Category Archives: free speech

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educator, 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, Podcasts, Webinars

2022

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 (view online)

PowerPoint HERE

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

November 10, 2022


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 (click for PP)

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” (click for PP)

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 (click for PP)

Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War (click for PP)

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC


Consulting: Charleston County School District

Reading programs, “science of reading,” and potential PD for faculty and administrators

November 21, 2022


Schoolutions podcast

December 20, 2022


2023

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

Keynote – 8:00 – 9:00 CT January 20, 2023

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 – 9:15 – 10:45 CT January 20, 2023

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 – 11:30 – 1:00 CT January 20, 2023

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET

Monday, January 30, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm ET

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.

Book signing: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)

Monday, January 30, from 8:00 – 8:30 am


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

Banning Books Is Un-American

Thursday, February 9, 2:00-3:15

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.

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Friday, February 10, 9:45-11:00

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.


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

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free

My poem The 451 App (22 August 2022) is a science fiction/dystopian musing about the possibility of technology providing a comforting veneer to the creeping rise of totalitarianism—a simple App appearing on everyone’s smartphone before erasing all our books.

The point of the poem is less about technology and a dystopian future (alluding of course to Fahrenheit 451) and more about another work of literature: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

For me, this unmasking of the human condition has always been haunting; it also has become disturbingly relevant in the Trump/post-Trump present in which we live.

Real life is always far more mundane than speculative fiction—and far more shocking.

The “worst,” “full of passionate intensity,” launched an assault on academic freedom in the final months of the Trump administration. The initial wave seemed poised at The 1619 Project and a manufactured Critical Race Theory scare.

By January of 2022, a report found that educational gag orders passed in states across the U.S. were having a significant and chilling effect:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

The Conflict Campaign (January 2022)

As bills have increased since this report, the number of teachers and students impacted are certainly higher.

Concurrent with educational gag order legislation, book banning has increased dramatically, as reported by PEN America:

• In total, for the nine-month period represented, the Index lists 1,586 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,145 unique book titles. This encompasses different types of bans, including removals of books from school libraries, prohibitions in classrooms, or both, as well as books banned from circulation during investigations resulting from challenges from parents, educators, administrators, board members, or responses to laws passed by legislatures. These numbers represent a count of cases either reported directly to PEN America and/or covered in the media; there may be other cases of bans that have not been reported and are thus not included in this count.

• The Index lists bans on 1,145 titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.

• The Index lists book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.

Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights

Republicans and conservatives have steadily created an environment of fear around teaching and learning, which is being detailed now by teachers experiencing that fear (with many leaving the field):

Last year, I was quoted in an article in the School Library Journal about how I discussed toxic masculinity with my high school students when we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”togetherWithin days, far-right publications twisted my words to denounce “woke liberal indoctrination in schools.”

Strangers sent me messages on social media accusing me of indoctrinating students, of being unprofessional and unintelligent. I received a handwritten letter addressed to me at school. The letter accused me of being a “low-life, pseudo-intellectual, swallow-the-lib/woke/b—s— koolaid a — h—-.” [The hyphens were added to replace letters because of Washington Post style and not in the original].

‘Educators are afraid,’ says teacher attacked for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ unit, Sarah Mulhern Gross

This movement is driven by lies and fear mongering, but it depends on the missionary zeal of the liars and fear mongers as well as the passivity of “the best” among us.

My childhood and adolescence were profoundly shaped by books and movies—often the science fiction loved by my mother.

Along with The Andromeda Strain (film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), two films based on Ray Bradbury’s work remain with me today—The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451.

There is a profound darkness and fatalism in these works, but in Fahrenheit 451, I was struck by the optimism and power of the individuals who walked around repeating the books they had become.

These people, the best among us, seem to suggest Bradbury held on to some sliver of hope.

It seems overwhelming to consider that as sentient creatures we are doomed to not recognize that things matter until they have been taken from us—taken from us with almost no resistance, with almost no recognition of the book being gently slipped from our hands and then our minds.

Academic freedom isn’t free, but without free minds—freedom to teach, freedom to learn, freedom to read and consider—we are no longer fully human.


Recommended

National Days of Teaching Truth

My 31 texts for 31 days in May

Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE)

Banning Books Is Un-American

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

Censorship and Book Burning: A Reader [Updated]

Furman faculty pass resolution rejecting pending state legislation aimed at academic freedom

Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE)

Lehre Ist Tot

This past week an early career teacher, highly regarded in the classroom and very accomplished in the field of education, received a parental request that a student not be required to read The Great Gatsby. That parent, however, had signed a consent agreement with all texts, including that novel, identified as required reading at the beginning of the course.

The parent then reached out to the administration, who confirmed that the teacher had to assign a different work. This, of course, undermines the teacher and the process established, but it also creates more work for teachers already under incredible strain.

While parental oversight of assigned reading has been common in education for decades, this situation comes as states are increasingly passing parental trigger legislation, which moves the parental power from each parent’s own children to parents being able to ban works for all teachers or students to explore in classes.

That same teacher, frustrated and disillusioned, later that day read aloud their resignation letter to me in the context of telling me that much that they had taught in the first three years of teaching could no longer be taught in the last couple years—and increasingly will be directly banned in the coming year (as my home state is poised to pass its own educational gag order this spring).

The teacher cried while reading the letter aloud, and added that the resignation was depressing; this, you see, was a career they had been working toward since high school—and within 6 years, teaching is dead.

The current anti-teacher climate in the U.S. is incredibly harsh and driven by orchestrated false narratives:

Right-wing media are creating parental trigger structures even without the concurrent legislation:

While teacher and school bashing (notably as “liberal indoctrination”) has a long history in the U.S., reaching back to Catholic schools fighting for market space as public schooling increased in the 19th century, the current anti-teacher climate has its roots not in Republican politics but in the Obama administration’s education agenda.

Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education heralded an era of education reform that actually doubled-down on the worst aspects under George W. Bush, and that doubling down feed into a growing media attack on “bad teachers”:

Time was a repeat offender in terms of media bashing of teachers.

Instead of rejecting the standard approaches to education reform begun under Reagan and federalized under W. Bush, the Obama administration turned their blame to teachers and teacher quality. During the Obama years, the great experiment in value-added methods (VAM) devastated the teaching profession.

The perennial paradox of education has always been that teacher quality matters but it remains a very small part of measurable student achievement (only about 10-15%). Therefore, the Holy Grail of the VAM experiment—identifying “good” and “bad” teachers through standardized test scores of students—was always doomed to fail.

But it did accomplish planting the seeds of today’s multi-pronged attack on teachers—the “science of reading” movement blaming teachers and teacher educators for student reading achievement and the anti-CRT/educational gag order movements being linked to parent trigger laws.

Throughout the education reform era over the past 40 years, many of us in education have argued that education reform initiatives are less about improving education and more about killing public education and the teaching profession—charter schools and voucher schemes, Teach For America, VAM and merit pay, demonizing and dismantling unions and tenure, etc., to name a few.

From Fox News lies to parental trigger laws and education gag orders, the evidence is very clear now that this current wave of teacher bashing is definitely about killing the profession, and not about student discomfort.

Let me return to the opening teacher story.

When the parent was asked for reasons why they wanted their child not to read The Great Gatsby—so the teacher had context for choosing an alternate text—the parent responded that they did not want the child (a high school student) to read about inappropriate relationships and sexual content. So here is a point of fact about the insincerity of these challenges; that student had already read and studied The Crucible, without any complaint, a play grounded in adultery.

I am certain some parents challenging what their children are being taught are sincere, but I am also certain the larger political motivation among conservatives is to completely dismantle public education.

Just as I have explained that there simply is no CRT propaganda agenda in K-12 schools, there is no liberal indoctrination/grooming occurring in K-12 (or K-16) education either.

The Ingraham rants are simply political lies.

And these lies are not improving education.

They have one goal and it seems to have been effective: Teaching is dead.

Bully Politics and Political Theater in an Era of Racial Shift

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently bullied students about wearing masks as he prepared to give a press conference. DeSantis called wearing masks “Covid theater,” but it seems more likely his petulant behavior is his own political theater since DeSantis immediately turned the embarrassing behavior into a fundraising gimmick.

That a sitting governor publicly and brazenly chastised students—behavior that no student would be allowed toward other students or adults while in school—is a snapshot of the broader attack on K-16 education in the U.S., also driven entirely by Republicans.

Curriculum gag orders, anti-CRT legislation, and book bans all seek to censor any mentioning of race or racism as well as topics related to gender or sexuality (the latter repeatedly identified by Republicans as “pornography”).

Copy-cat legislation across Republican-led states is far less about teaching and learning than about the tremendous racial shift occurring in the U.S.—and the immediate tension in K-12 public education because of that shift.

The 2020 Census has revealed, as reported in USA Today: “The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.”

In short, the white racial majority in the U.S. is shrinking quickly, and the future of racial balance in the U.S. is now reflected in K-12 education, where white students constitute less than half of students:

However, K-12 education remains a very white space except for that student population.

Almost 80% of teachers are white, and despite the false claims made in curriculum gag orders and anti-CRT legislation, K-12 curriculum and texts remain disproportionately white:

Research on U.S. history textbooks indicate White, European Americans are featured in over half of pictorials and illustrations. In some cases, it is more than 80 percent. Representation of people from BIPOC backgrounds are rarely featured, with some ethnic groups featured as low as 1 percent.

These racial and ethnic representations do not reflect demographics given in the 2020 U.S. Census, where 61.6 percent of the population is identified as White, 18.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 12.4 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 1.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 8.4 percent some other racial population, and 10.2 percent multiracial….

In sum, studies on books and other materials reveal that White characters are more prominent than BIPOC characters. The data suggest that it is likely that students who identify as White will see mirrors of themselves more often than students from BIPOC communities.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong

DeSantis, then, personifies the resulting bully politics of Republicans as a response to the racial shift occurring in the U.S.

An examination of bullying in academia offers an important frame for understanding the larger phenomenon of bully politics:

What makes bullying an unethical, yet effective, means to rise through the ranks? An emerging body of research suggests that mediocre academics in particular resort to bullying, to remove their competition. Experimental research has shown that when male hierarchies are disrupted by women, this incites hostile behaviour specifically from poorly performing men, because they stand to lose the most.

Members of underrepresented groups report they are the targets of bullying with the intent to sabotage their careers. Some anecdotes suggest that bullies spring into action when their targets become too successful for their liking — and thus viable competition.

How bullying becomes a career tool, Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi

This unpacking of bullying in academia fits well into understanding the bully politics of Republicans, often mediocre white men, like DeSantis, who feel threatened and cultivate political capital by stoking racial animosity through misinformation.

As I have noted before, K-12 public education is quite conservative and, as shown above, very white. While curriculum gag orders have characterized teachers and schools as hostile to white students (legislating bans on making students uncomfortable)—without evidence—and rampant with CRT—which isn’t occurring in K-12 schools—few people are directly exposing why bully politics is on the rise—the significant racial shift in society and schools in tension with the static whiteness of teachers and curriculum.

Unlike the ways in which Republicans have characterized U.S. schooling, Ranita Ray has witnessed a much different reality for students:

What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.

It Never Seems to Be a Good Time to Talk About Teachers’ Racism

The irony of the racial shift spurring bully politics lies in ground zero, the backlash against the 1619 Project, which represents not a rewriting of history but a confronting of what history is—stories of the past shaped by who ever has power.

The facts of history do not necessarily change but the power behind what facts are told and why does shift. The 1619 Project changes what is centered in the telling of U.S. history (moving it away from the idealized founding and toward the grim reality of the institution of slavery)—in a similar way to the shifting racial centering of the U.S. in the 2020s.

Republicans are scrambling not to protect history or Truth, but to further entrench a mythology, an aspirational white-washed version of the country.

The impetus behind the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is well expressed in Adrienne Rich’s poem:

I came to explore the wreck.

…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“Diving into the Wreck”

The facts of history and even the present—and not the myths—are disturbing, uncomfortable (“the drowned face always staring”).

Some of us, like the speaker in Rich’s poem, accept the discomfort as motivation to work toward a better world for everyone.

Others are petulant, bullies, carelessly grabbing all their toys and threatening to go home.

DeSantis and the other mediocre Republicans are playing political theater but their bully politics is all too real and has devastating consequences for academic freedom and democracy.

Histrionics characterizing masks as “Covid theater” are masking white fear that has reduced the Republican Party to bully politics in the service of a misguided whiteness—and to the exclusion of democracy and basic human dignity.

Gag Orders, Loyalty Oaths, and the New McCarthyism

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

An avalanche of gag order bills are being proposed in South Carolina—H.4325H.4343H.4392H.4605, and H.4799. While my home state of SC often likes to brag about being the first state to secede in order to maintain slavery (an uncomfortable fact many of these laws would ban from being taught), these bills represent the sort of crass copy-cat legislation that is also sweeping across other Republican-led states.

Not only is there nothing original in these bills (or even evidence-based or logical), but also there is a profoundly disturbing repetition of one of the lowest points in U.S. history—the New McCarthyism.

Let’s start with facts, which Republican legislation seeks to censor:

  • “Critical Race Theory” as it is mischaracterized by Republicans does not exist in K-12 schools.
  • CRT as properly defined (a scholarly theory created primarily by Black scholars for the the field of law and adapted in a few other fields such as education and sociology) does not exit in K-12 schools.
  • Systemic racism is a fact of the founding of the U.S. and a fact of the U.S. in 2022, supported by irrefutable evidence that defies simplistic explanations (such as individual racism).
  • Race is a social construct and not a matter of biology.
  • History is a living field for considering the facts of the past; there is no one true history.
  • Intellectual discomfort is often a necessary aspect of new learning when anyone must confront misconceptions or missing knowledge in order to better understand and navigate the world.

The gag orders such as those listed above in SC are blunt partisan politics driven by orchestrated lies that have nothing to do with protecting students or with teaching factual history or excellent literature/texts.

Curriculum and book censorship in 2022 is our New McCarthyism because the CRT veneer is being used to promote ideological agendas aimed at Black people and LGBTQ+ people.

The McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare, was confronted in The Crucible by Arthur Miller, who uses allegory to warn the U.S. at mid-twentieth century that McCarthy’s cries of “communism” were partisan lies similar to the Salem witch trials.

There were no witches.

There were no lists of communists.

There is no CRT poisoning U.S. schools.

Yet, in their extreme forms, some gag orders include requirements for loyalty oaths and mechanisms for withholding state funding for a decade. Even for private organizations.

The ultimate horror of these gag orders from Republicans is that by legislating censorship of what history and texts students are allowed to learn, we will be insuring the most damning of ideas about history itself—those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, often the very worst of it.

Yesterday I saw the following Tweet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine:

While I endorse the sentiment, I have been watching for over a year while most of the U.S. fails to resist censorship right here in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

Republicans are running roughshod over freedom, pushing the U.S. toward banning abortion (despite a majority of Americans supporting maintaining Roe v. Wade) and enacting curriculum and book bans (despite large majorities of Americans rejecting censorship):

CBS news poll

Ultimately, gag orders, loyalty oaths, and censorship are un-American and anti-democratic, as ALAN notes in their Intellectual Freedom Statement:

We know that intellectual freedom is foundational to an educated citizenry and essential to the preservation and practice of democracy. We are dedicated to protecting this natural human right, and therefore, we insist on open access to all school reading materials for all students.

Intellectual Freedom Statement

The New McCarthyism exposes the Republican Party as a party of oppression, the exact sort of fact that should make everyone of us uncomfortable.


Reading Matters

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards….

Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

Reading matters.

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with those two simple words. But the reality is that those two words have dramatically different meanings among people advocating for teaching children to read in schools.

“[S]ociety should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way,” explains John McWhorter, linguist turned public intellectual who uses his bully pulpit at the New York Times to join the long list of Black celebrities and notable people invited into the white mainstream of conservative thought cloaking racism and racial stereotyping.

The problem in McWhorter’s words, of course, is that “right way.”

Since early 2018, the U.S. has once again lifted the Reading War into public consciousness with a misleading refrain, “the science of reading” (SoR). The media has maintained a steady beat claiming that teacher education and practicing teachers have failed to embrace the SoR, and as a result, children are failing to learn to read.

The SoR media movement has merged with some aggressive parent advocacy groups, notably related to dyslexia, and the result is copy-cat SoR reading legislation being passed throughout the country. Ironically, and disturbingly, that legislation often codifies policies and practices that are strongly refuted by scientific research—grade retention, universal screening for and oversimplification of dyslexia [1], systematic intensive phonics programs for all students [2], bans on popular reading programs, and efforts to mimic policies implemented in Mississippi [3] (after one round of improved NAEP scores in reading at grade 4).

While I am certain that people advocating for improved reading instruction in our schools all have mostly good intentions (except for a powerful lobby for phonics programs and some media/journalists seeing an opportunity to cash in on SoR), the problem remains with what anyone means by “reading matters.”

We must acknowledge two contexts here.

One context is approaching a common term but a rare case that it may be accurate—crisis.

Since the SoR movement and advocates such as McWhorter are speaking into a conservative and traditional ideology about language, reading, and literature (used broadly to mean any texts students reading), the SoR movement has been swept into a concurrent movement against public education broadly begun under Trump with the purposeful and orchestrated attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (McWhorter’s “right way” comment sits inside his joining the anti-woke movement).

What merges the anti-woke education movement and the SoR movement is the focus on parental rights to monitor and control what students learn and how students learn.

The crisis we are approaching, I think, is the ironically disturbing part. The merging of the SoR movement with the anti-woke movement means that so-called advocates for better reading instruction have joined forces with a new rise in censorship that includes book banning, removing books from libraries (lists of 850+ books identified in Texas), proposing bans on terms deemed “woke,” and even calls for burn burnings.

A significant but less powerful group of literacy advocates, teachers, scholars, and writers have noted the problem with emphasizing the need for children to learn to read while simultaneously reducing what they can read, and even what those students are allowed to consider or think.

A second context is the contradiction between the narrow demands of the SoR movement and the likelihood that policies and practices being implemented in the name of SoR are likely to inhibit and even discourage children from reading.

I have detailed several times that I grew up in a racist and deeply conservative community and household. The conditions that saved my life, my mind, and my soul include the coincidence that my very misguided parents happened to respect intellectual freedom; I was allowed to read anything throughout my childhood and teen years.

Once I moved beyond my home and community—college—I was then liberated by reading Black authors assigned and recommended by wonderful professors, again a context that respected intellectual freedom and my mind.

Not an exhaustive list, but for me, someone who has spent almost 40 years as a literacy educator, I want to offer some reasons reading matters for me, highlighting John Dewey, William Ayers, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde:

The allure of SoR for the media, parents, and politicians is grounded in silver-bullet “all students must” thinking that is antithetical to the reasons I believe reading matters.

At the core of the tension in debates about teaching reading and what texts students are assigned or allowed to read is those embracing indoctrination (“teaching everybody to read the right way”) versus those embracing education as liberation (from Dewey to Ayers to hooks and to Lorde).

Indoctrination depends on someone not only controlling what people read, hear, and think, but also erasing what people read, hear, and think.

The SoR movement ultimately fails because it resists being student centered and allows far too often for reading to be reduced to decoding (systematic intensive phonics for all); further, while SoR advocates often demonize popular reading programs (and I am a strong critic of all reading programs), they make the same essential mistake by simply choosing different programs to endorse as rigid expectations for students and teachers (LETRS, DIBLES).

Reading matters, but if we become distracted by raising reading test scores, our practices are likely to produce non-readers (Dewey).

Reading matters, but if we fail to distinguish between indoctrination and education for liberation (hooks), we reduce reading instruction to training (Ayers).

Reading matters, but our commitments must be to how reading matters for the individual, especially for those “who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable” (Lorde).

If we truly believe every person deserves the human dignity of intellectual freedom, as my parents and teachers afforded me, then reading matters only if we refuse silver-bullet scripts, only if we protect all the books and ideas available to free people.

That is the only “right way” worth evoking.


[1] See the following:

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA)

[2] See the following:

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Reading Comprehension Interventions on the Reading Comprehension Outcomes of Struggling Readers in Third Through 12th Grades, Marissa J. Filderman, Christy R. Austin, Alexis N. Boucher, Katherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth A. Swanson

“the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires.”

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

[3] UPDATED 23 February 2020: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

See Also

The Problem with Balanced Literacy

Failing Balanced Literacy Is Failing Readers, Katie Kelly and Paul Thomas

Fact Checking “Cancel Culture”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

If we can take seriously the high-quality source, the actor who plays Mr. Bean, it appears we should be fearful of a future where there is no freedom of speech because “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” claims Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, this is but one of many alarm bells about the scourge of “cancel culture.”

It would be easy to smile at Atkinson’s goofy face and brush this off—except there are dire consequences to this manufactured crisis. Take for just one example the language being used to propose legislation in my home state of South Carolina.

“Pushing back against what they called America’s ‘woke mob,’ a group of GOP lawmakers want to protect South Carolina historic monuments and markers and penalize any community or elected official that removes them,” writes Adam Benson for the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC).

Later in the article, Benson quotes Republicans advancing this legislation:

“In South Carolina, our heritage roots run real deep, and they’ve got to be protected from the small number of people that could cancel out our monuments and pull them down,” Taylor said, who is sponsoring the bills with state Reps. Steven Long, R-Inman, and Lin Bennett, R-Charleston.

“In today’s day and age where the woke mob is coming after our monuments from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to South Carolina’s heritage, this is all inclusive,” Long said of the proposed state certification of plaques.

Proposals would punish removing monuments: ‘Time to stand up and defend the history of SC’

Conservatives in the U.S. have taken over the “cancel culture” label and used it to create a false narrative about liberals (“woke mob”) having the disproportionate power to unfairly punish conservatives, to end free speech, and as these Republicans argue, to erase history.

Recent “cancel culture” controversies that represent that false narrative include Dr. Seuss’s estate ending the publication of six of his books, changes to Mr. Potato Head, and the firing of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian.

While all of these have been framed as “cancel culture,” they aren’t all the same. Dr. Seuss wasn’t canceled (most of his books remain in print, and this was an estate decision), but like the renaming of Mr. Potato Head, these are market decisions, not some government mandate driven by “woke culture.”

Carano’s firing isn’t even that unusual in Hollywood; consider Kevin Spacey. Was he canceled? Or are there simply consequences for people’s words and actions—even, some times, when you are rich and famous?

To dissect the false narrative around “cancel culture” by conservatives, let’s return to the Dr. Seuss fake news cycle. Consider these Tweets from Michael Hobbes:

The pattern: Falsely claim “cancel culture,” point fingers only at the liberal mob, and ignore what is really happening (market forces versus actual canceling legislation proposed from conservatives).

Also conservatives shouting “cancel culture” tend to have a weak grasp on the past along with being highly selective in their outrage.

John Warner offers an excellent comparison between his own experiences as an author and the the Dr. Seuss controversy:

Was Warner’s liberal parody of conservative W. Bush canceled? The nefarious workings of the liberal mob? Or was this the free market doing its work?

But consider a much more substantial situation—the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I do not recall any conservatives crying “cancel culture” when Kaepernick was essentially banned from the NFL by mostly conservative billionaire owners because of Kaepernick’s liberal politics. And I don’t recall those players standing during the national anthem having any consequences for their ostensibly conservative political actions (standing during the anthem).

I do recall conservatives wringing their hands over Tim Tebow’s short-lived NFL career since Tebow is a darling of conservatives and also conveniently used his NFL platform to express his conservative religious politics.

“Cancel culture” as a terminology of any social value has been erased, ironically, by conservatives who have co-opted the language to perpetuate lies about the left as a distraction from their own penchant for canceling.

The partisan political nature of the shift to “cancel culture” being the mantra of conservatives has some very serious consequences in the U.S. since it misrepresents free speech and also blurs the line between valid accountability and the so-called mob mentality in pop culture.

Conservatives have repeatedly misrepresented the free market as a free speech issue, which is essentially about the role of government in what people are allowed to express.

The decisions made by Dr. Seuss’s estate, Republicans losing Twitter followers, and Carano being fired (see also, Spacey)—these are all the workings of the free market, not mandates of government. If Republicans want to start a conversation about the silencing impact of capitalism, then I think many of us on the left would be thrilled, but they seem oblivious to how their own ideology works.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of conservatives capitalizing on “cancel culture” is that it has distorted a needed conversation on fairness since free speech isn’t license; even when what we say and do is not mandated by either the government or the market, “free” in free speech doesn’t mean we are free of the consequences.

So which is unfair here—that Woody Allen has never suffered any real consequences for his behavior or that Louis CK had his comedy career briefly stalled due to his serial sexual harassment?

Maybe there are petty dynamics on Instagram in which mob mentalities evolve and people are unfairly “canceled,” but what is currently passing as “cancel culture” is a bald-faced lie with political/ideological intentions.

The history of people being closeted in the U.S. as well as the current reality of closeted people is a narrative about the precariousness of being outside the norms of this country—norms that are decidedly conservative and thus to be outside those is necessarily liberal.

Unfair consequences in the U.S. remain mostly for people on the left; conservative Americans are themselves fretting about losing their status of privilege, and their cries of “cancel culture” are ugly projections since it is they who wish to erase the realities that have always existed but have too often been forced behind lock and key.

When millionaire white men wag their fingers about “cancel culture” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, we must be more than skeptical that they are being sincere about freedom of speech since they are embodying that they, in fact, haven’t been canceled at all.