ: Sean Arce, director of the Mexican American Studies program was fired.  The director of a program that improved student achievement scores, expanded students' understanding of different perspectives on ethnic minorities through history, and was overall fantastic, was let go because of his failure to cooperate with the State's despicable decision to shut the program down.  An article in Common Dreams had the following to say:
Sean Arce, the director of the embattled Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona was fired last night after a split vote by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Students, teachers, and community members gathered before the vote to champion Arce as a vital member of the school district and berated the TUSD board members for targeting Arce for dismissal due to his outspoken support for the ethnic studies program. 
Calling the board’s move “irresponsible, unlawful and reflects yet another step in TUSD’s descent into abysmal discrimination,” Arce’s attorney Richard Martinez warned in a letter on Tuesday that the non-renewal notice sent to the former MAS director also failed to follow proper legal procedures. “The Pedicone era at TUSD,” Martinez added, “has proven to be a complete disaster, one that has allowed racism to prevail over the educational needs and rights of our students.”
Another article in the Tucson Sentinel reported on the proceedings prior to the vote from the School Board, noting that "A call to the audience lasting over two and a half hours saw nearly four dozen supporters of the Mexican American Studies program alternately berate the board and praise Arce. No one rose to speak against the program during the meeting."  Support for the program and the director were shown through displays of "anger, tears, raised voices and sometimes quiet dignity as [those in the audience] pleaded for the board to retain Arce and restore MAS classes...."  At least I can rest with the assurance that the general public in Tucson are NOT in support of this decision.  

It's interesting, in this age of censorship and book challenges that one or two parents can get a book removed from the hands of hundreds of children, but when dozens of supporters speak up, students protest, and organizations write letters of protest, the School Board is suddenly deaf, and the State's support is nowhere to be found (mostly because the State ordered the dissolution of the program to begin with, but the Tucson School Board did nothing to fight the decision.)

To remind us of the importance of these sorts of programs, and article in Education Week states:
“On Arizona’s achievement tests in reading, writing, and math, its students also outscore students of all racial and ethnic groups in the same schools but not in that program—a remarkable record. As schools nationwide struggle to close racial achievement gaps, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be one from which we are learning.”
Thanks for Reading!

And for interest's sake, here are a few other articles of interest for the week:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2011

(According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the ALA)

ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence

My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit

What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit

Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language; racism

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Male-on-Male Penguin Affection Still an Issue...

Book controversy shines light on obscure Rochester committee

The Committee for the Reconsideration of Resources in Rochester, MN made a decision to keep And Tango Makes Three on the library shelves, despite the dissenting opinion of one family. This is the way it should be, and the way the policy is laid out is quite clear. Unfortunately, despite the policies in place to discuss book challenges, the committee's decision "was later overruled in a joint decision by Rochester School Board Chairwoman Julie Workman, Vice Chairman Gary Smith and Superintendent Michael Muñoz. It was reversed again when, amid growing public criticism, officials admitted that they had not followed district policy governing controversial materials." It is sad when officials feel they can simply overrule the proper procedures that have been set in place for specific types of challenges. There was a possibility that because of the mishandling of the situation by the School Board officials, the challenge would have to be taken to the committee again for re-review, but thankfully the family that originally brought the challenge forward has decided not to pursue further action.

Parents won't pursue challenge of 'Tango' book

The parents of a Gibbs Elementary School student who sought to remove the book "And Tango Makes Three," the story of two male penguins who raise a chick together, have decided to not refile their challenge. 
The "temporary resolution" was reached Tuesday during a meeting between the parents and Rochester schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz, officials say. But the agreement also requires that one of the parents who challenged the book be present when their child checks out books from the Gibbs media center in the future.
I'm still amazed that this book is stirring up so much controversy so many years after it came out. Are people so seriously threatened by two male penguins who bring up a baby? Technically speaking, the book isn't even about homosexuality, so much as it is diversity in the animal kingdom, but apparently everything that has male-on-male affection of any kind must obviously be G.A.Y.

Signing off for the month of March!

Thanks for Reading.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In the News This Week...

In December 2010, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was under fire by residents of Bedford when a few parents decided the book was unsuitable for use in schools because, according to these parents, the book went against the conservative views of the community [see earlier post here.]  A group of parents later signed a petition to keep the book in the curriculum and the review committee later agreed and stated that the book was suitable for classroom use [see post here.]  Now, over a year and a half later, the book is again under fire by an Easton resident by the name of Eric Adams, according to the NazarethPatch in an opinion piece by Margie Peterson.
In a recent letter to The Morning Call, Adams was back arguing against Nickel and Dimed and that school boards should be monitoring textbooks closely to make sure the curriculum doesn’t “deviate too far from the core values of the community.”

Certainly, school board members are entitled to weigh in if they think a particular book used in classes is a poor choice. But unless you have third-graders reading “Mein Kampf,” boards should be reluctant to start pulling books every time someone objects to content. Plenty of great literature has been banned or challenged in schools at one time or another.
Having gone through the passages that were originally taken as being inappropriate for students, I am unsure why this is still an issue, seeing as the offending statements were very few (two that I can remember) and far between.  The majority of the book is actually quite effective in teaching about the difficulties of making it in the tough economy of modern-day America, especially when attempting to actually make a living in the customer service industry.  Margie Peterson agrees:
In my teens and twenties I waitressed in several restaurants in Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and the memories of my aching shoulders, back and feet are with me still. Ehrenreich captured the petty indignities, condescending customers and autocratic managers well. She writes: “Managers can sit -- for hours at a time if they want – but it’s their job to see that no one else ever does…When, on a particularly dead afternoon, Stu finds me glancing at a USA Today a customer has left behind, he assigns me to vacuum the entire floor with the broken vacuum cleaner which has a handle only two feet long, and the only way to do that without incurring orthopedic damage is to proceed from spot to spot on your knees.”
Adams, in his complaint, declares that school directors seem to like controversial books in the classroom.  I can only agree with the author of the opinion article when she states that "One can only hope so."
The remedy to controversy over books is not to remove them but to teach more of them. 
"We read books like this to spark debate, get kids thinking about what they actually believe in, and stand up and defend it. That's really what this is about, trying to reinforce our democratic principles."
Controversy for the sake of controversy is not the best way to get students thinking, but in this particular situation, the book is controversial only because it seems to go against the thinking of some members of the communities in which it is being taught, and not because it is just a ridiculous or incendiary argument.  Ehrereich makes valuable observations and puts forward much food for thought, with the occasional amusing anecdote or comparison (at least to some.)  And the book gets discussions going about real-life issues, which is exactly what they should be doing!  I don't see how this case of using a textbook to provide material for debate is in any way negative, especially at the secondary school level.


In Other News, Criminal Charges were dropped in a Canada Customs case against Manga this week. The Press Release is produced below:

For Immediate Release
Contact: Charles Brownstein

Criminal Charges Dropped In Canada Customs Manga Case

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund are pleased to announce that the Crown has withdrawn all criminal charges in R. v. Matheson, the case previously described as the “Brandon X case,” which involved a comic book reader who faced criminal charges in Canada relating to comic books on his computer.  The defendant, Ryan Matheson, a 27-year-old comic book reader, amateur artist, and computer programmer has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
The total legal costs of this case exceeded $75,000.  After taking the case last summer, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund contributed $20,000 to the defense, and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund contributed $11,000.  The CBLDF also participated in shaping the defense, including recruiting expert testimony for the trial.  The organization is currently seeking funds to help pay off the $45,000 debt Matheson incurred as a result of his case, and to create new tools to prevent future cases.  To make a contribution to these important efforts, please visit www.cbldf.org.

Read the rest of the release after the jump...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Censoring Free Speech

The 112th Congress and the US Senate have passed a law that should make people very, very angry.  Granted, it is a law that is in complete opposition to the First Amendment and will most likely be overthrown within a relatively short period of time--hopefully at least--but at the moment it is incredibly disturbing that the law was passed to begin with.  The Senate passed it unanimously and Congress passed it with a vote of 399 to 3.  HR 347 would make political protest and other forms of free speech a felony, leading to up to 10 years in prison.  This censorship of freedoms to protest and freedoms of speech fly in the face of the first amendment and I, personally, can't believe that it even passed with the majority that it has!  A post on Open Salon reads as follows:
Obviously aimed at the Occupy Movement, these modifications to U.S. Code Title 18 Section 1752 will seriously diminish the right of American citizens to petition their Government for a redress of grievances by outlawing protests where key government officials or other VIP's may be nearby. Federal law enforcement agents will be empowered to bring these charges against Americans engaged in political protests anywhere in the country, and violators will face criminal penalties that include imprisonment for up to 10 years.
What I want to know is, how is this not a problem, and how does Congress think it's okay to actually pass this in the first place?  If Obama signs off on this, it's not going to be long before, hopefully, somebody brings it to a court of law to have it overturned.  I really don't know all that much about politics in the US, but I know this is a move in a very, very bad direction.

In other news, a request to reinstate the Mexican American Studies / Ethnic Studies Program in the Tucson School District was denied.  According to the Huffington Post, "The federal U.S. District Court judge in Tucson, judge David Bury, who denied the request to reinstate the MAS program, said that the elimination of the courses didn't intentionally segregate students, nor did it tip the racial or ethnic balance of students in any TUSD school."

The program was initially shut down because the Superintendent believed the program was indoctrinating students in a way that would cause resentment toward a specific group or class of people (in this case, it would seem, he was worried that the non-white population of the school [60%] would learn to resent the white population of the school.)  Oh, and yes, sarcasm was intended there.  The program was a huge undertaking and, if the literature being used was any indication, was far from one-sided:
"What has occurred here is that [Huppenthal] has taken away from our entire community a curriculum that was adopted by our school board, that was developed by our school district, and that had successfully operated for well over 10 years," said Richard Martinez, the attorney representing teachers and students trying to save the Mexican American Studies program according to Democracy Now. "It’s just part of the same kind of tactics that have been employed in Arizona... It is the anti-Latino perspective that exists in this state."
The entire situation in the US at the moment is driving me nuts and I can't help but get interested / pissed off / upset / anxious.  Thanks for reading, and please feel free to leave comments or questions below.

Oh, and if you're interested, here is an interesting interview with some publishers about issues of pre-censorship.  Here's Part 1 and Part 2.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh Arizona...

Oh Arizona!  How I wish I wasn't blogging about you so constantly.  Often when one is featured often, it is (hopefully) for good things, such as when Meryl Streep wins her third Oscar.  But in this case, Arizona is just being disgraced on a constant basis, similar to the many mentions of Rick Santorum each day running up to the 2012 US elections.  First it was the banning of various texts on an individual basis, then the dismantling of the Ethnic Studies programs in Tucson, and now teachers may be in trouble if they bring books into their classrooms that aren't on pre-approved lists.

Kellie Mejdrich reports in the Tucson Sentinel that "Teachers could have their licenses revoked if they bring any supplemental books into the classroom that aren’t pre-approved by the district and posted on a website for parental view."  Teachers, understandably, are not too pleased with this development.  They are even less impressed, however, that Bibles may become mandatory to have in classrooms, violating what many consider a necessary separation of education from biased religious teaching.
The article goes on: "Currently, Arizona law requires the school board to “exclude from school libraries all books, publications and papers of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character,” state statute says. But if the bill were to pass, an exception would be included for the Bible as well as any materials for this elective course. Disciplinary action over religious preaching in the classroom would also be softened—from the outright revocation of a teaching license, to providing teachers immunity from liability as long as they teach the class 'in good faith.'"
Many consider this a violation of constitutional rights, being that the Christian Bible will be used to the exclusion of other religious texts or even other versions of the Bible that include extra books, as in the case of the Catholic version which contains Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and others.
Anjali Abraham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona agreed that introduction of the Bible as a state-sanctioned religious text to the exclusion of others was a serious violation of constitutional rights.
“In designing a curriculum to familiarize students with recorded history of the bible, schools are going to have to decide what counts as recorded history and our concern is that invariably means embracing a particular religious viewpoint or a couple of religious viewpoints and then as a consequence rejecting others and that's a real First Amendment problem,” Abraham said.
Abraham added that the lenient language for chastising preachy teachers as well as the establishment of a specific Bible course to the exclusion of other texts was problematic.
While I have no problem with the Bible being taught in school, except when it is included in classrooms while other religious texts are excluded.  Some of those in favor of the legislation say that the Bible is the most important religious text in Western culture, so that is the main reason.  Professor John Ulreich had the following to say in regards to focusing on a text such as the Bible:
“The Bible teaches you whatever you want to learn. You want to learn that men should dominate women? You can find it in the Bible. You want to believe that god hates gay people? You can find it in the Bible. You can also find places in both testaments that tell us that the fundamental spiritual and moral obligations are to love God and love our neighbors,” Ulreich said. “The Bible can be inspiring but it offers rich examples of very bad behavior. People who believe that the bible is all good for you, just haven’t really read the Bible.”
And as I said before, the legislation is also attempting to keep other texts out of the classroom: "legislators are trying to keep other speech out of the classroom, and threaten revocation of licenses for teachers engaged in 'uni-partisan activities' in the classroom, using FCC-defined obscene language, and bringing in books not pre-approved by the school board."

Arizona representatives who are in favor of this legislation make me so angry!!  The last year or so has seen the emergence of ridiculous, explosive, and religiously destructive legislation and politicians.  While up here in Canada I watch it as some sort of spectacle, I understand how terrible it is that these sorts of decisions are taking America into a very scary, overly-conservative and incredibly biased age, mostly based on erroneous understandings of religious doctrine.  In light of this, I worry greatly over the teaching of the Bible in elementary, middle, or secondary school classrooms.  I can only hope the legislation does not go through, or that Arizona is finally encapsulated under an indestructible bubble that will discourage the spread of such horrendous ideology.

I apologize if this post doesn't make as much sense as some, or if I sound like I'm rambling too much, but it's late, and this sort of news makes me quite frustrated.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

School District Ordered to Stop Censoring LGBT Sites

February 15, 2012

Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org
Debbie Read and Anthony Rothert, ACLU of Eastern Missouri, (314) 669-3420; tony@aclu-em.org

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A federal district court ruled today that the Camdenton R-III School District must stop censoring web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities through discriminatory filtering software. The ruling orders the district to not block content based on the viewpoints expressed by the website.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit against the district in August 2011 after repeated warnings that its custom-built filtering software discriminates against LGBT content. The filter has a category that blocks LGBT-supportive information, including hundreds of websites that are not sexually explicit in any way. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites that condemn homosexuality or opposed legal protections for LGBT people.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Camdenton High School student and LGBT organizations whose websites are blocked by the filter: PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization. The plaintiffs were also represented by Thompson Coburn LLP.

“The court correctly recognized the constitutional rights of all students to viewpoint-neutral access to information,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It is absolutely possible to protect children from sexually explicit content while also protecting their First Amendment rights. Like thousands of other school districts across the country, Camdenton R-III will now begin using a filtering system that blocks pornography without discriminating against LGBT-related content.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri said that the district’s filtering system “systematically allows access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT individuals by categorizing them as ‘religion,’ but filters out positive viewpoints toward LGBT issues by categorizing them as ‘sexuality.’” Although the district argued that it would unblock individual websites upon request the court held that “students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait twenty-four hours for access or by the stigma of knowing that viewpoint has been singled out as less worthy by the school district and the community.”

The court also concluded that other filtering systems are available that “are much more effective” at filtering out pornography “and do so without burdening websites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”

“The filtering system that had been installed at Camdenton R-III was arbitrary, ineffective and discriminatory,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Today’s ruling affirms that students will be free to search for resources for their gay-straight alliance, seek support against bullying and research history as it pertains to LGBT people, just as they would for any other subject.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Walk-outs and Teach-ins: How Students are Taking a Stand in AZ

This is really amazing to see.  Students walking out of schools and staging Teach-ins to show the Tuscon Independent School District that not only were they irresponsible for getting rid of the Ethnic Studies program, but also that the students actually want to learn.  Let me say that again, because sometimes it's hard to believe: These students want to learn!  Check out this news footage:

Here's a great quote from the video (cited from the official transcript of the newscast posted on The Real News), if you don't have time to actually watch the clip:
NOLAN CABRERA, PH. D., COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: When students do walk out its frequently framed in the media as these students just don’t want to be in school, they’re cutting class it’s like senior skip day, and so really what the students did was they went and they created their own school, the school of ethnic studies, the teaching of the forbidden curriculum, and so it was on Jan 24 it was their big act of both educational activism and civil disobedience they had well over 100 students from across the district show up at that event and having personally attended it it was absolutely beautiful seeing students who were so engaged and willing to fight for their own education because educational apathy is something endemic in this country, these students were fighting for it.
This is so important.  In this case it's not only academics, scholars, teachers, and politicians who are making a stand against the stupidity of this whole situation.  The students are fighting for something important: their right to learn, and not only to learn, but to learn about what is relevant and necessary in a multicultural nation!

Of course the most infuriating part of this whole scandal, to me at least, is the reaction of Superintendent John Pedicone of the TUSD stated that he thinks the outcry against the decision to remove the program is just a distraction, according to AlterNet.  He also refuses to comment on why the books have been removed from display and library shelves as well as from classrooms.  According to the AlterNet article, "the violation-ridden Tucson school district under [Pedicone's] leadership will apparently celebrate next week’s centennial without any textbooks or special recognition of Mexican American history and heritage or the Mexican American founder of Tucson public schools, Estevan Ochoa."

Pedicone even went so far as to write a letter to University Faculty members who helped the students with their Teach-in, basically scolding them and blaming them for the students skipping classes in protest.  He then proceeded to make sure that students were punished, by first attempting to assign them janitorial work.  After realizing what a terrible move that was, he changed the punishment to detentions, stating that suspension would be the next step for students who continue to skip classes in protest.  The fact that he actually scolded university faculty members for helping students to learn what should be in the school curriculum is laughable!  But if you want to read the whole letter, you can get to it here.

Many well-known authors, scholars, and activists have been out in force trying to get the program reinstated, or at least get the books out of the warehouse where they are sitting uselessly, gathering dust, instead of being used to teach.  As Norma Gonzalez stated, the program is needed so that "Tucson children can learn their state’s full history and rich heritage."  Noam Chomsky even chimed in.  While in Tucson this week, Chomsky "referred to Tucson’s removal of Mexican American Studies books and curriculum materials as an 'international disgrace.'"

Henry Giroux, noted education scholar, had a few things to say in an article posted this week on Truth Out.  He concluded the piece with a very stern warning:
The Arizona censorship of ethnic studies, the destruction of associated knowledges and the silencing of dissent is one of those events that flash before us in ways that might at first suggest nothing more than a silly, irrational or anomalous happening. But that is far from the actual case. Placed within a long view of history, it clearly signals the formation of those antidemocratic forces waiting in the shadows for an opportune moment to enshroud the entirety of the United States in what the philosopher Hannah Arendt once called, “dark times.”
It is truly unfortunate that these events are taking place to begin with, and every time I start reading the news about Tuscon specifically, and Arizona generally, I find my insides beginning to boil.  I want so badly for the school district, especially the superintendent, to see reason and figure out a way to bring the program back.  I want to see those protesting students see a resolution for their efforts!  At least there are people out there, like Henry Giroux, Christ Crutcher, Norma Gonzalez, Debbie Reese, and so many others, who are working their asses off to make change, and I can't thank them enough for doing what I can't do from outside of the country!

And now, before my blood starts to boil and I get overwhelmed with the craziness, I will sign off for the night.  Thanks, as ever, for reading and for caring.

Monday, January 30, 2012

For Immediate Release...

Joint Statement in Opposition to Book Censorship in the Tucson Unified School District 

January 30, 2012

The undersigned organizations are committed to protecting free speech and intellectual freedom. We write to express our deep concern about the removal of books used in the Mexican-American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District. This occurred in response to a determination by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal that the program "contained content promoting resentment toward a race or class of people" and that "materials repeatedly reference white people as being 'oppressors...' in violation of state law." The books have been boxed up and put in storage; their fate and that of the program remain in limbo.

The First Amendment is grounded on the fundamental rule that government officials, including public school administrators, may not suppress "an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." School officials have a great deal of authority and discretion to determine the curriculum, the subject of courses, and even methods of instruction. They are restrained only by the constitutional obligation to base their decisions on sound educational grounds, and not on ideology or political or other personal beliefs. Thus, school officials are free to debate the merits of any educational program, but that debate does not justify the wholesale removal of books, especially when the avowed purpose is to suppress unwelcome information and viewpoints.

School officials have insisted that the books haven't been banned because they are still available in school libraries. It is irrelevant that the books are available in the library - or at the local bookstore. School officials have removed materials from the curriculum, effectively banning them from certain classes, solely because of their content and the messages they contain. The effort to "prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, [or] religion" is the essence of censorship, whether the impact results in removal of all the books in a classroom, seven books, or only one.

Students deserve an education that provides exposure to a wide range of topics and perspectives, including those that are controversial. Their education has already suffered from this political and ideological donnybrook, which has caused massive disruption in their classes and will wreak more havoc as teachers struggle to fill the educational vacuum that has been created.

Book-banning and thought control are antithetical to American law, tradition and values. In Justice Louis Brandeis's famous words, the First Amendment is founded on the belief:
that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile;...that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination...Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, [the Framers] eschewed silence coerced by law...Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed. 
The First Amendment right to read, speak and think freely applies to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, or national origin. We strongly urge Arizona school officials to take this commitment seriously and to return all books to classrooms and remove all restrictions on ideas that can be addressed in class.

American Association of University Professors Cary Nelson, President 1133 19th St., NW, Suite 200 Washington, D.C. 20036 202-737-5900 cnelson@illinois.edu

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression Chris Finan, President 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 212-587-4025 chris@abffe.org

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona Alessandra Soler Meetze, Executive Director P.O. Box 17148 Phoenix, AZ 85011-0148 602-773-6006 ameetze@acluaz.org

Antigone Books Trudy Mills and Kate Randall, Owners 411 N. 4th Ave. Tucson, AZ 85705 520-792-3715 info@antigonebooks.com

Association of American Publishers Judith Platt Director, Free Expression Advocacy 455 Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20001 202-220-4551 jplatt@publishers.org

Association of American University Presses Peter Givler, Executive Director 28 West 36th Street, Suite 602 New York, NY 10018 212-989-1010 pgivler@aaupnet.org

Atalanta's Music & Books Joan Werner, Owner 38 Main Street Bisbee, AZ 85603 520-432-9976

Authors Guild Paul Aiken, Executive Director 31 East 32nd Street, 7th Floor New York, NY 10016 212-563-5904 PAiken@authorsguild.org

Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking Dr. Kathryn F. Whitmore, President N275 Lindquist Center The University of Iowa Iowa City, IA 52242 319-335-5434 Kathryn-whitemore@uiowa.edu

Changing Hands Bookstore Gayle Shanks, Bob Sommer and Cindy Dach, Owners 6428 S McClintock Drive Tempe, AZ 85283 480-730-0205 inbox@changinghands.com

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Charles Brownstein, Executive Director 255 West 36th Street, Suite 501 New York, NY 10018 212-679-7151 charles.brownstein@cbldf.org

Freedom to Read Foundation, an affiliate of the American Library Association Barbara M. Jones, Executive Director 50 East Huron Street Chicago, IL 60611 312-280-4226 bjones@ala.org

International Reading Association Richard M. Long, Ed.D., Director, Government Relations 444 North Capitol Street, NW, Suite 524 Washington, DC 20001 (202) 624-8801 rlong@reading.org

Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Laura Ayrey, Executive Director 8020 Springshire Drive Park City, UT 84098 435-649-6079 laura@mountainsplains.org

National Coalition Against Censorship Joan Bertin, Executive Director 19 Fulton Street, Suite 407 New York, NY 10038 212-807-6242 bertin@ncac.org

National Council for the Social Studies Susan Griffin, Executive Director 8555 16th St, Ste 500 Silver Spring, MD 20910 301.588.1800 x 103 sgriffin@ncss.org

National Council of Teachers of English Millie Davis Senior Developer, Affiliated Groups and Public Outreach 1111 West Kenyan Road Urbana, IL 61801 800-369-6283 ext. 3634 mdavis@ncte.org

National Youth Rights Association Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Executive Director 1101 15th Street, NW Suite 200 Washington, DC 20005 202-835-1739 akpalicz@youthrights.org

PEN American Center Larry Siems, Director, Freedom to Write & International Programs 588 Broadway New York, NY 10012 212-334-1660 ext. 105 lsiems@pen.org

PEN Center USA Adam Somers, Executive Director P.O. Box 6037 Beverly Hills, CA 90212 323-424-4939 adam@penusa.org

People For the American Way Debbie Liu, General Counsel 1101 15th Street NW, Suite 600 Washington, D.C. 20005 202-467-4999 dliu@pfaw.org

Reach Out and Read Anne-Marie Fitzgerald Senior Director of National and State Programs 56 Roland Street, Suite 100D Boston, MA 02129 618-455-0600

Reading is Fundamental, Inc. Carol Hampton Rasco, President/CEO 1255 23rd Street NW, Suite 300 Washington, DC 20037 202-536-3500

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Lin Oliver, Executive Director 8271 Beverly Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90048 323-782-1010 linoliver@scbwi.org

Spark Teacher Education Institute Educational Praxis, Inc. P.O. Box 409 Putney, Vermont 05346 802-258-9212

Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte, Executive Director 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1100 Arlington, VA 22209-2275 USA 703-807-1904 flomonte@splc.org

TESOL International Association John Segota, CAE Associate Executive Director for Public Policy & Professional Relations 1925 Ballenger Ave., Suite 550 Alexandria, VA 22314 703-518-2513 jsegota@tesol.org

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Shredding" the Public School Curriculum

As of January 1, 2012, New Hampshire has passed a law declaring that "school districts must adopt a policy that creates 'an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable.'"  What does this mean?  It basically means they every time a parent objects to something that their child is learning--whether that be evolution, sex education, or the laws of gravity--the school district has the responsibility to come up with a custom-tailored curriculum for that student.  According to the Nashua Telegraph,
Once a complaint is made in writing, the school district is required to come up with an alternative lesson plan agreeable to both parties that meets state curriculum requirements for that particular subject. Any extra expense would be incurred by the objecting parents.
Sure, the parents cover extra costs, but the school district is now responsible for coming up with custom lesson plans for every singe student whose parent(s) object to anything at all in the curriculum.  The article goes on to state that
Apparently, the previous law wasn’t good enough for Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who introduced the bill early last year. Hoell said parents should have the opportunity to object to any material, not just those used in sensitive classes such as sex education. 
The inherent problem with that approach is that it’s based on a faulty concept: that parents always act in the best interests of their children. You don’t need a degree in sociology to know that parents many times do just the opposite – much to the detriment of their child’s development.
There is a reason that teachers have degrees and teaching certificates, and well-trained educators and academics are put in charge of putting together curricula for school districts.  No curriculum is ever going to be perfect, but that's not the point of public education.  The point of public education is to teach a diverse range of concepts and themes that will reach as wide an audience as possible.  Parents have ideas of what they want their child to learn in school, but what they need to realize is that certain values are to be taught at home, not in a school where there are a multitude of different backgrounds--whether racial, religious, political, or otherwise.  The idea that now every student must get a special lesson plan when mom or dad doesn't like the lesson plan for the whole class is just ridiculous and puts much unnecessary strain on the school district, as well as teachers who will be stretched even thinner than they already are.

I am more disturbed every day as I hear about the measures being passed in US school districts by politicians who seem to have no clue about how education should or can work: the fiasco that came of implementing slavery into math word problems in Georgia; the dismantling of the Ethnic Studies program in Arizona; and now the disregard for the very basis of public education by Republicans.

For a more complete and very interesting objection to the Bill, written by professors of the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire, click here.  To conclude, I will quote the closing words of the Nashua Telegraph article, which states:
Even supporters of the new law, in a bid to tamp down criticism, acknowledge few parents will take advantage of it. One lawmaker even speculated it might be used by a miniscule “one-10th of 1 percent.” 
If that’s the case, the Legislature would have been better off to reject this pointless bill and left well enough alone.
What do you think of this scenario?  Do you think this sort of law is really going to help matters or just make things worse?  Leave your questions, comments, or concerns in the comments section!

Thanks for reading!  Oh, and for other articles on the topic, please check these out:

The New York Times
Seacoast Online
Death and Taxes

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ACLU Texas Issues Annual Report on Banned/Challenged Books

According the reports from the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom put out by the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, reports from 750 school districts across Texas were compiled by the ACLU and put into their 15th Annual Report on Banned Books.  The report notes that 17 books were banned from schools between 2010 and 2011, and numerous other books became restricted, only accessible by certain age groups or by parents of students.  In total, 67 books were subjected to challenges with the largest number occurring in the Round Rock Independent School District, though in the end, all 6 books were kept in the library.

The most common reasons for book challenges according to the report were as follows:
  • Politically/socially/racially offensive
  • Offensive to religious beliefs
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Violence and horror
  • Profanity/poor language
  • Sex or nudity

The books that were banned are as follows:
  • Steve Alten - The Trench
  • Carolyn Coman - Bee & Jacky
  • Caroline Cooney - The Terrorist
  • Lynne Ewing - Into the Cold Fire
  • Chris Lynch - The Slot Machine
  • Carolyn Mackler - Tangled
  • Joe Meno - The Great Perhaps
  • Lauren Myracle - Kissing Kate
  • Francesca Lia Block - Echo, Weetzie Bat
  • Eric Jerome Dickey - Drive Me Crazy, Dying for Revenge
  • Phyllis Reynolds Naylor - Alice on the Outside
  • Sean Cliver - Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art
  • Sarah Parvis - Creepy Castles
  • Mike Reiss - The Boy Who Looked Like Lincoln
  • Andy Riley - Book of Bunny Suicides

For a full list of the books that have been restricted, including Merriam-Webster's Visual Dictionary, check out the full report.  Included are interviews with Francesca Lia Block and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, as well as a full list of the books that were challenged in each school district and summaries of each of the challenged books.

Also included in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom are explanations and explorations of some more prominent attempts to ban books from libraries, schools, and universities.  For example, in Tavares, Florida, Lake County Commissioner Jimmy Conner wants the Gossip Girls series removed from public libraries in the area due to what he says are excessive occurrences of sexual activity, drug use, violence, and crude language.  Conner said that portions of the book he read were "so vulgar you couldn't read it right there in the commission meeting without being extremely embarrassed."  He went on to say later, "What I read was pornography without pictures."  Though Conner is obviously extremely opposed to the books, County Library Services Director Thomas Merchant said that no one has filed a request for reconsideration to have the books removed or relocated to the Adult section of the library.

What do you think of the above list of banned books from the Texas ISD's?  What about the example of book challenges related to Gossip Girls?  Please leave your comments, questions, concerns in the comments section.  And as always, thanks for reading!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Arizona Disgraced

Two school districts in Arizona have recently come to the forefront of book banning news, one because it has begun to pack up and ship out boxes of texts, and the other because there are already those trying to keep books from being bought for classrooms and libraries for various (ridiculous) reasons. 

The first of these school districts is the Tucson Unified School District, which recently closed down its Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies program.  The program has been lauded for being innovative and much more instructional than previous programs attempted in various districts.  The governing board of the school district, much to the public's chagrin, voted 4-1 in favor of termination and the books will now be boxed up and shipped out to textbook warehouses.  The reason for terminating the program?  Debbie Reese, blogger and professor, writes: "Opponents of the program argued that the classes were promoting resentment toward a race or class of people. That race or class of people is white."  People are actually frightened that the classes will teach resentment toward other races and classes of people... as if that isn't happening already outside of classrooms on a national and international level!!!  Reese continues, in her blog post, saying:
I'm pretty sure that Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie is not on the list.  Towards the end of that story, Pa learns that the federal government wants squatters (he doesn't use that word) to get off of Indian land.  They load the wagon and as they drive away, they look back and see that that "their little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness."  Pa says that it is a great country, "but there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a long day."  Books like Little House teach readers to resent a race or class of people, too, but I doubt it is being removed from classrooms....
In his Huffington Post article, Jeff Biggers cites Miguel Ortego, a community leader who ran for a position on the school board last year:
"In the 90's we asked why our students were last to be considered for an ethnic studies program....  Now we ask why we are the first to lose it. After successfully creating the Mexican American Studies program at TUSD in 1998, we knew we would need smart, ethical and courageous leaders to protect it. That fact hasn't changed. We just need to do a better job of understanding that the need for proper leadership to protect what is ours is constant. After last night's vote we should all realize that this need never changes."
I am having to take breaks every few minutes while writing and researching this post as the whole ordeal frustrates me and causes quite a lot of anger and sadness to boil up inside me.  I am even more aghast that a Federal judge refused to halt the implementation of the law banning the Ethnic Studies program, instead saying that a lawsuit to challenge the law could proceed if desired.  While I am hopeful, as is Jeff Biggers, that the program will return in time, I am still outraged that Tea Party state officials were able to influence enough people to pull this off in the first place!!!

In case you, dear reader, are interested to know what texts are being removed, here is a list provided by Debbie Reese:
  • Shakespeare's The Tempest (REALLY?!)
  • Suzan Shown Harjo's "We Have No Reason to Celebrate"
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie's "My Country, 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying"
  • Joseph Bruchac's "A Friend of the Indians"
  • Cornel Pewewardy's "A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas"
  • N. Scott Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee"
  • Michael Dorris's "Why I'm Not Thankful for Thanksgiving"
  • Leslie Marmon's "Ceremony"
  • Wendy Rose's "Three Thousand Dollar Death Song"
  • Winona LaDuke's "To the Women of the World: Our Future, Our Responsibility"
  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
  • Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools
  • bell hooks' Feminism is for Everybody
  • Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson's Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years
I will end this section of the post with a quotation directly from an audit of the program undertaken in May 2011.  After reading this, I seriously have to wonder what sort of society wants to take away programs that actually improve the critical thinking skills of students, programs that actually help students understand social issues and problems.  It makes my head hurt.  But as I said, here is a quotation from the audit:
[A] Tucson Unified School District audit found its Mexican American Studies program gives students a measurable advantage over their peers. The audit was conducted by David Scott, the district’s director of accountability and research. In it, he wrote, quote, "Juniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely than their peers to pass the [state’s standardized] reading and writing ... test if they had previously failed those tests in their sophomore year," and that "Seniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely to persist to graduation than their peers."

On another note, in the Dysart Unified School District (also in Arizona), Representative Jack Harper has decided that he doesn't like some of the books on a list that has been prepared for purposes of acquiring new materials for classrooms and libraries.  I will say first that I understand there has been no move as of yet to remove the books, but it is still important to bring to your attention the sort of ridiculous reasons that are being used to remove books from school systems.  Mr. Harper has declared his list of 11 objectionable titles may be considered inappropriate because some are anti-Christian, gay, transsexual, or promote drug-abuse.  Some of the books of concern were: "Should Marijuana Be Legalized?," "The Genius of Islam," "You Don't Know About Me," "OyMG," "We All Fall Down," "Rich and Mad," "Pink," "Jumpstart the World," "In Trouble," "I Am J" and "Transparent: Transgender."

It turns out, of course, that Mr. Harper viewed the wrong list of books, many of which weren't actually on the list created by the District administration.  And I realize that since nothing was actually removed and because he made a stupid mistake and started shooting his mouth off, but the fact remains that a politician is barging in a deciding what books he thinks are appropriate based on his own personal ideology, rather that looking at the good of the entire School District and the incredibly diverse student body.  For a much more descriptive and official article, see Amy Wang's write-up in The Arizona Republic.

Your comments, concerns, and disagreements are always encouraged.  And, as always, thanks for listening (or reading, I suppose, would be the more appropriate verb here.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Superintendent Forced to Rethink Decisions

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools interim superintendent Jeremy Hughes said community outcry changed his mind. (see the official statement from Hughes here)
-Peg McNichol (Canton Patch)

Interim Superintendent Jeremy Hughes decided to repeal his original decision to remove the book, Waterland (Graham Swift), from classrooms in order to go through proper channels and have the book reviewed by a committee.  Hughes stated, in the Canton Patch article, "my decision to remove the book without instituting the complaint-and-review processes provided for in our district’s Administrative Guidelines" sparked overwhelming objections from the community.  

He continues: "As a former high school English and Latin teacher, I am certainly aware that much of modern literature contains sexual material. It was my judgment, however, that the passages I read from Waterland had crossed the line in terms of graphic portrayal of sexual activity," he wrote. "Although it has been argued that I took action solely on the complaint of one parent, it was my judgment at the time that the majority of parents in Plymouth-Canton would have a similar objection if they read what I read."

The problem with Hughes' decision is that he based it upon an assumption that others would see the book in the same way.  This is obviously not entirely true, judging from the outcry that followed the banning of the book from English AP classrooms at the school.  Some parents may agree with Hughes.  In fact, the majority might end up agreeing with Hughes.  The problem here is that he simply assumed that they would agree with him, and then he removed the book without following proper procedures, including a review of the book by a formed review committee, consisting of parents, teachers, and others from the school district.

The removal of this book, and the challenge to Toni Morrison's Beloved, are both the result of complaints from (drum roll please!) one parent!  Again, why so much action from one parent's complaint?  There are so many options besides removing a book from classrooms, libraries, and other modes of instruction.  Texts are often (though not always) chosen for some merit beyond a teacher simply thinking that a particular book might work because they read it once.  So, if the books are being chosen for a particular purpose, why is it that they are so easily removed after a single complaint?  Why can that parent not simply have their child read a different book?

If nothing else, at least Waterland is being reviewed following proper guidelines now, and hopefully Beloved will be reviewed in the same way.  All I can hope for is that other parents see the slippery slope of removing books just because they discuss sex and just because one parent thinks the book is not suitable for their own child.  No book will be perfect for all students and parents all of the time, but if it is suitable for the majority, much of the time, then in a public education system, it is probably a suitable choice.

End Rant.

P.S.  If you think students are being destroyed by depictions of sex and sexuality in the novels they read for school, just read the following comments from a former student of the AP English course (from the Canton Patch comments section):
Aaron 1:47 pm on Friday, December 30, 2011
As a student who took this class, I am offended by the move to remove these books from AP english. All students who take this course are at least in eleventh grade (17 years old), and most students are seniors. It seems silly to ignore that the majority of students in the course are legally adults. Forgetting this crucial piece of information, the sexually "graphic" scene in Waterland is far from the focus of the book, but is merely a small part of outstanding piece of literary fiction. Waterland became my favorite book in AP English, and has has yet to lose that title. It would be a real shame to see it removed from a great course as a response to an ignorant parent's misplaced squeamishness.  
I feel the same way about Beloved that I do about Waterland, and truthfully don't remember the graphic descriptions the first poster mentioned. Several years removed, I do remember that Beloved taught me new ways to think about race and the legacy of slavery in the United States. Coincidentally, Beloved was the topic of an essay prompt on the AP English exam which I took for college credit my senior year of high school.