I just want to relate how troubling this can be by the reaction on KUOW yesterday morning during their weekly news roundup. This week they had as guest pundits; Joni Balter, editorial writer at the Times, Eli Sanders from the Stranger and Knute Berger from Crosscut. These are people who I know to be professionals and not particularly hysterical people.
I was listening at that time (I always like to check in on the news roundup to see news items make it) and they were discussing the Brave New World book situation. I called in NOT to give my opinion but because I had attended the hearing, read the supporting materials and have spoken with this mother, Sarah Sense-Wilson, in the past. (She's also not a hysterical type.) I told the screener I thought I could give more background to this case to help the discussion. She said great and I was on hold.
What followed was just mystifying and frustrating.
First, the host, Marcie Sillman, had opened the discussion with a couple of errors. She, too, said the book was to be banned. She also said the "School Board deferred the decision." Well, they did but only because they ran out of time. I feel sure if they had the time, they would have made a decision. They didn't not make the decision because of any uproar. (She also said, at a later point, that she wasn't sure what the decision was. That didn't stop her from using the word "ban", though.)
So then they brought me in. I mentioned the blog and just stated how this was about professional development for the teachers and that the book had issues that might need clarification for students. I got out two sentences before Eli Sanders interrupted me to say that it wasn't Aldous Huxley's fault for the ignorance of high school students. (And no one said that.) But then he went on to say maybe they need "better education in classrooms." Great, okay.
I then tried to expand on this to let them know that both the teachers at Hale AND the district said that for this book (and several other challenging ones) more professional development was needed.
I had Eli and Knute jump in and say "that's absurd." Knute said, "This kind of censorship is exactly to the point of what the book is critiquing. But if you wave the flag of political correctness in this town, you'll get a hearing." I'll stop here and say I disagree that anyone is waving that particular flag. I think it valid to say, "Where is the context given the inflammatory nature of some of the language of the book vis a vis Native Americans?" Also, the district has a process and the parent followed that process. It's not like she asked for and received any special treatment in this matter.
Then Eli said that he believed she misunderstood the book (but later they all say that books can have multiple meanings so go figure) and that he "was against the state coming in and telling you the parameters of your inquiry or thought." Again, who is saying that? NO one is saying teachers should tell the kids what the book is about or how to think of it.
Joni said, "What's wrong with being offended by a book?" Good point, books are supposed to be thought-provoking. However, this is a book being read, not by choice or for pleasure, by students in a class who are there to learn how to think critically about what they read. Explaining context to them helps them know how to do that and would help balance any offense they might take to any situational or word usage. Joni said, "You have to trust the learning process." To which I would say, that's pretty old school. I'd like to think we have moved beyond, "who are the main characters and what are their goals and obstacles to those goals." Any bright child can read a book and figure that out. The bigger picture - why Huxley used satire, why he might have chosen Native American culture, what message he was trying to put forth - that's important to be able to analyze what you are reading at a deeper level.
But again, Eli said something to effect of not telling kids "this is what the book means." No one is saying that, it's not the issue here and yet that's what all of them believed the issue to be.
Marcie then added what I thought was fuel to the fire by saying, "I'm picturing Nazi Germany and burning piles of books." What!?! Unfair, not part of the issue and inflammatory.
Eli also said, after a listener sent in an e-mail saying she felt they had gone nuclear on me, "I have to take a stand on censorship and imposing thought on others." Not - the - issue.
Then he said (and this is also crucial), "Why do teachers need professional development?"
Do people not know why this is? Do they not realize we spend money and time in this district, every single year, for PD? Who, in their right mind, thinks teaching is a static profession?
What was interesting is that they discussed this topic and moved on but apparently got so many calls (and I guess people were really irate because Marcie asked them not to yell at the screener) and e-mails that they went back to this subject. One listener wrote that she was a teacher and said teachers needed professional development to have the pedagogy to help answer those student questions and elicit students' understanding of what they read. Another caller said he was Native American and had read the book as well as taught about NA culture and that he thought the parent in this case may have been offended but that she took it out of context.
So we end up with:
- Some saying this is political correctness when I might take the other side of putting up the political correctness with incendiary statements about banning books. Say you're going to ban a book and watch the fur fly. Maybe the parent could be taking the NA references out of context but they are there in the book. She isn't making this up.
- Some not understanding that the book is not to be banned even if its use is temporarily suspended. (I believe the Board will likely say to the district, get the curriculum mapping done before you use challenging materials and temporarily remove the book from the list. Then you have our blessing to put it back on the list.)
I think especially for LA teachers that is so out of the realm of possibility as to be laughable. I've met LA teachers from at least 4 high schools and they are so enthused about getting their students to think critically if only to make the class interesting (but, yes in the bigger picture, to elicit those critical thoughts or questions).
No one is trying to ban a book.