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Education Trends, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Mar 1, 2023

How can we ease tensions around book choice and school libraries?

By Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

How can we ease tensions around book choice and school libraries?

By Candace Brown

Imagine a thick rubber band being pulled steadily in 4 directions. The tension grows until someone holding the rubber band lets their fingers slip or gets snapped by the breaking rubber band’s pent-up strength.

This is what I imagine “Book Choice” looks like, from curricular choices to which books grace the shelves of our classrooms. This tension comes from students, parents, teachers, and administration/leaders outside of the classroom.

Students want to see themselves in stories.

Parents desire to be in control of what their children learn about the world and when.

Teachers want to advocate for the learning needs of their students.

Our administrations are answering to outside voices as well as concerns among themselves with reason.

The rubber band pulls tight.

My experience with the school library and book choice tension

I have over 1,000 books in my American international Christian school classroom in southern Taiwan where I teach English Language Arts (8th), Yearbook (10th-12th), US History (11th), and British Literature (12th).

My sociocultural context is probably quite different from my colleagues in America, but similarities remain. I feel the tensions I described above with one more “palimpsested” over it all: me being a Christian. The Christian community of the world has a vast spectrum of ideas concerning what we should or should not allow into our minds; because I teach at a Christian school whose purpose is to support the children of missionaries, I see the ends of this spectrum in many interactions.

Of my 1,000+ books, more than a few are on the Banned Books lists of the last century, from Life of Pi & Lord of the Flies to Maus & Pride of Baghdad. I have had students tell me that a book should be moved to my “High School Only” section (which I have honored). I have had parents request for me not to show versions of Shakespearean plays in movies because of concerns about sexual content or violence. I have removed books from my shelves entirely because of concerns about content.

I have also removed books because the author’s character was called into question, such as books by Ravi Zacharias. After an investigation of Zacharias in 2021 found him guilty of extensive sexual abuse with misuse of ministry funds, the school librarian at the time alerted me to the allegations; we agreed to remove his work from both my classroom library and our campus library.

Additionally, I’m on a team of English teachers across our school in charge of reexamining our English curriculum for the 2022-2023 school year.

This team gathers every 6 years and makes any changes to standards, policy, curriculum, etc. We are also coordinating efforts to read as many different books proposed as additions to the curriculum as possible amongst the English staff of all of our campuses.

At our last meeting, I advocated for a classroom library budget to be allocated to every English teacher’s classroom, similar to our school’s annual stipend for replacing pieces of classroom furniture.

I quoted The National Council of Teachers of English’s “Statement on Classroom Libraries” as it “supports efforts to provide teachers with the ability to exercise their professional judgment in developing and maintaining classroom libraries and to support them with financial resources to do so.”

You might think I’m firmly in the camp of “let teachers put whatever books they want on their shelves.” You’re right, but we do not live in a world where people trust each other freely and completely (with sometimes valid reasons).

Maybe you’ll share this article with parents, students, admin, or other teachers. Instead of telling you all to agree with my perspective, my hope is to equip you with the tools to build this conversation wherever you are having it, a conversation taking in multiple views and coming back to the table with empathy rather than weaponized statistics.

While we do this, I hope you understand that my faith is inextricably meshed into this conversation, both because of my perspective and my experience working at a Christian school for the last six years. With that understanding, I hope you have grace for me, too.

Why the tension is so high right now

You might be tempted to pick your spot in that metaphorical rubber band tug-of-war and dig in your heels; I caution you to hold off. First, let’s explore why that tension has become so passionate, complicated, and seemingly insurmountable.

1. Student representation and voice are being taken more seriously.

A September of 2022 article from Edweek included an interview with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She said the following:

“The students are telling us that when a book that reflects their life and experience is removed from the shelf, it’s an act of erasure… And particularly gay, queer, and transgender teens, black teens, teens of color are stepping up at board meetings to say that having these books is important, that to take them away is a real message to them that they are not part of the school community, that they don’t belong.”

When certain students are experiencing something that others are not, it can be challenging to translate that experience– for empathy, for connection, even for basic understanding– outside of books. I’m aware that the quote above includes references to experiences that some parents do not want their students to know about, so it feels right to address parent desires next.

2. Parents are speaking up more often and in more highly-charged ways.

Many parents want to decide when and how their children learn about the deeper matters of the world. Interestingly, their freedom to choose when their children learn about concepts is predicated on their own freedom. Does that freedom come with adulthood? With having children? The American Library Association’s April 2022 press release recognizes this tension: “We support individual parents’ choices concerning their child’s reading and believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others. [However] Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives. So, despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.” Parents are largely okay with this. The ALA commissioned a poll that found

“[three] quarters of parents of public school children (74%) express a high degree of confidence in school librarians to make good decisions about which books to make available to children, and when asked about specific types of books that have been a focus of local debates, large majorities say for each that they should be available in school libraries on an age-appropriate basis.”

However, parents are not unjustified in wanting to decide for themselves, either. That “age-appropriate” adjective has some gray area. A 2020 NIH study found that “Exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence is related to risky sexual behavior in emerging adulthood.” While the study’s only book-related media were comic books and magazines, the results are sobering… with one caveat: strict parental control also seems to have a link to perceived inappropriate sexual behavior for adolescents.

“For example, several family-related factors, such as harsh parenting [10–11], low parental control [12], and family cohesion [13] have been identified as risk factors for sexual risk-taking behavior and the underlying mechanisms are also presented (e.g., low parental control→low impulsive control→risky behavior or early maltreatment→negative emotions→risky behavior).”

That’s a startling thought for me as a teacher, knowing that what I put on my shelf has a part to play in a student’s maturing into adulthood. Yet, when I remember the many reasons that schools exist– to grow students into critical thinkers, to train them to be stewards of the world, to guide them into good citizenship, to prepare them for the workplace, etc.– that’s not all that startling, really.

3. Teachers are advocating for autonomy and the ability to provide the books students want.

I feel I can confidently say that teachers want the best for their students. They want students to have all the opportunities they can to grow and achieve what they want. They want students to learn about the world and what their place in it could look like. They want students to have imagination, creative problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and something that seems sorely lacking in today’s polarized political climate: empathy. Lastly, teachers want their students to… well, read.

If teachers are to get their students from the classroom through standards or benchmarks and come out the other side with those goals met, they need books that will grab student attention while also cultivating markers toward those goals. They need books that are high interest (or even hi-lo) mixed with more challenging texts that may not be high-lo but low-high or low-low or high-high). Students need a mix. If you only have vegetables with no mashed potatoes, it gets harder to convince a student that “If [they] don’t like to read, [they] haven’t found the right book yet” (attributed to J.K. Rowling). Even a lack of a specific book could drive someone to action. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Teachers also know that, sometimes, students’ willingness to dive deeply into a story depends on whether or not they relate to the book; this connection seems straightforward, but merely relating to a book opens more opportunities to develop an understanding of differing experiences, like a window in Rudine Sims Biship’s “Mirrors, Windows, & Sliding Glass Doors” pedagogical framework (though there are alternate perspectives about the roles of stories as well). If teachers’ hands are tied away from stories that are timeless (even classics from the Bible to Diary of a Young Girl were banned in 2022 from a school in North Texas), we have to shift to different texts to teach critical thinking and empathy. If teachers can’t touch modern texts either because of protests from other places, their job gets more difficult with each school year.

4. School administration is facing increased scrutiny and requirements.

Even if you are not an administrator in a school today, you know the daunting task ahead of many school boards, principals, professional development coaches, curriculum coaches, and librarians, especially those in states like Texas (it’s starting to sound like I’m targeting Texas but it’s unintentional. Much happened in The Lone Star State). From being told to refer to enslaved African Americans as “workers” to a proposal to describe slavery as “involuntary relocation” in the 2nd-grade Social Studies curriculum, administrators receive directives from state education boards and have to filter through the implications (or, at the bare minimum, pass the consequences on to teachers). When school boards make changes or receive law changes from the government,

“These censorship efforts require tens of thousands of hours from teachers, librarians, and administrators to review the books and implement a system of censorship—all at a time when school resources are already stretched thin, and states across the country are facing teacher and staff shortages.” (CAP)

Granted, not every school has been dealing with book ban requests (or the sheer flood of book bans from their state — I’m looking at you, Florida) from parents or school boards. Some schools, by virtue of being private, have more freedom in the complexity of texts they offer in the curriculum as well as the interest level of books available for students. I must say this is the area where I feel most out of my depth in describing the tensions, but from what I understand of the news, it can’t be easy for the administration to make hard calls, either.

How to ease some of the tension between stakeholders

Here are some possible steps you can take, no matter what category you relate to most of the above “tension causes” in that rubber band.

Administrators: Support teachers in selecting diverse texts and teaching history with critical thinking and balanced understanding.

I know your hands are tied by other factors, but insofar as you have the choice to do so, put teachers in charge of selecting diverse texts. I’m grateful that my school allowed my English Literature colleagues and I to have a part in adding books to our curriculum rather than taking any away. It puts the choice of what to teach in the hands of the teacher, a person who will already be surrounding stories with context and questioning. A report from The Center for American Progress found that:

“A majority of Americans oppose the anti-public-education movement, which involves policy decisions that perpetuate discrimination and inequity in education by cutting or reallocating funding dedicated to public schools toward private or alternative schooling structures that tend to benefit the wealthy; want teachers and students to play a more active role in determining school curricula; and want schools to embrace diversity and inclusion. But this is not evident from many media headlines, which often sensationalize popular political talking points, even those with no basis in truth.”

You are not swimming upstream to defend the rights of students to read freely.

Parents: Participate in your student’s learning! Also, trust that teachers aren’t trying to indoctrinate (necessarily) but to guide.

Common Sense Media, a reviewing site used by many conservatives to check for content warnings in the media, says students should read banned books!

Remember that the reasons books get banned are varied. Ask your student about what they’ve been reading lately. Start a conversation! Who knows what you’ll find out about where they are in their learning journey?

At the risk of sounding passive-aggressive, I’d like to define indoctrination; indoctrination, as searched in the Oxford dictionary via Google, is “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.”

Most secondary schools, teaching philosophies, pedagogies, teacher certification programs, and universities would balk at a goal to have students not thinking critically about what they’re learning. It doesn’t compute with the aims of learning. Students thinking uncritically about what they’re learning would be an end goal worthy of teaching practice change.

We, teachers, are trying our best. I can say confidently that most of us do not want them to leave our classrooms as robots, programmed to think like we do. We want your children to learn and grow.

Teachers: Recognize your power and choose wisely.

Although this part may alienate some, I’d like to quote a book recently presented at my school’s professional learning conference this semester: Theology as a Way of Life by Adam Neder:

“The moment we begin to operate as quasi-omniscient gurus, experts with the solution to every problem, we exchange teaching for propaganda, instruction for demagoguery, the Word of God for our words about God. God does not call us to offer definitive counsel to our students, … Nor does God instruct us to deposit definitive theological formulations into their minds. … We are responsible for thinking with our students, not for them. To do otherwise is to confuse education with indoctrination.” (emphasis added)

We have great power to affect the lives of those who walk into our classrooms (and, as Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsibility). This is a reminder for me as well as anyone listening.

One book on the shelf in my Speech teacher’s classroom became the catalyst for me becoming a teacher (I carry two copies of it in my classroom at all times). Bring on the books! Book floods rock! Just remember that you should look for books in places with differing lenses rather than just ones you agree with.

Here are some places to find book recommendations:

  1. Edutopia — their suggestions are usually on-point in both student interest and in level of reading skills.
  2. Common Sense Media — this is an excellent reviewing source for newer books. While you may disagree with the age levels recommended for each book or movie, the site includes detailed explanations for its ratings (down to the frequency of swear words). They also have an Educator’s page with resources for teaching digital citizenship, the best apps and websites, and professional development (in November, they had resources for teaching Native American Heritage Month).
  3. Goodreads — Even though this brainchild of Amazon shows its bent, it’s an excellent resource for detailed, thorough explanations of books without a unified bias. You’ll see ratings and discussions of books that completely differ.
  4. Coworkers — I ask my coworkers to give me book recommendations if I’m running low on books in my Amazon cart (Taiwan offers free shipping for qualifying purchases above 60 USD, so we pad our carts to qualify). Colleagues in education are invaluable resources! Use them.
  5. Students — This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how little students get asked what kind of books they’d like to see. My school’s library has a program where students can request books and they get ordered with the school library’s next book order.
  6. Be willing to read — Time for professional development for teachers is already limited, but when you get the chance, read something your students are reading. Look for books that are popular right now and read them yourself. Better yet, get a colleague to read with you in a mini book club! That way, if your school bans a book, you are more likely to know it and know why it was banned.

Lastly, sometimes bans can be challenged. If you have the freedom and security to do so, do it! Support your students’ rights to read freely. They are fighting for it already.

John 8:32 says, “Then, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” No matter what part of the “Book Choice” rubber band you are pulling, recognize that there are people on the other side of that tension.

Brene Brown says in her book Dare to Lead, “I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.”

Let’s work from that assumption about others and in ourselves as we seek truth and look for ways to set others free.

Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

Candace Brown is a Secondary English and Yearbook teacher at an international Christian school in Taiwan. She has been published in literary magazines with the University of Arkansas, The Sagebrush Review, and Sonder Midwest. She has helped students publish their...
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