Category Archives: NCTE

#NCTE22 Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

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

Roundtable Sessions

12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

264-BC


Across the U.S. in 2021, Republicans introduced and passed legislation restricting curriculum/instruction and censoring books and texts (over 850 identified in Texas), often under the rhetorical umbrella of “banning Critical Race Theory.” The consequences of these actions have resulted in a teacher being fired in Tennessee for teaching an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, school board members calling for book burnings in Virginia, and Texas passing a second, more restrictive bill.

Ariana Garcia reports on Texas:

“What’s happening is a broader interpretation and confusion about how we talk about race and really important conversations are being silenced,” [Dr. Chloe Latham-]Sikes said. “In practice, because they [the laws] are so vague, they are interpreted as applying to any conversation about race, racism, social justice, sex, sexism and discrimination. That’s where that chilling effect and silencing is happening and it’s really concerning.”

A new, more restrictive ‘critical race theory’ law now in effect for Texas schools

For educators in public K-16 settings, we must acknowledge that this legislative agenda directly contradicts The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE):

One of the foundations of a democratic society is the individual’s right to read, and also the individual’s right to freely choose what they would like to read. This right is based on an assumption that the educated possess judgment and understanding and can be trusted with the determination of their own actions. In effect, the reader is freed from the bonds of chance. The reader is not limited by birth, geographic location, or time, since reading allows meeting people, debating philosophies, and experiencing events far beyond the narrow confines of an individual’s own existence.

Roundtable leaders from K-16 address the following:

  • Understanding Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in the classroom
  • Confronting and avoiding self-censorship
  • Policies and practices for challenges to books/texts and curriculum
  • Communicating with parents and political leaders about curriculum, instruction, and students’ right to access books/texts
  • The importance of classroom and school libraries, especially for marginalized students
  • Preparing pre-service ELA teachers for challenges to texts and curriculum
  • Student reaction and responses to censorship and challenged books/texts
  • Educators’ commitment to academic freedom and access to books/texts
  • The disproportionate impact of censorship on texts by and about Black authors/experiences and LGBTQ+ authors/experiences
  • Navigating texts labeled as “pornography” or “profane”

Following roundtable discussions, a brainstorming session explores strategies for honoring those commitments in the classroom.

Session Chair

Christian Z. Goering

Keynote

George M. Johnson, All Boys Aren’t Blue

Roundtables

  • The Right to Read: Honoring Choice and Voice for Our Common Humanity, Alyssa Likens, Spartanburg 6 Schools, SC and Katie Kelly, Furman University, SC
  • Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War, P.L. Thomas, Furman University
  • The Power of Words: Students Fighting Censorship in Their Communities, Donalyn Miller, Independent Scholar 
  • Called to the Office and Yet We Keep Cool: ELA Resources and Practices, Stacy Haynes-Moore, Coe College
  • I’m Queer, Not Profane: Disrputing Policy Mandates that Censor Readers and Reading, Michael J. Young, University of Minnesota Duluth
  • People are Not Prohibited Concepts: (Re)Defining Racist Laws in Red States, Emily Pendergrass and Brian Kissel, Vanderbilt University, Nashville
  • Writing the Righteous Fight: Why Books Like Mine Are Crucial, Ellen Hopkins, currently America’s most banned author. 
  • To Self-Censor or Not? Text Selection and Inclusion at a Primarily White Institution, Lisa Scherff, Community School of Naples
  • Courage, Cowardice, and Culpability in Footloose ISD, Jennifer Abramson, Austin ISD
  • “But I need to be objective!”: Burning through preservice teachers’ self-censorship of tough topics, Melanie Shoffner, James Madison University
  • ELA Teacher Preparation and Legislative Censorship: PSTs Analyzing Anti-CRT Legislation to Imagine Civic Engagement and Critical Education – Mike P. Cook and Lindsey Ives, Auburn University 

Recommended

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

Republicans Misreading “Banned Books Week” across Upstate South Carolina

Whose Rights Matter?: On Censorship, Parents, and Children

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

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Published in 1947 in The Elementary English Review, a flagship journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that later became Language Arts, “Research in Language” is one of the most cited pieces by Lou LaBrant in my scholarship and public writing about education and literacy.

LaBrant served as president of NCTE in the 1950s, and along with being an active and influential literacy scholar, LaBrant was a practitioner over a staggering 65 years of teaching.

LaBrant made two incisive claims in this article:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. (pp. 88-89)

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

Having written an educational biography of LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, I am vividly aware that LaBrant taught and wrote as a complex progressive who used the term “research” in broad Deweyan terms that included everything from gold-standard experimental research to the daily observations made by classroom teachers.

I cite her because as a practitioner and scholar I also embrace a very complicated understanding of “research,” “evidence,” and the word of the moment, “science.” I am also deeply skeptical of textbooks and programs.

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.

Almost for as long—I discovered the movement a few months after it began—I have been waving a red flag, advocating for skepticism and extreme caution about that discourse, the media, public/parental, and political rhetoric. For that reason, I persist in placing the phrase in quote marks since I am specifically criticizing the discourse.

If anything, my criticism is having far too little impact on the consequences of the “science of reading” discourse that is driving many states to adopt new reading legislation. And on social media, I am routinely attacked, often quite aggressively, as a science denier and someone intent on hurting children (although I have been a life-long educator across five decades as both a K-12 classroom teacher and a college professor).

I am also often discredited and told that journalists, parents, and politicians understand my own field better than I do.

Part of the problem with debating the “science of reading” movement is the term itself, one that has at least three different meanings, a multiverse if you will (although absent, darn it, Doctor Strange or Wanda).

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, here, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018.

“Science of Reading” as Media, Public/Parental, and Political Discourse. Beginning with Emily Hanford and then perpetuated by mainstream media (Education Week and the New York Times, notably), the “science of reading” is a narrative that claims teachers are not teaching students to read using the “science of reading” because teacher educators have failed to teach the “science of reading” in teacher prep programs. Concurrently, this discourse also blames low student reading achievement on the dominance of balanced literacy reading programs (often erroneously) since, as advocates claim, balance literacy is not grounded in the “science of reading.” This version of the “science of reading” maintains that primarily (or even only) cognitive science research is the “science” that counts and that the “simple view” of reading is the one valid theory of reading supported by the “science of reading.” [Note: This is the version of the “science of reading” that most of my scholarly and public writing challenges as misguided and harmful; see here, here, and here.]

“Science of Reading” as Marketing and Branding. Since the “science of reading” advocacy identified above has been extremely effective, states are adopting new reading legislation, some of which directly bans popular reading programs and then narrowly mandates the use of materials and programs that meet the narrow characterization above. This means education companies, especially ones focusing on literacy, have begun to brand and rebrand their materials as programs with the “science of reading.” For example:

As a market response to legislation, as well, some popular reading programs have responded to this version of the phrase. This marketing dynamic is very common in education. Many years ago, I attended a state-level literacy conference where Smokey Daniels spoke. Daniels is one of the top literacy scholars associated with the term “best practice”; however, he warned then that the term had been quickly co-opted by textbook publishers and that there was no mechanism for insuring that something labeled “best practice” was, in fact, demonstrating those concepts (the same problem exists for “whole language” and “balanced literacy”).

“Science of Reading” as Shorthand for the Research Base for Teaching Reading. This is what LaBrant referred to as the “research currently available” in 1947. The irony in this use of the phrase is that many people have been using some form of this phrase for a century—”research,” “science,” “evidence.” And of course, scholars and practitioners are often aware of and practicing many aspects of that “science”—even though science, research, and evidence are all necessarily in a state of flux (and thus, LaBrant’s nod to “currently available”). To be blunt, no reasonable or informed person would reject this use of the “science of reading.” However, I must note that this use is almost entirely absent in public discourse; it remains used almost exclusively among researchers and some practitioners. Another irony, in fact, is that the first use of the phrase above is itself a gross mischaracterization of this complex and broad use.

Because of these different and often conflicting uses of the “science of reading,” we are experiencing incredibly jumbled and even nonsensical outcomes such as teachers being required to attend training in programs that are not supported by research (LETRS) and states adopting reading legislation that implement practices that are not supported by research (grade retention).

So, if you return to LaBrant’s claims above, you may notice an eerie similarity between her valid assertions and the current “science of reading” discourse that is not credible even as it is highly effective.

The problem is that teaching, learning, and literacy are extremely complex human behaviors that resist simple labels or explanations—and also defy efforts to prescribe templates that will magically fulfill the urge for “all students must.”

Alas, in this multiverse there is no magic.


Recommended

Paul Thomas How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

“The Woods Are Burning”: If Not Unprecedented, Urgent Times for Education

“I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys, you understand? There’s a big blaze going all around …” — Willy Loman

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

Especially when discussing education, I am deeply skeptical of crisis rhetoric, and I absolutely reject ignoring the importance of historical context.

So during a debate about the obligation of organizations to speak publicly against the rising firestorm of curriculum and book/text bans, I felt compelled to call the current anti-CRT mania “unprecedented,” [1] but that feels as if it breaks my two concerns above—suggesting crisis and failing to note that any moment in history is essentially unprecedented.

In A Long Way Together, a history of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), J.N. Hook documents NCTE’s response to the McCarthy Era, when “McCarthy’s unscrupulous tactics attempted to ban school use of books that were at all liberal politically, liberal very often being equated with factual” (p. 169). As a response, NCTE published “Censorship and Controversy, a fifty-six-page pamphlet … presented to the membership at the 1953 convention” (p. 169).

How aggressively did NCTE take this work to the public? Was there media coverage in the mid-1950s of NCTE rejecting this wave of censorship? Did NCTE lobby legislators? To these questions, Hook does not speak; therefore, we may be faced with the reality that even during the Red Scare, NCTE remained mostly inward in their efforts to challenge censorship—a powerful pamphlet at an annual convention.

And McCarthy’s tactics above certainly sound very similar to the weaponizing of false claims about CRT in order to control and ban “liberal” teaching and texts in U.S. schools.

Adam Laats, as well, documents that curriculum and book/text banning plus bills granting parents dramatic control over schools fits into a long history of this over-reach:

For a full century now, conservative politicians have attacked teachers to score easy political points. This, despite the fact that teachers, as a group, tend to consider themselves “moderate” (43 percent) or even “conservative” (27 percent), and their political views have long tended to match those of their local communities. Nevertheless, scare tactics about subversive teachers have been too tempting for politicians to resist. But although targeting teachers might score a short-term payoff at the ballot box, those attacks have always harmed public schools by driving teachers away.

How Picking On Teachers Became an American Tradition

So if the fire raging around education today is not unprecedented, I am convinced it is urgent—and potentially catastrophic.

2022 is not 1953, and the connected world of social media, in my opinion, allow any person or organization with power to create a public voice for or against causes that matter to that person or organization.

Words matter, but words must be followed by action. And where there are no words, we must be suspicious there is no action.

According to a report from UCLA, at least 4 in 10 students in the U.S. are being negatively impacted by anti-CRT legislation and book/text bans. This is likely a low estimate, and certainly will grow, as this stunning list of such legislation documents.

Vague and sweeping language in passed and proposed legislation is already creating a chilling effect for teachers and students alike.

While Tennessee continues its assault by banning books, and Florida joins the move to wipe classrooms clean of discomfort, all of us with individual or collective voices are confronted with our own self-censorship.

Will we speak, will we act.

Before it is too late.


The 451 App (22 August 2022)

[1] From Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye off banned list in St Louis schools:

According to the American Library Association, which monitors challenges to books, calls for bans are increasing.

“It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen in my time at the ALA – the last 20 years,” the director of the ALA office of intellectual freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, told the Guardian in November.

“We’ve never had a time when we’ve gotten four or five reports a day for days on end, sometimes as many as eight in a day.

Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye off banned list in St Louis schools

A Response to NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts

Today is 8 February 2022. One year ago today the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) released a pointed and powerful statement: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History.

This public statement by NCSS was bold and proved the organization was willing to place professional commitments to the fields of history and social studies over the fear of taking so-called “political” risks.

Labeled “A Current Events Response,” the statement begins: “National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the largest professional association in the country devoted solely to social studies education, strongly rejects the recent development of proposed bills in state legislatures which are designed to censor specific curricular resources from being used for instruction in K-12 schools.”

On 7 February 2022, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts, a reaction to a series of concerns raised by former members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee and others (including my blog post and an Open Letter now soliciting signatures of support).

After I posted my blog raising concerns about NCTE’s silence and inaction during the rise of book/text and curriculum censorship as well as the controversy over putting the Doublespeak Award on hiatus (resulting in some committee members resigning), I have heard from many NCTE members, former NCTE members, and even past presidents of NCTE—all agreeing with the concerns being raised.

In the context of NCSS’s direct and early response, I want to address a few of the points in NCTE’s statement from 7 February 2022, a year after NCSS’s public stance.

First, this statement is a reaction to criticism, not a proactive stance against book/text and curriculum censorship. Others and I have been calling for proactive and public statements.

Second, the statement, ironically in the context of the Doublespeak and Orwell Awards, seems to be massaging if not rewriting the history of putting the Doublespeak Award on hiatus; I am not aware of a single person claiming NCTE “canceled” the award (their first bullet point). The concern was clearly that the hiatus seems to have been an effort to avoid making NCTE look “political,” again an ironic context given the awards.

Next, the statement feels to many of us as an unfair framing of the committee members who resigned on principle; we do not have to agree with those members (I do), but I think we must respect the professional ethics involved in resigning.

Ideally, NCTE would have better served the Council by simply admitting that the hiatus and how it occurred was a mistake that would be corrected—instead of putting so much focus on the principled committee members.

Finally, I want to address a comment in the statement’s penultimate paragraph: “We want NCTE members to know—NCTE has not remained on the sidelines in regard to intellectual freedom and censorship matters, and has no intention of doing so in the future.”

Let me be very clear again: I deeply respect and appreciate my colleagues who signed the statement as the faces and names of leadership for NCTE; however, I respectfully disagree and think the statement as a reaction to criticism and the continued lack of a public statement similar to NCSS (a year later) are proof that NCTE leadership continues to fail the larger fields of literacy and literature, students across the U.S., and all teachers of English/ELA.

Yes, as some NCTE members have noted on social media, NCTE has been a stellar organization inwardly with powerful position statements and a diversity-rich 2021 annual convention. But that serves and speaks to a very small fraction of teachers of English/ELA—and likely has no impact on public opinion/discourse or political policy.

NCTE needs to back up and re-address the Doublespeak mistake again, but also, NCTE must acknowledge the larger concern about remaining on the sidelines because that is where the organization is while our classrooms are being dismantled and our professions are being destroyed.

Many NCTE members are frustrated because NCTE has a powerful infrastructure to speak Truth to power the way NCSS did. Currently, we are in the final days of members voting on a new and important resolution: Resolution on Supporting Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching.

But what good is all this if NCTE keeps the work inward and refuses to take the principled stands needed to change the public and political narratives about books, texts, and curriculum?

Laws are being passed; books are being removed from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries because of the complaint of a single parent; teachers are being fired; and board members have called for book burnings.

If you Google “governor” and “pornography” today, you do not find articles on scandal but dozens of media articles on multiple governors across the U.S. (Texas and South Carolina, notably) calling award-winning literature “pornography.”

And as the report from UCLA clearly notes, the anti-CRT movement is itself an Orwellian attack on facts as well as teaching and learning:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school. (Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

Pollock, M., & Rogers, J., et al. (2022, January). The conflict campaign: Exploring local Experiences of the campaign to ban “Critical Race Theory” in public K-12 education in the U.S., 2020-2021. UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. https://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/publications/the-conflict-campaign/

Regretfully, 2021 and now 2022 are demanding principled stands such as the Doublespeak and Orwell Awards from NCTE; but students, teachers, literacy, and literature need NCTE to take a principled stand beyond the NCTE bubble.

Many of us remain concerned that NCTE is content with being reactionary and, yes, there on the sidelines.

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

We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

–  Arundhati Roy

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

“Arts of the Possible,” Adrienne Rich

It is the morning of November 11, 2021, and I spend some of that time creating gentle memes to post in honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s day of birth:

I wanted to highlight Vonnegut’s career-long plea for a secular kindness, rooted in his faith in humanism, and I have long admired Vonnegut as an anti-war crusader.

Celebrating the birthday of a person after their death is always bittersweet, but on this morning, the act was awash in a very ugly sort of irony. As I loaded The State (Columbia, SC) web page, I saw this as the lead story:

My home state of South Carolina is heavily conservative—first to secede and uniformly conservative in politics throughout the decades of Democratic control of the South and then Republican in the wake of Strom Thurmond changing parties and later Ronald Reagan leading a conservative Christian shift in the South.

Gov. McMaster is not often “first to” about anything, but he is an uncritical and resolute soldier in the Republican culture war regardless of what that means.

Vonnegut—while alive and since his death—has often had his works challenged and even banned; one of the most enduring things he ever wrote, in fact, was a response to censorship:

In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut‘s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.

Letters of Note

In part, Vonnegut replied as follows:

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?…

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….

If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

I am very real, Kurt Vonnegut, November 16, 1973

Reading about the censorship wildfire spreading to SC on Vonnegut’s birthday adds insult to injury, but this is not mere partisan politics, not something as innocuous or abstract as a “culture war.”

Just as Vonnegut ends his letter with “I am very real,” I want to stress that the missionary zeal behind removing and burning books from school libraries is also “very real”:

Calls for censorship, book removal from school libraries, and book burning are the logical next step in the Republican/conservative assault on Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project; at the core of this movement is a misguided demand for parental rights that grows beyond any parents’ children to all children.

Some parents and political leaders on the Right have mistaken Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a manual for partisan politics instead of, as Neil Gaiman (born a day before Vonnegut 38 years later) explains in the 60th anniversary edition of the novel:

This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….

People think—wrongly—that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t; or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it….

What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.

Fahrenheit 451 is speculative fiction. It’s an “If this goes on…” story. Ray Bradbury was writing about his present, which is our past.

Introduction, Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman

In my early days as a public high school English teacher, I had a book challenge targeting John Gardner’s Grendel, but it was clearly mostly about attacking me as a young teacher. While I think we are careless and even cavalier in the U.S. about any parents’ right to control what their children read and learn, I experienced first-hand the power of a few parents to determine what all students read and learn.

I must return to Vonnegut here and stress, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”

Removing books from libraries, banning books from schools, and book burnings are never justified; these are acts of tyranny, of fascism—and not in any way a gesture of what we like to call “American.”

There is no individual freedom without the freedom of the mind. Banning a book is closing the mind.

In Athens-based R.E.M.’s “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” the lyrics include a verse that is haunting in 2021:

Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, blood letting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a votive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh
This means no fear, cavalier renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

“Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

The Republican assault on teaching, learning, reading, and thinking is nothing more than a “tournament of lies” aimed at partisan political power.

Simply put, censorship and book burning are UnAmerican; to ban a book is to dismantle the American Dream.


Resources

Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines (NCTE)

Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials (NCTE)

NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE)

See Also

The 451 App (22 August 2022)

Teen’s Eyes Begin Glowing Red While Reciting Forbidden Knowledge From Book On Critical Race Theory

Letter to the Editor: Tennessee Poised to Fail Students

In response to Third grade retention law causing suburban superintendents angst, I submitted the following letter to the editor (published HERE):

While it is increasingly popular across the US to pass third-grade retention laws as part of larger reading policies, often under the guise of the “science of reading,” there are decades of research showing that grade retention is extremely harmful to children, especially minoritized students and students living in poverty.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the largest organization of English teachers in the US, “oppose[s] legislation mandating that children, in any grade level, who do not meet criteria in reading be retained” and “oppose[s] the use of high-stakes test performance in reading as the criterion for student retention.”

As well, the National Education Policy Center (Boulder, CO) has issued a policy brief warning that states “[s]hould not adopt ‘ends justify the means’ policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term that have longer-term harms (for example, third-grade retention policies).” Further, states “[s]hould not prescribe a narrow definition of ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ that elevates one part of the research base while ignoring contradictory high-quality research.”

Tennessee must not fall prey to trendy political gimmicks that harm children and do not address the needs of those children learning to read.