Sunday, November 29, 2009

What Do You Think?

So, in Kentucky at the Montgomery County High School there is an English teacher named Risha Mullins.

Mullins does amazing things at her high school to encourage reading and literacy. An article reprinted at the Kentucky Education Association website, Moo Moo Book Club in Clover, relates how she started a book club and the grants and fundraising she and her students did. This year, Mullins was part of a presentation at a pre NCTE workshop, on Reading Writing & Teaching the Holocaust. And I've left a lot of things out.

So, an energetic, dedicated professional who is getting positive recognition locally and nationally. Who brings money in, even!

What's a school superintendent to do?

Why, micromanage her classroom, telling her what books she can and cannot use. Book Ruckus Divides Montgomery County (via details most of what Mullins is facing for -- wait for it -- being a good teacher.

Those seeking to keep the books out of the classroom are, in typical fashion, those who don't take no for an answer. As related by David Macinnis Gill in a comment to the article, "Last year, during the first attempt to ban Ms. Mullin's inclusion of YA literature, [Superintendent Dan Freeman] neglected to follow protocol for objections to materials. After he was forced to follow policy, the review UPHELD the use of the books. However, this year, he allowed the same challenge to occur, and although the review board AGAIN UPHELD the use of the books, he personally banned the books, stating not that they were objectionable, but that they weren't adequate for preparing students for college, a statement that is ridiculous on its face."

Yep -- there you have it. When policies and procedures go against what you want to do? Do it anyway. Great lesson to teach the teens, Freeman!

Oh, the usual arguments abound. "It's not banning if its still in the library," which ignores the fact that vocal individuals have taken over what happens in a teacher's classroom. Other parents, students, the review process decisions -- all are ignored. In addition, this argument ignores what a good English teacher can bring to reading a book: a deeper, richer, reading experience, with more thought to why a book works and why it doesn't, and what that book means and doesn't. A teacher can engage the student, can make reading and analysis a thing that is both enjoyable and educational. A teacher can -- wait for it -- teach. And instead of that happening, a small number of loud individuals who have the Superintendent on their side -- can dictate what is, and is not, taught in a classroom. And then say, "oh, it's not banning." You don't like the word "banning"? Fine. Give me the word that you do want to use. I'll use it. Whether its banning, censorship, or (insert word here), IT'S WRONG.

The Superintendent insists that the teachers "prove" to him why they are using these books: "But so far I haven't heard a word from anybody about why we should use these books." Now, this runs counter to the article itself and Chris Crutcher being quoted as writing to Freeman, "Almost any reading teacher or English teacher will tell you that the more books you read, and the more conversations you have about how they were written ... it is going to help you in any English class you take in college," Crutcher said. "It's silly to think that only Shakespeare and Wuthering Heights are going to be helpful in college."

I'm sure Freeman and his supporters think he is being so clever. But frankly, do we really want to get into having to prove why something is or isn't taught in high school? No -- this is a straw argument being used to target this teacher, and this collection. It's certainly not a standard that every other teacher has had to meet.

Meanwhile? Mullins doesn't have tenure.


Which makes her that much braver -- to be doing this without any safety net.


Laurie Halse Anderson's report on NCTE and Risha Mullins. And on how during Book Banning Week, the teachers in this county were told they couldn't wear Banned Book Week T-shirts. And more on how despite the challenge committee voting to return the books to the classroom, they weren't.

Column: Seeing Book Duels From Both Sides Before you jump to conclusions about this being an issue of religion or liberalism, etc. read this. While the author "sees both sides," he also shares that "The irony is, [Mullin]'s a graduate of a Christian college, a Pentecostal who writes and sings gospel music, a conservative who voted for John McCain because she supports the right to bear arms. She's got more in common with Sarah Palin than with Lil' Kim."

Chris Crutcher: His homepage has his letter to Freeman and links to those who have stepped up in support of the teacher and books

Fred Klonsky picks up on the tenure issue. Flawed as tenure is, something is needed in schools for when situations like this arise. Or when the "new kid" who has only lived in town five years gets on the football team, school play, Honor Society and the parents "who have lived her for generations" make a stink. Or the parents insist their child was never told you couldn't look at another's test paper. Or insert story that anyone who knows a teacher has heard about how some parents attempt to bully schools and teachers for grades, play roles, etc.

Edited to Add: The comments to the article are proving quite interesting; a few authors are weighing in. And, as is clear from the article itself, there is no monolith community saying "we don't want these books," but rather some individuals who have asserted power despite the existing procedures in place which approved the books being used in the classroom. There is a lot of support for the teacher's original position to use the books, parents speaking up on her behalf, community members supporting her, and, of course, the original review process which found in her favor. Because the comments keep getting added to, if you read them yesterday, check it out today!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Wendy said...

My favorite part of the newspaper article is this: "Some parents have complained that the novels contain foul language and cover topics — including sex, child abuse, suicide and drug abuse — unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes."

Because I honestly wasn't sure at first whether they were referring to the YA novels or the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf.

Liz B said...

Wendy, too true!

Colleen said...

Excellent post, Liz and so much about this situation is what I think the litblogosphere was made for. Talk about a topic we need to rally around! What bothers me the most is the notion that you have to prove the worthiness of literature - that it is not worthy simply by definition. We read no contemporary lit in my high school English classes and I hated them, each and every one.

And The Canterbury Tales is too boring for words, I'm just saying.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Liz! It saddens me beyond words every time I hear a story like this. How does someone so clearly uninformed (is stupid too harsh a word?) about the value of YA and what kids enjoy reading become a school superintendent? I applaud Risha Mullins and her success at getting students engaged in reading (most especially as an UNTENURED teacher). :)

Bibliovore said...

I like Wendy's snip, and I'll add:

"It's not censorship when you make wise decisions about what can be used in the classroom," parent Cyndi Murphy said."

Um . . . it's not if you're the teacher. If you're the parent attempting to decide what everyone's kids can read, or dictating what the teacher's "wise decisions" are: guess what, that is censorship.

Blood: boiling.

Anonymous said...

Well said! As a teacher myself, I shudder to hear news like this. I fear one day we will all be forced to adhere to scripted programs and have no professional license/freedom to guide our kids. Literature that SPEAKS to kids opens the eyes of learners in a way that "classics" cannot. I wonder what Nancie Atwell would have to say about this?

Bonnie Jacobs said...

This is excellent. Thanks for writing it. I have linked my readers to what you have written, in case you would like to check it out.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I'm back! I shared the link on my book blog as well. Same thing, different venue.

SafeLibraries® said...

Here's what I think:

"Kentucky School Superintendent Exposes False Cries of Censorship; Removes Educationally Unsuitable Books from Curriculum Despite Being on ALA's List for Reluctant Readers."

Anonymous said...

This is so disheartening...
The reading level argument just doesn't work. If it all hinges on reading level:
Love in the Time of Cholera's (for example) lexile level (just one of the MANY measures of reading level) is 1440.
Gary Paulsen's Alida's Song is 1460, and his The Rifle is 1480.
Even picture books can have reading levels matching this level. Jacqueline Woodson's Visiting Day is 1430.
These examples are chosen with a quick search, but there are MANY MANY YA titles which are written at the same or higher reading levels than "the classics."
What I really want to see is the research that supports teaching of classics over YA. There is none.
At the early literacy level, it's all about research. At the high school level it's all about opinion. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about something. What do you think is to be gained by kids reading prurient material? I don't see the wisdom in that. Why do you defend it? That seems to be the common denominator in all these controversies, i.e., that people seem very determined to make sure kids read prurient material. Why? I have grandkids in middle school. They are assigned novels that to me are worthless on a literary level. They don't contain really controversial material, but are just not very good examples of the best literature. What's the point of that? They are in school to learn about the best, not to be deluged with the mediocre and worst. How about if we aspire just a tad higher? Another question: Why do you think it is that these new writers of so-called Young Adult novels so frequently include foul language and tons of explicit sex in their novels? Can't they write a book without those things? What's the deal? And another question: Have you noticed how those novels are real downers? How much of the seedy side of life do you think the average child needs to read about? Referring back to those novels my grandkids have to read, every single one of them is depressing and deals with the underside of life. What's up with that? Where's the balance?

Liz B said...

jacketwhys, the whole issue of "grade / reading level" is definately another post! many people think picture books is a synonym for toddler books; and don't realize how high level they are.

Anon 10:58, it's really hard to discuss the issue of books your grandchildren are reading in school without knowing the titles.

Children's and young adult literature is just like grown up literature: it contains many different topics and themes, language, endings, characterizations. It is not "all" one thing or another.

What do I want? Respect. Respect for my reading choices; respect for the choices of children & their parents & teachers. What I don't want is someone else telling me, a child, a teen, or a teacher what they can or cannot read.

Wendy said...

So... I've been thinking about this over the day. I think I really can't make my position as strong as yours. There are a lot of things that bother me about this situation, especially the underhandedness of the administration. And this sounds like a good teacher. But the truth is... I'm going to come out and say that I have VERY little faith in teachers in general (and I say this despite having three siblings and two sisters-in-law who are all excellent teachers). I've known too many who seemed to have no idea what they're doing. I've heard too many insider stories from my former spouse, also a teacher. And I've seen what can go into a degree in education (though I'm sure some colleges do it better).

What if it wasn't rad YA novels the teacher was using? What if she was teaching the classics alongside books like Love Comes Softly or, without irony, Flowers in the Attic? I know that in some communities in the US a book like Love Comes Softly (a Christian romance novel) might have the full support of most of the parents. There might be a vocal few who spoke out, pointing out the lack of literary quality and the evangelical themes. Should the principal listen to that vocal minority and ask the teacher to stop teaching it? Or respect the teacher's choices about what to teach and talk about how that book speaks to the kids in the community (which I'm sure it would)?

Liz B said...

Wendy, there are crap teachers and great teachers. And actually -- I sometimes prefer less teaching of novels in a classroom out of fear that the crap teacher kills the joy of reading. The number of kids I've seen who refuse a Gary Paulsen book because their fifth grade teacher taught HATCHET makes me cry. But then I also talk to kids with great teachers who read aloud and then all the kids want that book ASAP. My niece has had great teachers who have really brought books alive for her.

And my other pet peeve with teachers is the "my kidz r so smart" ones; i.e., I have smart kids in 5th grade so we'll read all High School books, believing that books are just a matter of vocabulary and sentence structure. It's not; a great book for a high school class is not a great book for 5th graders. All it does is let the grownups boast about their kids/students "reading up."

Anyway, all of this is why I think the process is so important. What is the procedure when you think FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC shouldn't be taught in the classroom?

Here, there WAS a procedure. The Superintendent didn't like the outcome; went back for a second bite of an apple and didn't like that outcome either; so did what he wanted.

Schools and libraries should have review procedures in place. It's neither a majority vote nor a vocal minority controlling. Usually these procedures go to the reviews (which, IMHO, is why a school/ library cannot rely only a blog review) and professional journals to support either the book being in the library or how else the book is used.

Wendy said...

I guess I just do not really trust the review process--here it sounds like the people who handle things like this made the decision that is "right" in my opinion, but I know there are plenty of other situations--say, in Texas--where the review committee has decided against a book. I'm using a lot of "supposes" around here, but suppose a review committee decides to keep a book I'd consider a poor choice for the classroom--or get rid of one I think is a good choice--and the superintendent stood up to them by doing the opposite of their recommendation? What then? Or do we look at this from a more macro level and concentrate on getting the "right" people onto school boards, or what?

I'm mostly being devil's advocate here, and if you're not interested in pursuing further I don't mind; but I think it's easy for all of us to take a particular side when it's "our" books being challenged.

(and it isn't that I think any book outright "shouldn't be taught in the classroom", but the way in which it's taught really matters. But that gets into micromanagement of teachers, which is of course bad, but on a parental level I might be vocal about what I was seeing in my kid's classroom. Well, forgive me, I'm kind of het-up--I just saw a picture of my niece at school in a paper-bag Indian costume for Thanksgiving.)

Liz B said...

Wendy, there are also issues here of power and control and politics which are a bit too nuanced to get into via blogs.

The problem with theoreticals is its so easy to change the facts and shift the arguments, getting into pineapple and apple comparison arguments, veering waaay off course.

Seriously? It's never just about the book. The books are what are being used to pursue other agendas.