Banned Books Week 2017

Banned Books Week 2017 is September 24 through 30, 2017.

Since 2014, I have participated in the Banned Books Week Virtual Readout (which, by the way, can be done anytime — not just during BBW). In 2016, I read from Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (here’s the recording). In 2015, I read from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (here’s the recording). In 2014, I read from Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy (here’s the recording).

This year, I am reading from I Am Jazz. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 323 book challenges in 2016. Of the top ten, this book was number four. The ALA says, “This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.”

Here’s my readout:

I ordered I Am Jazz on September 7, because I had decided to use it for my read out, but events here in Tallahassee that occurred between the time I placed the order and now brought the topic of how people want to be addressed (i.e., what pronoun is used) front and center.

A local fifth-grade teacher, Chloe Bressack, wrote an introductory message to parents and students in which Chloe requested to be addressed by the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their,” in addition to “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”).

Two articles appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat about this, one explaining that parents objected to the use of gender neutral pronouns by a teacher and another after the teacher apologized for confusion related to the situation. This story made national and international news.

The Real Issue

The teacher explained in an introductory letter that they prefer the use of gender neutral pronouns when being addressed.

Gender Pronouns

Source: The Tallahassee Democrat via Leon County Schools

Although the teacher did not tell students what to do (the teacher stated that the teacher uses gender neutral pronouns) and said, “We’re not going for perfection, just making an effort!” …. the internet mob had other interpretations.

“Teaching children gender neutrality or gender fluidity or whatever the term is these days amounts to psychological and/or emotional child abuse.” (Tallahassee Democrat comment)

“Sad when you have to deprogram your kids when they come home from a public school.” (Facebook group comment)

“I would try my best to get my kid away from this teacher. Would she fail or demerit those that did not follow her instruction? This is absolutely wrong. Our language does not change at the whim of one teacher.” (Fox News comment thread)

And then there are the teachers in students’ “crouches” (yes, I do advocate upright posture, actually).

Gender Pronouns

The Evolution of Pronouns

Chloe Bressack asked to be addressed with gender-neutral pronouns. I can’t imagine this is the first time in the history of education that a teacher’s form of address has been questioned/criticized.

Bressack is not the first teacher to face criticism for being different from the majority of teachers

The American Federation of Teachers lists adversities teachers have faced over the years:

  • “teachers whose beliefs were being investigated by political committees during the “Red scare” hysteria following WWI.”
  • “female teachers [who] found themselves faced with “contracts which still stipulated that an employed teacher must wear skirts of certain lengths, keep her galoshes buckled, not receive gentleman callers more than three times a week and teach a Sunday School class”

The AFT also took a stand early on in civil rights issues: they moved their 1938 convention venue because the original venue forced black people to ride in the freight elevators.

I have to believe these teachers, in one way or another, faced parents who thought they would not be the ideal teachers for their students … and said so (although without the fuel of social media).

What must the 70s have been like?

I was a public school student (roughly 2nd grade through 9th) in the 70s but I don’t recall any kerfuffle over teachers wanting to be called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” or “Miss,” but this seems like another one of those types of situations that could have created consternation.

“Ms.” was officially approved by the Government Accounting Office in 1972 but actually first appeared almost 70 years prior, in 1901. Change does, indeed, take time.

About the singular “they” and other gender neutral pronouns

Many of the comments about the Bressack situation were some iteration or another of “it isn’t even correct grammar to address an individual person as ‘they'”! I made several comments as recently as five days ago that, as a grammar “purist,” it was hard for me to stomach such an awkward construction, but a little research prompted me to reframe.

While Merriam-Webster hasn’t qualified “the singular they” as an entry yet, they did say this when describing it as a “word to watch”:

There have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female. But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns. In the 17th century, English laws concerning inheritance sometimes referred to people who didn’t fit a gender binary using the pronoun it, which, while

dehumanizing, was conceived of as being the most grammatically fit answer to gendered pronouns around then. Adopting the already-singular they is vastly preferable. It’s not quite as newfangled as it seems: we have evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun they out there.

“Mx.” was one of the “Words That Explain 2015” as chosen by Vox. Vox noted that the Oxford English Dictionary added it as an official word that year.

Also in 2015, The American Dialect Society defined “the singular they” as its word of the year, noting “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Enough about language lessons, what about our kids?

I really can’t overstate how much this situation has weighed on my heart and mind this week. I wrote about it on September 21, when the Five Minute Friday prompt was “accept.”

I wrote about how appalled I am that the responses to Bressack’s choice are so hateful and ugly. One thing I wrote, though, is slightly misrepresentative of how I actually feel, but in the spirit of Five Minute Friday, I did not edit it. It is this passage:

“…I am frightened of a world where people, frankly, show such un-Christian behavior toward an educator, a fellow human being, a person who reiterated that they intend to address students by their chosen pronouns (I am sure at that school that means 100% “he” and “she”).”

It was inaccurate for me to assume, since the school is relatively high in socioeconomic standards, that “100% of the kids there prefer ‘he’ and ‘she’.” Life experience has taught me that even among fifth graders, typically 9 and 10 years old, their chosen pronouns may not be so rigidly defined, especially in their own psyches.

Childhood is hard enough, but the challenges grow for transgender children, who have “a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex” (definition: Wikipedia).

According to Science News:

Nearly half (46.5 percent) of young transgender adults have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, a recent survey of over 2,000 people found. Nearly half. For comparison, the attempted suicide rate among the general U.S. population is estimated to be about 4.6 percent.

What’s more, a 2015 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that transgender youth are two to three times as likely as their peers to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, or to attempt suicide or harm themselves. 

Although many commenters have said “9 or 10 years old” is too young to have to deal with gender pronouns that depart from traditional masculine and feminine references, the more I learn, the more I realize that people who are transgender or non-gender conforming start coming to terms with it as they begin to develop their gender identities (and deal with societal gender expectations) … which is far earlier than nine in many cases.

I think of my friends who face critical reactions when they give their little boys the princess parties they want. I think of my friend who, when he came out as gay in a small town where he taught art, had numerous students express gratitude that there was someone else who was publicly out.

And, of course, I think of all the legislative activity this year around who can go to the bathroom where.

My Wish For Mx. Bressack’s School Year

I hope Mx. Bressack and the fifth graders in their class have an incredible school year. And I hope there aren’t any parents (or any people among the multitudes who have seen their introductory letter) who are offended by giraffes (noted by Mx. Bressack as a favorite), who have been known to stick their necks out for what they need..

Mx. Bressack already stuck their neck out for something that matters.

(Editor’s Note 9/26/17 Mx. Bressack was, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, transferred to the Adult Education department, which is housed at a different campus. This is Superintendent Hanna’s statement:

“This afternoon I had an open conversation with Teacher Bressack. Given the complexity of the issue, we both agreed a different environment would be best for Teacher Bressack’s educational career and for the young students at Canopy Oaks,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna said in a statement.

I supported Superintendent Hanna in the recent election, I consider him a friend (and still will), but I am tremendously disappointed in this decision, and whatever extent our School Board failed to support this educator.)

Here is the article: Gender-neutral teacher being transferred to adult ed after pronoun controversy

Gender Pronouns

A “PTBH” at the Epicentre of a Curious Incident

In last week’s post, I shared my thoughts on the decision made by the principal of my son’s high school to revert the schoolwide summer reading assignment from “required” to “optional.” I disagree with this decision.

As the past week has unfolded, and the ripple effects of the decision have expanded internationally, I have seen many reactions, often from people who will never set foot in Leon County, about what this decision means.

Status of the Decision

The decision to reverse the summer reading assignment from “required” to “optional” is apparently going to stand.

Being a “Person to Be Heard”

When I learned there was a meeting of the Leon County School Board scheduled for August 11, I decided to attend. At first, I thought I would just attend and see if the issue came up. As the date approached (and as the public opinions piled up pro and con), I decided I really had to speak about this, if allowed.

I learned that there are two ways to speak before the board. 1) You can arrive at the meeting site prior to the 6:00 meeting time and fill out a PTBH (Persons to be Heard) card and submit it to a staff member or 2) You can call the school board office in advance and provide your information over the phone. I did not learn about the two options until the Monday before the board meeting (because I did not ask earlier…), so I had to go with option #1.  I was told I would be allowed to speak for 3 minutes about the matter I stated on my PTBH card.

Although this is not word-for-word what I said, this is the best recreation I can do and does follow the outline I used Tuesday night:

As a parent who has had at least one child in this school system since 2001, I am glad I attended a meeting (and sorry this was my first). I came away from the discussion with a more comprehensive view of the issue from their angle. Specifically, it was informative to hear the comparisons between this situation and issues of appropriateness of human sexuality curriculum (i.e., (and I am paraphrasing here) “as a teacher I may think [name of student] will benefit from the human sexuality curriculum, but if their parent requests to opt them out, I have to comply with that request.”).

I am grateful to the school board for giving me an opportunity to speak.

Accuracy

While I understand issues like this take on a life (and definition) all their own once they blow up, it has been important to me that the discussion be as accurate as possible, in order to focus on solutions.

This book has not been banned from our school system.

The parent who is quoted in most of the newspaper articles appears to have requested an alternate assignment (rather than requesting the principal revert the assignment to “optional” for the entire school). 

Although there was back and forth about this assignment’s classification as “instructional materials,” at least one school board member has acknowledged that policy was not followed in response to a parent’s concern about the content of the book.

What Really Matters

First and foremost, what matters to me is: a book with clear literary merit, which ostensibly was chosen by English faculty based on that merit, should not have been the subject of one administrator’s ad-hoc action in the face of the concerns of a vocal minority of approximately 20 parents at a school of around 1800.

Secondly, although I disagree with the choice of the parent who publicly stated:

 “I am not interested in having books banned … But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain – I don’t go for that. As a Christian, and as a female, I was offended. Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment. I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong…”

…I fully support her choice to request an alternate assignment. The comments to the articles and blog posts I have read about this incident which attack her personally are the saddest to me. And I know this is how the blog world works. I know I, too, have set myself up for being the subject of personal attacks by being so public about this issue. I know if I choose to walk into the territory of public discourse that I must grow a thick skin and cultivate the good sense not to engage with those who just want to pick a fight for the sake of picking a fight.

As I said when I wrote about Drought Shaming, “distrust among neighbors does not build a caring community.” In this case, I would amend that slightly to “animosity among parents does not nurture a caring school.” For all I know, the very parent in question and I may be responsible for jointly helping our students cope with a tragedy, sell concessions to support a school activity together, or (heh …) reshelve books at the media center together. It does neither of us any good to attack each other and it surely does not present a good role model to our children of civil discourse.

(I am also in full support of the school’s faculty and principal, even though there are times such as this when we will disagree.)

Thirdly, although I feel certain the school district does not propose to “ban” or “remove” this book from our library shelves or digital content, I am uneasy at the whiff of the idea that it could ever happen. I really hope my fellow Leon County parents and literature lovers are with me on this one.

Fourthly, here is why it matters to spend three minutes publicly defending one book. It is important to spend three minutes publicly defending one book because, although I believe what I said above in my third point, the erosion of intellectual freedom does not usually start by a flood, it starts by a trickle.

Erosion can begin by saying “you have to register” if you are Jewish.

Erosion can begin by saying “you have to count the soap bubbles” to vote.

Erosion can begin by saying “because you are a female, you have less right to education than a male does.”

It matters to to put one sandbag in place to make it less likely that freedom to think will wash away.

To Learn More

Links to articles and posts about this issue:

Tallahassee Democrat (8/9/15): Dropped Assignment Raises Questions About Book Banning

Tallahassee Democrat (8/10/15):  Tuesday Feedback

Los Angeles Times (8/11/15): Parents Object, Florida School Drops ‘Curious Incident’ Novel

National Coalition Against Censorship (8/11/15): “Curious” Censorship in Tallahassee High School

Palm Beach Post (8/12/15): Fla. high school ignites controversy over banned summer reading book

The Guardian (8/12/15): Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Pulled from Children’s Reading List

Paste Magazine (8/12/15): Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Banned for “Swearing” at Florida High School

Tallahassee Democrat (8/13/15): After Book Controversy, LCS Reviews Policies

Time Magazine (8/13/15): The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Pulled from School Reading List

Raw Story (8/13/15): Florida Principal Tries to Quietly Ban Book to Appease Christians, Sets Off Sh*tstorm Instead

BannedBooksWeek.org (8/13/15): ‘Curious’ Censorship in Tallahassee High School

Tallahassee Democrat Editorial (8/14/15): Our Opinion: Wrong Lesson Learned

National Post (8/14/15): Mark Haddon’s Beloved The Curious Incident Banned from Florida High School 

Tallahassee Democrat “My View” (8/18/15): Book Controversy Brings Opportunity for Learning

Twitter activity sharing a flyer being circulated at Lincoln:

LHS Posting

Galley Cat (8/18/15): The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Gets Banned at a Florida High School

Tallahassee Democrat “My View” (8/21/15): Problem Was Original Book Assignment, Not Its Removal

Tallahassee Democrat “My View” (8/24/15): A Curious Incident of Censorship

Readout Video (9/24/15): BBW Virtual Readout: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time 

Spin Sucks Guest Post (9/28/15): A Book Challenge: Why Banned Books Week Matters

My Final Blog Post on This Topic (10/3/15): A Curiously Close Call With Censorship

“My View” which mentions the “Curious” incident (11/7/15): Times Changing, Love of Libraries Remains 

The Author Cafe (11.29.15): What Do You Do When a Book is Banned?

Curious Incident identified as one of the ten most challenged books of 2015: Top ten frequently challenged books lists of the 21st century.

The Curious Incident featured on Page 44 of “Pieces of Us,” the 2015-16 Lincoln High School yearbook.

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Who Gets to Choose Which Childhood Reading Experiences Are Appropriate?

The Summer Reading assignments for the 2016-17 school year can be found here.

In Closing

A few months ago, I had to do a Toastmasters project called “Speaking Under Fire.” The objective of the speech was “dispel hostility and convince them that your side has some merit.” Our instructions included, “Select a generally unpopular point of view – perhaps one that you also oppose – in order to assure opposition.” The title of my speech was “My Unvaccinated Child is Just Fine Thank You.” Since I am a Shot at Life champion, this choice was definitely a stark contrast to my true beliefs. I pretended I was a pregnant anti-vaxxer speaking to a room full of pediatricians. It was difficult but the process of being in that woman’s shoes informed my approach. It didn’t change my beliefs, but it forced me to try to understand, on a very personal level, what her fears were and how they influenced her beliefs. The most eye-opening component was the understanding that this woman felt the way she did (and bought into misinformation the way she did) out of love for her child. We all want the best for our children.

Honestly, if I tried to do the same with this incident, I would struggle. I do feel strongly that decision which was made was the wrong one, that this book has particular literary value, and that proper procedures should have been followed at the school level.

Were my three PTBH minutes enough to make a difference? I do not immediately know, but my stubborn ounces begged to be heard …

(To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

– bonaro w. overstreet

(But Wait, You Explained “PTBH” But What is the Reference to the Epicentre?)

For all my frustration at people who don’t live here, who have commented on this issue publicly, lumping all Tallahasseeans together, even the one who lumped us all in as “Silly Americans,” I appreciate author Mark Haddon’s tweet (he did the same for another local parent’s blog).

High School Books

Hundreds of commenters in an international audience have opinions. All I know from my little spot at the epicentre is precisely where my “stubborn ounces” are going to go: toward making sure the one student I have responsibility for has unfettered access to books which matter.

UPDATE:

I observed this in the recent school newsletter (January 2016):

LINCOLN READING edited

Because the resolution of the picture is slightly poor, here’s the text: “At our recent School Advisory Council Meeting, the committee proposed and approved new school procedures for major readings and attached assignments, with an emphasis on summer reading. These procedures outline the responsibility of the faculty to submit potential texts, accompanying assignments, and an alternative assignment to a Reading Committee. The committee will include a group of stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, parents, and students.The committee’s final recommendation will be submitted to the principal for review each year.It is our goal that these new procedures will honor the intent of reading assignments by our faculty while meeting the expectations of all stakeholders.

High School Books