Book Bans Put Bookshelves in the Corner

Well, I wanted to give you guys a book review this week. It was all ready to go. But, we can’t do that. We have to discuss the impact book bans have on school libraries in 17 states. Come back next week for reading recs.

Do you remember the feeling of finishing your work early, or the start of open reading time, when your elementary school teacher would point you toward your own personal reading haven? Perhaps it was decorated with colorful carpets, and offered kid-sized beanbag chairs. I vividly remember discovering The Magic Treehouse and Encyclopedia Brown series in just such a nook.

In case you missed it, the past two years have seen a wave of book bans and laws designed to remove books certain groups in America find controversial. Much of this ire has been aimed at books about issues of race or sexual orientation, resulting in such books leaving shelves at an alarming rate. Read our previous post about that here. The bans may have left the media cycle, but the fallout is already having a real impact on students and teachers.

The real power of these book challenges is the chilling effect they have on school librarians. Curators afraid for their jobs and, yes, in some cases, their safety, go beyond merely removing challenged books. Worried librarians and teachers seek to head off controversy by preemptively removing books they expect might be controversial. We call this “self-censorship,” and it is already impacting schools in Florida and 16 other states.

Book-banning laws passed last year went into affect this December. As kids return to school from their holiday break, teachers and librarians must now undergo mandatory training and have their current catalogues audited for potentially “offensive” material. Schools found in violation risk having their district’s accreditation downgraded. Not the school’s, the entire district’s.

What constitutes “offensive” material, according to these laws? According to Education Week, books containing…

  • …potential or actual pornography (This is good. No notes, no complaints. As for the rest of them…)
  • …the “racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural diversity of students,” in an age-inappropriate way
  • …the suggestion that people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive
  • …the suggestion that anyone bears responsibility for past actions of their race or sex
  • …the idea that anyone should feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions committed in the past by members of the same race or sex
  • …critical race theory
  • …culturally responsive teaching
  • …social justice (because critics of CRT say they relate to that concept).
  • …social-emotional learning, because they are “extraneous and unsolicited strategies outside the scope of subject-area standards”
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These are their words, not mine. Take a look at the phrasing in that list. They are more concerned with making sure white kids don’t feel bad about themselves than with equipping the next generation to deal openly and honestly with the complex and often cruel legacy of racism in America. These laws are designed to insulate people who look like the oppressors at the expense of the descendants of the oppressed. They have set up a straw-man evil teacher and blown him away with a legislative cannon. No hint of honest dialogue about race will be tolerated, even in math books.

So, how bad is it? What must teachers actually do?

For starters, there is a mandatory training seminar for teachers and librarians in affected states. They cannot risk providing access to books for their students until they have been so certified… but as of January 18th, the training is still being vetted and finalized, leaving teachers in limbo. Until these laws are revoked, this will be required, annual training.

Going forward, districts must hold public meetings to select curriculum or library materials. The law puts the onus on teachers and librarians to be “prepared to defend” any new media in their classrooms from potential challenges. It is a subtle shift away from the historical precedent of assuming that materials chosen by educational professionals have value unless proven otherwise by a challenge. The weight of the law is behind the ban-seekers. The books are guilty until proven innocent!

Books are being shadow-banned by bureaucracy. Teachers interviewed about the impact of these laws on their day-to-day are concerned that getting all of their materials approved by a government committee will be cumbersome and unresponsive to students’ needs. Ultimately, these laws will diminish the diversity of voices available for students in these 17 states to explore. Teachers are removing their personal libraries, some even report turning their bookshelves around to face the wall, like children who need to think about what they’ve done.

I understand and respect the concerns of parents who want to know that their children are learning in a safe, open environment. Some have felt the need to take action to force their vision of safety and openness on their school district. My appeal to these parents is to consider allowing all students that same right, not only students who share a cultural and socioeconomic identity with their own.

These laws have literally put books in the corner. I don’t think it gets any more plain than that.

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