Reading challenges are on the rise, in part thanks to social media

The time, thought and effort that English teachers and librarians devote to their work is not random, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“They have college degrees, they care very deeply about the work they do, and to suggest that a few people’s objections should take that away from them? That’s not what you want,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Franklin Regional School Board’s curriculum committee will meet for the first time after the district’s decision not to teach Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” in the ninth-grade English class. This decision was made after several people complained to school board members, who in turn raised their concerns with district administrators.

The graphic novel – which focuses on the author’s life as a young teenager living through the Iranian revolution and the harsh regime that followed – was approved last year by the program committee and the school board.

While none of the complainers spoke at last week’s school board meeting, parents of several children in the class asked the district to reconsider removing the book from the classroom. class.

Several parents questioned why the book was a problem, given its previous approval under the program.

“Each member of the committee has the latitude to individually research each featured novel through the lens of their own perspectives,” School Board and Curriculum Committee member Mark Kozlosky told the Tribune-Review. “Then it is presented at the program committee meeting by the staff, where a committee discussion could take place between educators and committee members.”

Kozlosky said the committee plans to discuss the book at its 5 p.m. meeting, which will be held at the district administrative offices. .

Book Challenge Lists

Franklin Regional is not alone in facing this problem. Hempfield Area School Board’s April 4 agenda includes discussion of changing a policy on re-evaluating course materials after high school students were granted access to two books deemed inappropriate by a small group of parents.

And such discussions are not limited to Pennsylvania.

Students in Chicago’s public school system rose up in protest when administrators tried to ban the teaching of “Persepolis” in the mid-2010s.

In Florida, a bill is headed to conservative Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk this week that would allow any resident — not just parents of students — to challenge any publicly available book in a school district.

The bill requires that a constant list be maintained of all available books. It also sets up a framework for challenging them.

Caldwell-Stone said it was part of a trend the ALA has seen in recent years, with lists of potentially controversial books circulating via social media.

“Ten years ago a challenge might have been a very local thing and actually reflected a deeper debate about the content of the book,” she said. “We are now seeing challenges emerging based solely on social media posts. A video is posted of a parent complaining at a school board meeting, and within days we are seeing challenges across the country in using the same reasons. People complain because they saw it on social media, not because they actually engaged with the book.

Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at the nonprofit PEN America in New York, said he’s seen that too.

“People are increasingly quoting texts just because they’re on a list of ‘controversial’ books,” he said. “They see it on these lists, and if it’s taught in their school, they challenge it. I’ve seen it called “the new illiteracy,” where parents don’t read the book they’re challenging, and in some cases they’re proud to say so. »

The challenges extended beyond school district boundaries. In Texas, the push to ban books deemed controversial or inappropriate has spread from school districts to public libraries.

Caldwell-Stone said the pace of the book’s challenges have clearly been accelerated by social media.

“We’ve seen almost a tripling of challenge reports,” she said. “In 2019, we received 377 reports for the whole year. Between September 1 and November 30, 2021, we received 330. And the phenomenon continues at a rate that I have not seen in my 20 years at ALA. We are witnessing campaigns organized by groups qualified as parent rights organisations. »

She said things like the Florida bill are troubling for a group that prides itself on fighting censorship.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of elected officials involved in the effort to censor documents, which is deeply troubling given that they are sworn to uphold the Constitution and the First Amendment,” she said.

Teach real world topics

Literature in schools is often a way to confront and teach real-world topics, Friedman said.

“The real world contains a number of topics that people find confusing or difficult to talk about,” he said. “And there’s a huge discussion around the world about what those discussions are appropriate for.”

Friedman said the book’s challenges — which are frequently successful and whose pace has picked up in recent years — “take away the exact trust we’re supposed to place in educators to determine the appropriate age for children to encounter these themes and what literature they should read.”

The 2007 animated film version of “Persepolis” was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. The average high school freshman is 14 or 15 years old.

“We have always supported parents’ choices to guide their children’s reading, but we have always said that a small group of parents should not be able to restrict what all students can read, even if it is ‘a book that challenges your own ideas,’” Caldwell-Stone said.

“Persepolis” and the other books proposed for the ninth-grade English curriculum — which included JD Salinger’s frequently-challenged novel “The Catcher in the Rye” — went on public display before school board approval. Any parent who objected had the option of having their child read another novel.

“The book went through local processes, was approved like any other literary work, and now a little controversy has them questioning the work of professional educators,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Ultimately, if a parent has passed on their values, it’s hard to believe that a simple book can change those values. But it can give the student a better idea of ​​how to engage in the world. , to have a better understanding of individuals and their backgrounds and to develop empathy as they go out into the world.

Patrick Varine is an editor at Tribune-Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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