Category Archives: Censorship

Cowards and Wasp Nest

It was the summer of 1975 when I was diagnosed with scoliosis—and eventually fitted with a massive upper-body brace designed to allow my vertebrae to grow and my spine to return to something like normal.

I was entering ninth grade, scrawny and nerdy. Deeply insecure, introverted, and (although I wouldn’t realize this for over 20 years) nearly paralyzed with anxiety.

My parents were incredibly supportive; they rushed to provide anything they could to make the experience less traumatizing. But I was heading off to school daily in the brace, the self-consciousness of adolescence intensified exponentially.

By sheer coincidence, my refuge from this experience was comic books, which I began collecting and also drawing from while I stood at our long bar separating our kitchen and living area.

Eventually, my efforts as an artist—which progressed from tracing to drawing superhero comics to drawing in pencil realistic portraits and even recreating album covers on the walls of our dorm rooms—waned in my early 20s.

Four-plus decades later, I discovered Procreate on the iPad, having watched my partner teach herself art on the program.

If Procreate/iPad had existed when I was a teen, I believe I would have never stopped doing art, but I have jumped back in.

The feel of drawing digitally has been disorienting so I started doing some photograph-based work to learn how to use the program and adjust to the feel of the digital pencil.

My first experiment was with the only image I have of Lou LaBrant:

What I had planned to be a way to practice Procreate, however, became something I want to do as artwork, although working from my original photgraphs.

Here are two of my projects, both from original photgraphs.

First, I based “Only Cowards Ban Books” on a photograph I took at the Brooklyn Public Library. Part of my purpose here was to play with colors and since this addresses censorship, I have a great deal of space where parts of the original photograph are missing.

Also absent is that the original was taken at dark so I used color to emphasize the sporadic lights.

The second is an idea I had after see The National at Red Rocks, working from an image I took while in Colorado this July.

I continue to work in flat colors and again much of the original image is omitted.

The lyrics and central idea of “Wasp Nest” is The National’s songs “Wasp Nest” and “Day I Die.”

Wasp Nest

Republicans Misreading “Banned Books Week” across Upstate South Carolina

The Travelers Rest (SC) branch of the public library had a visit from the local police recently:

Image courtesy Brandon Inabinet
Image courtesy Brandon Inabinet

As reported by Grace Runkle:

Police have now been pulled into the debate over what should and shouldn’t be in a library.

Travelers Rest police chief Ben Ford said his department received an email saying the Travelers Rest library branch was spreading obscene material.

The email named LGBTQ books that were being promoted as part of a Banned Books Week display, saying they contained sexually explicit material.

Ford said they investigated the claim, like they would with any other, but said it was unfounded.

Police called to library to investigate ‘obscene material’

This follows Pickens County schools banning Stamped, Racism, Anti-Racism, and You (for 5 years) and Perks of Being a Wallflower (for 3 years). As well, Runkle also reported, the Greenville County Republican Party targeted LGBTQ+ books included in children’s sections of the library.

Unreported, however, are numerous “quiet” bans and censorship occurring weekly if not daily in schools all across the Upstate of SC and the US broadly.

For Republicans, Banned Books Week is a time for them to actively ban books—another misreading of what academic freedom and individual rights mean in the US.

Again, the new normal in US schools—classrooms and libraries—and now increasingly including public libraries is allowing individuals to ban access to books for everyone else.

This is not about parental rights, as one often-banned author asserts:

“They act like they’re concerned for the kids, but they’re not,” said Ellen Hopkins, the author of CrankTricksPeople Kill People, and many other challenged books. “By saying, ‘Books on LGBTQ content can’t be there,’ they’re not only saying these kids don’t count. They’re saying they shouldn’t exist.”

…According to the PEN list, Hopkins is the author most frequently banned, with 43 bans. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, the second most banned author, is the most banned book. The memoir has been pulled from 41 districts, according to the report. Next comes All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and Pérez’s Out of Darkness.

Most-Banned Author in America Calls BS on Parents’ ‘Concern’

If the bans were about parental rights, we would be acknowledging that when one parent has books removed from libraries and classrooms, that parent is denying the rights of all other parents who want their children to have access to those books.

But even more important is that access to books is about children’s and students’ rights, as author George M. Johnson explains:

My book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” is a young adult memoir about my experience growing up Black and queer in America. In my story, I discuss growing up in a Black family who loved and affirmed me; the good, bad and ugly truths about what teens really deal with; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life was and still is full of joy, but also include some painful moments involving nonconsensual sex, as well as my experience with losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences have been deemed “an issue” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for ages 14-18 and it contains truths that many of us have experienced and are healing from. People’s backlash, in all forms, is being used to disguise the real issue.

George M. Johnson: What Getting My Book Banned Taught Me About Telling Your Truth

Access to books is access to ideas and coming to know ourselves, regardless of whether or not anyone meets societal standards of “normal,” which can be very harmful for those who discover they exist outside those expectations. Suicide and self-harm are disproportionate among LGBTQ+ young people, and book banning as well as curriculum censorship contribute to hostile environments for these young people.

Maia Kobabe details that personal journey:

I came out as queer to my mom as a senior in high school. It took almost a decade to also come out to her as nonbinary, even though I had been questioning my gender identity since I started puberty at age 11. A major reason for this long delay between my first coming out and my second was the lack of visibility of trans and nonbinary identities when I was young. By high school, I had met multiple out gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but I didn’t meet an out trans or nonbinary person until I was in grad school. The only place I had access to information and stories about transgender people was in media — mainly, in books.

Schools are banning my book. But queer kids need queer stories.

Ultimately, book banning and censorship can never be justified. If parents want to shelter or indoctrinate their own children (homeschooling that teaches flat-earth misinformation)—as disturbing as that is—that is substantially different than any parent seeking to control how everyone else navigates books, ideas, and learning.

Republicans are misreading Banned Books Week as a call for bans and censorship, the most UnAmerican ways to destroy our libraries and schools.

Armed police officers walking into a public library to evaluate the books available to a free people is proof that we are in fact not a free people.


Take action here: Stop Discriminating Against LGBTQ People

Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War

My partner and I took two of my grandchildren—Brees, 6, a kindergartener, and Skylar, 8, a third-grader—to a local high school football game where their father is an assistant coach.

As we were leaving, Brees said “Dorman” as we passed a sign for the school. My partner asked if he read the word, he explained he remembered “Dorman” starts with a “D” and ends with an “N” so he made a contextualized, and correct guess.

We praised him, and then he proceeded to spell “Dorman” with brief hesitations—”D,” “O,” “R,” “M,” “E,” “N.” My partner told him he did a great job and that he was nearly perfect, but the final vowel is “A,” although the “E” was a reasonable choice considering how the word is pronounced (especially here in the South).

I think about these children, beginning and emerging readers both, often as I continue to challenge the reductive current reading war driven by the “science of reading” movement. I have written about Skylar, an eager reader, and included both children on the cover of the second edition of my book about that reading war:

Brees demonstrated the value of having a wide and deep toolbox for reading for meaning, and represents, I think, the real-world value of seeking context and clues beyond simple decoding and reliance on phonics (although both are, of course, part of that toolbox). Ultimately, the key to his reading “Dorman” was experiential—having visited the school and having seen the word on clothes, etc., with his father.

And while this reading war leaves me nearly drained from frustration—and even angry—I am possibly more concerned about the other reading war. That reading war is the rise of censorship by parents and elected Republicans as well as the self-censorship occurring in our schools, self-censorship that is often nearly invisible but eroding literacy and academic freedom.

To paraphrase John Dewey and add a bit of attitude, why the hell are we concerned about teaching children to read if we are bound and determined to erase books and meaningful texts from their hands?

Traditionally, we have implemented in schools two approaches that I reject—whole class assigning and studying of texts (often limited to a very narrow canon) and allowing parents to opt their children out of those assignments.

My frustration with those practices now seems very naive since the new normal is that any single parent can have books and texts banned not just for their children, but for all children. And unlike the occasional complaint I experienced when teaching high school, states have passed book bans and curriculum censorship—exclusively by Republicans—all across the U.S.

I spent a few days this past week in Flatbush/Brooklyn, and while walking around, passed the Brooklyn Public Library just after sunset:

There is no way to justify book bans or censorship—not by Republicans, not by parents, and especially not by educators, the most vile actors in this movement.

There are books and ideas I genuinely loathe, such as the so-called novels of Ayn Rand. I criticize them, and would never encourage anyone to read them, but I would fight to make sure they are on book shelves of school and public libraries and in books stores, that anyone has access to them, that everyone has access to them.

“Coward” seems too mild a word, in fact.

But, yes, people who ban books, people who censor are cowards, and our children as well as academic freedom are the collateral damage in this senseless and UnAmerican reading war.

Looking Back to Understand “Science of Reading” and Censorship: Lou LaBrant 1936-1949 [Updated]

One of the most important aspects of understanding any issue or field of knowledge, I think, is to have nuanced historical perspective. That is vividly true about education and especially reading.

The current reading crisis, often referred to as the “science of reading” movement, and the incredibly chilling impact of curriculum bans, book censorship, and attacks on teaching and learning are not, I regret to emphasize, all that new (except the degree of the bans are in many ways unprecedented).

I am currently working on completing my online annotated bibliography of Lou LaBrant, and offer below some historical perspective on teaching reading and why censorship is always wrong for education and democracy.

Access my blog post on each work by clicking the hyperlink in the essay titles; many of her publications can also be accessed through JSTOR (links at end of bibliographies when available). I am including memes of key passages from LaBrant with the recommended works below.


Witty, P.A., & LaBrant, L.L. (1936, June). Aims and methods in reading instructionEducational Trends, 5-9, 18.

LaBrant, L. (1939). The relations of language and speech acquisitions to personality development. In P.A. Witty & C.E. Skinner (Eds.), Mental hygiene in modern education (pp. 324-352). Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), 289-291. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20330759

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

LaBrant, L. (1943, March). Our changing program in languageJournal of Educational Method, 21(6), 268-272.

Witty, P., & LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching the people’s language. Hinds, Hayden, & Eldredge, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

LaBrant, L. (1949, January). A little list. English Journal, 38(1), 37–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/808110

Misreading Innocence in Teaching and Learning

Back to school 2022 looks different than any of my many years as a student and even more as a teacher. “Back to school” now means curriculum bans for teachers and censorship for students.

It’s the Upside Down of the American Dream and academic freedom.

One recurring (and misleading) justification by Republicans banning curriculum and censoring books is a manufactured crisis around “age-appropriate” content; however, several Republicans have also directly begun including in their claims that the role of school and teachers is to protect childhood innocence:

As a parent, grandparent, and almost 40-years a teacher, I want to emphasize that the role any adult plays in mentoring, parenting, or teaching children is not to protect their innocence (more on why later), but to provide support and guidance as children mature and come to know the full, complicated, and often disturbing real world.

To keep a child or teen innocent is to deny them their full humanity and autonomy.

As a reader and teacher of literature, I am aware of the power and allure of idealizing innocence.

Setting aside for a moment the tremendous problems with author J.D. Salinger, his career was built on a nearly fawning adoration of his central motif, the “catcher in the rye” imagery of Holden Caulfield’s quest to protect his sister’s (and all children’s) innocence because he clearly has been traumatized by his entry into the adult world.

Author Eudora Welty praised Salinger as a writer in her review of Nine Stories in 1953:

The stories concern children a good deal of the time, but they are God’s children. Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence, and starts with innocence: from there it can penetrate a full range of relationships, follow the spirit’s private adventure, inquire into grave problems gravely–into life and death and human vulnerability and into the occasional mystical experience where age does not, after a point, any longer apply. Mr. Salinger’s world urban, suburban, family, mostly of the Eastern seaboard is never a clue to the way he will treat it: he seems to write without preconception of shackling things.

Threads of Innocence

Like Salinger (and nearly as problematic as a human), e.e. cummings idealized childhood and seemed to lament adulthood: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.” Like many writers and artists throughout history, cummings portrayed childhood innocence as being closer to God (or the Universe); adulthood is a forgetting.

Both of these authors were attractive to me as a young writer, teacher, and even scholar, but the most compelling work about innocence was always William Blake, who complicated the innocence/experience dynamic. Blake’s work shows the necessary duality of life without idealizing innocence—even as he detailed the darkness of experience.

What is innocence?

It is a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge, the absence of living life that is idealized not only in literature but in Christianity—the fall from grace, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, being cast out of the idyllic innocence of the Garden of Eden.

But innocence is extremely dangerous, and the innocent are easily manipulated, easily controlled.

And here is the truth about curriculum bans and book censorship: Republicans, conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists are primarily concerned about control—especially controlling women and children.

There is no crisis in our schools concerning exposing children and teens to content and books that are not age appropriate. If anything, traditional schooling still coddles children and teens—and especially young adults.

Protecting the innocence of children is not a valid goal for teachers or schooling; protecting the innocence of children is cruel and dehumanizing, in fact.

But that is not what Republicans are concerned about.

This is pure and simple a power grab, a way to control minds and impose a worldview on others.

Welcome to the Upside Down of the American Dream.


Recommended

Experimentalism and its relation to a new psychology (1935), Witty and LaBrant

Thoughts from Driving Cross-Country in 2022: Kansas

I am not in Kansas
I can't slow down and I can't stand it
Broadcast News into Hallelujah
Hanne Darboven had a great idea
Make a list, write it down
Shave your head, draw a crown
Move back home with mom and dad
The pool is drained and they're not there
My bedroom is a stranger's gun room
Ohio's in a downward spiral
I can't go back there anymore
Since alt-right opium went viral

"Not in Kansas," The National

This was going to be a different blog post. In early July and then again in early August, I drove cross country—from SC to CO and then back.

This drive crosses for significant stretches Kansas and Missouri. And driving for hours along Interstate 70 in those states is a vivid and disturbing snapshot of the U.S.A. in 2022.

After posting about driving to OH and back, I had begun to think even more deeply about the current political state of the union. We are not a country divided by Right v. Left or Republican v. Democrat.

The division involves those of us who favor community and those who are seeking authoritarianism. I was motivated to continue this idea after seeing a Tweet from Allison Gaines:

I agree with her, and I think that poll captures the divide I identified above; non-religious and Jewish people have chosen community, and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons have chosen authoritarianism.

The problem is that these ideologies are being leveraged in our political system. The very real and immediate danger is that those seeking authoritarianism are using government to impose those ideologies onto everyone—and they are winning. Those seeking community—people who believe democracy is a way to provide everyone space to live freely in ways that are diverse and not mandated by an authority—are losing. Badly.


As I wrote in my post on provincialism, you can learn a lot about how people think by the billboards (professional and homemade) that line our highways.

Kansas and Missouri billboards tell you that you are in Trump Country, that you are surely going to hell, that we are baby killers, that being gay or trans is a ticket to hell, that pornography is killing us.

Those billboards also tell you to follow and trust in Jesus—and “every glock is in stock.”

God. Country. Family. Guns.

I was driving just before Kansas voters were going to polls to amend their constitution. Like many other states, Kansas was attempting to further restrict access to abortion. The campaigns, advertising, and signs along the interstate were a garbled mess of misinformation and scare tactics.

Lots of Jesus. Lots of Hell. Lots of babies.

During the drive, I would have guaranteed another state was turning against women.

And then, hope?

Kansas voters chose to maintain the right to abortion in their state constitution by a significant majority.

One of the most troubling aspects of the push to ban abortion and the success in overturning Roe V. Wade is that polls overwhelmingly show a solid majority—about 2/3 of Americans—support the right to abortion.

None the less, the minority view that all abortion must be banned is winning. The political system in the U.S. is not a democracy, not a voice of the majority and not a mechanism for protecting the rights of minorities.

Our government is firmly the tool of conservatives. Republicans dominate state governments and use that power to ban, censor, and remove freedoms that have been painstakingly gained over decades of progressive efforts.


And here is the essential problem with authoritarian ideology:

No one loses anything because other consenting adults have different ways of being sexual, of expressing gender, but this parent is offended by “normalizing” even after reading a book and finding it “filled with ‘kindness and caring.'”

The authoritarian urge is mainly among white religious people who are essentially fundamentalist in their beliefs. For fundamentalists (I was born and have lived my entire life in the fundamentalist South), their beliefs and ways of living are not simply how they want to live; they are not seeking a country that allows them the freedom to believe and live as they choose.

Fundamentalists see it as their sacred duty to God to impose their beliefs on everyone else. Fundamentalists have missionary zeal, the arrogance of thinking their beliefs are not just right for them, but right for you (and you may not even know it!).

This is why Republicans and conservatives are banning books and censoring curriculum and instruction in schools. Republicans and conservatives are not trying to fight indoctrination; they are demanding that only they have the power to indoctrinate.

Republicans are afraid of books, history, ideas, and diversity even when none of these materially take anything away from them, when none of these are using the power of government and law to deny people their own freedoms and choices.

We on the left are materially afraid of gun violence, police killing people before they can be proven guilty or innocent, pandemics, laws denying women body autonomy, and literally losing our freedoms because of laws passed exclusively by Republicans (abortion bans, anti-CRT laws, book bans, etc.).


And that is what this blog post was originally about—false equivalence.

Every day our mainstream media—demonized by the Right as liberal—feeds us the false “both sides” narrative that suggests using government to ban abortion, censor what students can be taught, and erase freedoms gained is somehow the same as protesting abortion bans and curriculum gag orders, somehow the same as calling for expanding freedoms and rights for all regardless of race, beliefs, sexuality, gender, etc.

Authoritarian power grabs of the government are in no way the same as using democracy to create a more perfect union that allows individual and consensual freedom for everyone.

As my post on driving to OH examined, this remains a problem of rural v. urban.

Driving across rural Kansas and Missouri is a disturbing harbinger of the country the authoritarian right wants, that the authoritarian right is actively building.

God. Country. Family. Guns.

Mass shootings? No problem.

School shootings? Just the cost of the Second Amendment.

The world view of fundamentalist religious Americans lacks logic, is absent coherence, and is built on lies.


Back in SC, I am not in Kansas.

But I am well aware that the fundamentalism and authoritarianism of my home state is not unique, not simply a feature of the South.

Rural America is determined to control us all, determine to mandate what counts for everyone’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

That is not America, at least not the ideal we were raised to believe.

I am afraid that it is too late.

Should the vote in Kansas give us hope?

Maybe, but hope means nothing without action.

And for now, the authoritarians are the ones willing to make their world happen.

What are we willing to do for each other?

For everyone?

For anyone?

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educators, I was a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina, my hometown in fact. I never imagined doing anything else, but I did attain my doctorate in 1998, still planning to be Dr. Thomas, high school teacher, for my entire career.

It is 2022, and I just completed 20 years in higher education, where I am a full professor in education and (fortunately) also teach first-year and upper-level writing. This fall I am taking my first ever sabbatical.

However, if anything, my scholarly schedule is more packed than at any time in my career. If you are interested in my work, I invite you to join me at the following presentations/keynotes and/or look for my upcoming publications.

Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

Publications

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)(2nd Edition) – IAP – [first edition]


Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

September 15, 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]


Presentations/Keynotes

Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022

Webinar

Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)

Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Webinar

Unpacking Reading Science to Inform a Different Path to Literacy 

The “Science of Reading” movement that began in 2018 has gained momentum and has had outsized influence on state reading policy and classroom practice. However, the SoR movement presents two negative impacts on long-term literacy education—a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and mandates for phonics-first instruction for all beginning readers. In this webinar, Paul Thomas, Ed.D. (Professor of Education, Furman University, and author of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students) places the SoR movement in the context of the robust but complex current state of reading science. Come join us on October 20, 2022, at 4 p.m. as we explore what’s next in literacy education.

Ohio Education Association

Education Matters podcast; grade retention

TBD

University of Arkansas

October 24 at 6:30

The Jones Center for Families

Serving the Literacy Needs of All Students: While Resisting Another Reading War

30th annual Reading Recovery Council of Michigan Institute, Thursday, November 17, 2022, Somerset Inn, Troy, Michigan

Keynote

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means. I detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream media during 2018. “Science of reading” as discourse, as marketing, and as a research base.

Break-out Session

How to Navigate Social Media (and RL) Debates about the “Science of Reading”

Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” advocates on social media. However, if you enter into a social media or real-life debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read or hear that debate, and be prepared with credible and compelling evidence.


NCTE 2022, November 17 – 20, 2022, Anaheim, CA 

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title: Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC

Role: Roundtable Leader

Event Title: The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 2:00 PM PST – 3:15 PM PST

Location: 204-B

Role: Roundtable Leader


2023 Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference, Chicago, IL, January 18-20, 2023 

Keynote

Teaching Literacy in a Time of Science of Reading and Censorship

The key elements of the science of reading (SOR) movement as well as the current move the ban books and censor curriculum are outlined against historical and research-based contexts. The unique challenges facing literacy educators iden/fied with considera/on of how literacy teachers can maintain professional autonomy in the classroom and prac/ce ac/vism in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of “science” and research as well as in support of academic freedom.

90-minute breakout sessions

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free: Teachers as Activists

The US is experiencing one of the most significant waves of book bans and educational gag orders impacting academic freedom, access to diverse voices and history, and the safety of teachers and students. Teachers are historically required to be apolitical and avoid advocacy in and out of the classroom. This session examines the politics of calling for no politics among educators, and explore with participants both the need to advocate for their professional autonomy and academic freedom as well as for academic freedom.

Unpacking the “Science” in the Science of Reading for a Different Approach to Policy and Practice

The science of reading (SOR) movement and the use of the “science of reading” in marketing literacy programs have had a significant impact on reading policy and practice across the US since 2018. Policy and practice related to dyslexia, adopting reading programs, teaching reading (and the role of phonics instruction), however, have too often been guided by a misleading and overly simplistic version of SOR portrayed in the media and advocated by parents and politicians. This session examines the contradictions between claims made by SOR advocates and the current research base.


LitCon 2023, January 28 – 31, Columbus, OH

Rethinking Reading Policy in the Science of Reading Era

Since 2018, states have been revising or adopting new reading legislation prompted by the science of reading movement. Placed in the context of several reading crises over the last 100 years, however, this movement is deja vu all over again, destined to fail and be replaced by another reading crisis in the near future. This session explains why and offers a new approach to reading policy at the state, district, and school levels.


WSRA 2023 Conference, Milwaukee, WI, February 9-11, 2023 

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S. Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, in this session, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018. The session will cover the research base around the SoR movement for context. Participants will be invited to discuss their experiences with these three versions as well.

Banning Books Is Un-American

The U.S. is experiencing a wave of book censorship and educational gag orders. This session examines the historical context of censorship as it impacts the teaching of literacy and literature by focusing on writer Kurt Vonnegut’s response to censors. The session will include powerful policy and position statements supporting the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn, including The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE), Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE), and Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE). Participants will have an opportunity to discuss and explore how and why educators must and can seek ways to defend academic freedom and thew right to teach and learn.


PSLA Conference 2023, February 23-25, 2023

Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Friday, February 24, 2023, 8:00 – 9:00

Invited Speaker: Rethinking Reading Science: Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Paul Thomas

Focusing on reading science published since 2018 addressing reading, dyslexia, and phonics, this session details a complex but robust state of reading science. Media and think-tank messaging parents, political leaders, and the public are receiving about the “science of reading” are oversimplified, cherry-picked, and contradictory to that current state of reading science. Classroom teachers deserve the autonomy to interrogate reading science, understand the individual needs of all their students, and then the teaching and learning conditions to serve those students with evidence-based practice.

Saturday, February 25, 2023, 10:15 -11:15 

Panel: Carving a Path Forward: Equity, Neuroscience, Policy Mandates and Literacy Education 

The Politics of Teaching Reading, Paul Thomas

Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

I had dinner and a few beers with a former student recently. Although he is about two decades younger than me, we share a hometown and grew up in the same neighborhood. And after I had moved out during young adulthood, as a child, he often spent time at my parents’ house, just playing and hanging out.

He’s worked all over the world and has been living in Europe for more than 15 years. Our conversation drifted to our hometown and his perception of living in Europe instead of near where he grew up. Eventually, he asked how some people “get out” of small hometowns, escape the trap of narrow-mindedness—what I referred to as provincialism.

We share a strong discomfort with conservative and fundamentalist thinking even though we were raised in that environment, which continues to this days in our hometown. His question reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from The National: “How can anybody know/ How they got to be this way?”

Especially as a teacher, I have found teaching siblings complicates any solid answer to his question since two people raised in the same home and town can turn out to be very different people. We catalogued several people also from our community who, like us, no longer conform to the mold of our upbringing, trying to understand why some people change and others remain frozen in the provincialism of their upbringing.

My former student is very clear that the key for him was being an exchange student in Europe during his junior year of high school; his worldview changed once he had lived a different view of the world. I credit my education, especially literature, but it is the same dynamic—being exposed to different views of the world.


“The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance,” begins “The Words of My Mouth” in a June issue of English Journal. “Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues—all of these may be evils in the English classes as others.”

That opening builds to this key question: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings?”

This essay is by Lou LaBrant and was published in 1946. LaBrant was vividly aware of the threats to freedom in the context of WWII and Nazi Germany, but her essay resonates today because of the threats from within the US, the Republican assaults on academic freedom, books, and individual choice by weaponizing “pornography,” “grooming,” “Critical Race Theory,” and any word or phrase to impose a narrow view of the world onto all of us.

“Not one facet of human experience will serve to insure the kind of society we need so desperately, and all aspects of living affect all others,” LaBrant warns.

The role of education, she emphasizes, must include: “A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of anything.” At the core of racism, sexism, and all types of bigotry and hate, LaBrant recognized the need to challenge the power of “word magic,” the belief that uttering something makes it so, gives it power.

In 1950, LaBrant returned to this topic, focusing on students as writers:

[Students] should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what they say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word-magic. (p. 264)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383735

Over the past few years, I have made long trips from South Carolina into the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Wisconsin. Each time, I find the persistence of what is stereotypically “Southern” into the region that we in the South would classify as the “North” (which is everything outside of the Deep South, including Virginia and Texas). Fundamentalist billboards condemning homosexuality and abortion as well as huge signs quoting scripture line highways all through rural America.

Billboard in Ohio

These 8-10 hour drives left me certain I was not making just the specific trip I was on (conference presentations) but was destined for the flaming pits of Hell. Although I am a white straight man, I strongly believe in the rights of all people regardless of racial identification, gender, sexuality, religion (or not), etc., because I very much believe I deserve the same sort of freedom to fully be the human I have come to know that I am.

I also know that for women to be fully human, body autonomy is essential and that includes abortion rights.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a humanist:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife [emphasis added]. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To me, this is a foundational commitment to the country’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can any of us be happy if we are required to conform to a narrow mandate of ways of being determined by a few in power based on a provincial view of the world?

My gender identity and sexuality are who I am, and right for me, but that means nothing for anyone else. I want my ways of being to be honored; therefore, I believe I am obligated to honor that for everyone else.


As my former student can attest by experience, people have even more freedom in countries other than the US; Americans do not have a monopoly on individual freedom and certainly not communal support for those freedoms (universal healthcare contributes to individual freedom, for example):

[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it—and almost all of us have one way or another—this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” James Baldwin

The hostile environment in the US today fostered by conservatives is also eroding those freedoms day by day; people are less free in the US than 6 months ago, and we are very likely on the precipice of the erasing of even greater freedoms in the coming months.

The Republican agenda of rolling back freedoms and rights as well as increasing bans and censorship is an agenda grounded in provincialism, which, as I have observed, seems to be rooted in rurality, the isolation of people creating an isolation of worldview.

We know rural America is red and urban American is blue, but I think we fail to examine fully why this is the case. For me, my former student’s experience illustrates the dangers of narrow thinking when you have limited experiences and why a cosmopolitan worldview is a doorway to expanding how you think and your ability to have empathy for people who appear to be unlike you.

I use “appear” because, for example, a gay person and a straight person have different sexualities but share the need for having that sexuality honored. That is our commonality.

Yet, democracy is failing us in the US because those who want to use their political power to control have the same rights to vote as those who want to use their political power to insure everyone’s freedoms and ways of being.

And in 2022, those voting to control seem to the have the upper-hand, not because there are more of them but because the system has been gamed to favor them and they often have the greatest passion for asserting their control. Sadly, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

Some see their ideologies and beliefs as baseball bats; others see them as safety nets. In a democracy, those votes are equal—and the humanity of individuals hangs in the balance.


I am not concerned, however, that I am in fact going to hell for wanting individual freedom for everyone regardless of their ways of being, regardless of how their gender, sexuality, or whatever appears the same or different from mine.

The irony is that Republicans are creating hell on earth for all of us right here in the US; they are proving Sartre right: “Hell is other people.”

And because of the failure of democracy, there is no exit.

Resignation

NOTE: Below is a real letter of resignation, specific details redacted in order to protect the teacher. The teacher was early career, and this represents the state of the field of teaching in SC and across the US.


[Principal],

Please accept this document as notification of my resignation, effective June 6, 2022.

While I have appreciated my tenure as a teacher in [district], I feel it’s in my best interests and also my moral responsibility to reject any further offers of employment from [district]. I have been disappointed by several of my interactions with administration, both in [school] and at the district office. I pride myself in advocating for the teaching profession and for the needs of teachers, because I understand the essential democratic importance of education. It has been difficult to feel alone in that work of advocacy, and worse to have to justify myself, and I feel compelled to move into a profession that is better positioned to hear the concerns of its professionals and react meaningfully.

I was especially and painfully disappointed by [district]’s reaction to the fearmongering of South Carolina’s governor over the presence of Black and queer narratives in our libraries and curricula. [District]’s response, to call the texts “pornography” and then to remove them from all choice spaces, was wrong. Not only was it a breach of trust between the district and already vulnerable teachers, and not only did it add a significant amount to the (already impossible) teacher workload, but it will effectively end reading all but canonized texts, as those are the only texts that it is likely three teachers would have read and can approve per the new district guidelines for selection of texts. The district’s choices will serve primarily to keep students from reading and certainly to keep students from reading texts that they would enjoy; the policies the district has created are antithetical to our supposed goals of creating life-long, enthusiastic readers.

I also know that much of the concern over texts driving the changes in [district] is cloaked in a veneer of concern about “obscenities.” I think it’s important to challenge that concern and call it out for what it is: bigotry. No one is concerned about the suggestive material in Shakespeare, or Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck. We seem to be deeply concerned, however, when the authors are a part of or are speaking to a marginalized community. Providing texts that acknowledge the realities of our students along all axes of identity is best practice, but we are only allowed, effectively, to provide best practice opportunities for students whose identities fit an Evangelical agenda. Where is this concern when we force Black students to read racial slurs in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Great Gatsby? We do not censor these books because we recognize that while they contain sensitive and disturbing material, they have something of value to offer our students. We seem incapable of seeing that same value in works who empathize with marginalized people, and insistent on reading that empathy as an attack on traditional values.

[District]’s selective censorship is a failure to support significant portions of our community who already experience systemic inequities; we compound the damage already done to our marginalized students by not allowing them to see themselves in books, which then further erodes the trust that our communities place in us to make every child in our care feel seen and understood. I would ask anyone in the district who is in a position to advocate for teachers at the state level to read the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) position on censorship of texts. NCTE has multiple position statements affirming students’ right to read, and have expressly condemned the very types of censorship policies [district] is now implementing, as has every other national professional organization for teachers.

When teachers challenged this censorship and the removal of a district-approved book list in a faculty meeting and pointed out that most of the works students read in class contain “obscenities,” the response, that “Shakespeare was okay because most students don’t understand the language” deeply disturbed me, because my job, of course, is to help students understand the language. Our job as teachers and English teachers specifically is to clarify; to give students the ability to see more clearly and critically the world around them. When a minority of the community screams loudly enough that they do not want students to see, do not want students to learn, do not want students to have access to reality, entertaining their concerns and appeasing them is not harmless; it does violence to students whose humanity is now being denied, to teachers and staff members whose identities are among the disparaged, and to every student who loses an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Even worse, we are not just removing these texts from the spaces where students can engage and receive support from a professional in critical conversation (the classroom) but we are removing them from all spaces, even choice spaces such as the library. Students deserve to see themselves in the texts around them, and to have their identities treated with care and seriousness, not as problems to be ignored or wished away.

As a final note on [districts]’s political censorship: many of the texts that have been challenged are taught in courses that are meant to replace college level courses, such as Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses. Teachers have an obligation to provide the same level of complexity and rigor in their classrooms that those students would receive if they were in college, as the course is for college credit. The idea that students from our district will receive expurgated versions of collegiate education to appease a small subset of parents and community members should anger everyone, because all of us have to live in and with the ramifications of a community where the citizens are losing access to quality education.

The current climate of teaching in [district] is a microcosm of the state of our profession in South Carolina, and it has made my job, especially over the last two years, infinitely more challenging and stressful. The work of teaching is vital, and I sincerely hope that the administration of [district] is willing to do better in the work of advocating to protect the professional integrity of their employees than they have shown themselves willing to do previously. In particular, the wave of bills and policies currently under review at the state level, such as the affirmation of our existing no promo homo laws and the new parental trigger laws, will succeed only in creating a climate of fear and censorship in the classroom and in moving the authority of education out of the hands of educators and into the hands of parents. These bills are an existential threat to public education. Because the viability of our democracy is contingent upon having informed and educated citizens, it is not hyperbole to say that these bills are an existential threat to democracy. Students have a right to receive a quality education regardless of, and often in spite of, their parent’s beliefs. Our students deserve better than what [district] and the State of South Carolina are currently willing to provide for them. Teachers also deserve better. Teachers, however, have the choice to leave the profession. A critical examination of the expectations we place on and the miracles we expect of teachers is in order. I will continue to watch this examination with hope and idealism, but I can no longer do it from anywhere but the gallery seats.

Sincerely,

[Teacher]


See Also

Lehre Ist Tot

National Days of Teaching Truth: May 2022

See a listing of 31 texts for May HERE (add in comments any text you will be teaching and a date; I will add to the sheet)

May 1: “Help me”

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

May 2

“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

National Days of Teaching Truth to Power

May 3

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

May 4

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

Recommended

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

May 5

Karl Marx: ten things to read if you want to understand him

Karl Marx (b. 5 May 1818)

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 6

The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde

May 7

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Maia Kobabe

What to Do When Your Kid Is Reading a Book That Makes You Uncomfortable

May 8

Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin

May 9

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone

May 10

Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, Neil Gaiman

May 11

Vision: The Complete Collection

A Vision of Being Human: “Am I normal?”

May 12

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” 1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

George Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008)

May 13

“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay

May 14

Maus, Art Spiegelman

May 15

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

May 16

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich (b. 16 May 1929)

May 17

“A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin

Time Magazine (James Baldwin, 17 May 1963)

May 18

Malcolm X press conference on deadly police raid in Los Angeles (footage excerpt, 1962)

May 19

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (b. 19 May 1930)

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, later Malik el-Shabazz; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)

Caribbean Matters: On Malcolm X’s birthday, remember that his mother’s Caribbean roots shaped him

May 20

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

May 21

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks

White Lies, Black Incarceration, and the Promise of Reading in Prison

May 22

“We Real Cool,” Gwendolyn Brooks

May 23

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller (b. 23 May 1810)

May 24

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument, Caroline Randall Williams

May 25

Statement to the Court, Eugene V. Debs

Kurt Vonnegut letter on censorship

May 26

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

May 27

All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson

May 28

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 29

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

May 30

“Incident,” Countee Cullen (b. 30 May 1903)

Banning the N-word on campus ain’t the answer — it censors Black professors like me, Vershawn Ashanti Young

May 31

“I Sing the Body Electric,” Walt Whitman (b. 31 May 1819)