By Carol Jago

Powerful forces are gathering to demand control over what is taught, what students read, and what can and cannot be spoken.

A recent report from PEN America called “Banned in the U.S.A.” reports an astonishing 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts and 26 states. California is not one of these states. Yet. Overwhelmingly, the majority of books being targeted explore issues of race, racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

“It is not just the number of books removed that is disturbing, but the processes–or lack thereof–through which such removals are being carried out,” the report states. “Objections and challenges to books available in school are nothing new, and parents and citizens are within their rights to voice concerns about the appropriateness and suitability of particular books. In order to protect the First Amendment rights of students in public schools, though, procedural safeguards have been designed to help ensure that districts follow transparent, unbiased, established procedures, particularly when it comes to the review of library holdings.”

The American Library Association, which has been tracking book challenges for 20 years, reports a surge the like of which they have never seen before. “What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign to remove books from school and public libraries that deal with the lives and experiences of people from marginalized communities,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom.

The struggle to control what students read seems to be driven by fear: parents’ fear that their children will be brainwashed. They want to protect their babies. But keeping young people ignorant of reality, particularly when it’s harsh, won’t keep them safe. In fact, blinders can prevent children from understanding what they see in the world around them and what they feel within themselves. Not talking about Bruno won’t make him disappear.

The danger is silence. Classroom discussion is essential to educating tomorrow’s citizens. And teachers, in concert with their school communities, are in the best position to make decisions regarding what to teach and how to approach controversial subjects in age-appropriate ways. Controversial readings and topics always make for the most engaging classes and most engaged students. “Argue the point, not the person!” I reminded my students again and again.

Teachers find themselves crippled by curricular caution. And self-censorship may ultimately have more of an impact than school board bans. Results of a survey conducted by School Library Journal suggest that censorship attempts are likely to have a long-lasting insidious effect on school library collections. Removed books can be counted. What about the books that are never purchased?

Terry Stout Anderson, a district coordinator for secondary English in a large Midwestern school district, writes: “I don’t want teachers in my district to play it safe, but I do want English teachers across our district to feel safe when engaging students in adventurous thinking and free inquiry.”

No book worth teaching is neutral or without troubling moments. And even the most perfect book adoption process still cannot protect us from a potentially raucous school board meeting. Professional communities like the National Council of Teachers of English, the California Association of Teachers of English, and ERWC can help us navigate these difficult times. Educators committed to bringing great literature into classrooms do not need to go it alone.

Carol Jago is a long-time California public school teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and currently serves on the executive board of the International Literacy Association. Carol is the author of numerous books including The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis.

NOTE: Please consider submitting a proposal to present at this year’s ERWC Literacy Conference, to be held June 20th in Sacramento and June 26th in Pomona. Cal State University pays travel costs for selected presenters. See the Call for Presenters here.

Conference registration is now open!

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