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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.