By Brian Kissel
This week, I have been invited to speak to Colorado teachers at CCIRA about the comprehension connections that occur when students read texts, write responses to them, and engage in rich discussions about their meanings. Reading, writing, and talking about texts in our classrooms comes at a precarious time in our country. More and more states, including my home state of Tennessee, are in the process of passing “prohibited concepts” laws which forbid the teaching of accurate, authentic history that is not whitewashed or sanitized. According to EdWeek, as of January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills to restrict “critical race theory” or limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms. Increasingly, legislators, school boards, and activist parent groups are dictating what books are appropriate and inappropriate. And, too often, the books most often banned are those focused on identity, race, and historical accounts of racism in our country.
Here in Tennessee, examples of book banning abound. Recently, in McMinn County, about 180 miles east from my house, the school board voted 10-0 to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman from the 8th grade curriculum. The book, an autobiographical retelling of the Holocaust told from the perspective of Spiegelman’s father, depicts the horrors of the Holocaust using different animal species as representations for various groups. Their objection to the book: the occasional inclusion of the word “god damn” and “naked pictures” which are illustrations of various Holocaust victims (represented as mice) stripped of their clothes as they experience the inhumanity of the concentration camps.
Before voting to ban the book, School Board member Troy Allman justified his vote through the following declaration (school board minutes): “I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel. It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it. I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
I wonder: How are adolescents supposed to understand the “horrible, brutal, and cruel” experiences of the Jews during the Holocaust if they are denied access to reading and discussing books that authentically describe such inhumanity?
Meanwhile, in Williamson County, Tennessee, the county where I currently live and where my children attend school, a local chapter of Moms for Liberty has advocated against Wit and Wisdom, a literacy curriculum recently adopted by the county in consultation with teachers and community members who voted on its inclusion into county schools. They objected to several books contained within the curriculum—specifically, books that focus on Black historical icons and racial events from history.
One book that faced such objections was Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story. In this autobiographical account, Bridges talks about her historical integration into New Orleans Public Schools and includes photographs of the events that unfolded during that time period from her life. Parents within the Moms for Liberty group objected to the book for the following reasons:
Those objecting to the book claim that it, “causes shame for young impressionable white children”. It makes one wonder: If a six-year-old is old enough to experience racism, aren’t second graders old enough to read, write, and talk about racism in their classrooms?
In her foundational essay, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, the brilliant Rudine Sims Bishop (1990), implored teachers to populate their classroom libraries with books that reflect the students learning within the classroom (mirrors) alongside books that describe the lived experiences of others (windows). We hear quite a bit about her mirrors and windows symbolism, but not enough about her third symbol: the sliding glass door. For me, the sliding glass door represents what we, as teachers, should be doing with books to instructionally navigate children through the meanings contained within the pages and their implications for what’s happening in their lives outside those pages. In essence, it’s not enough to bring books into the classroom; we must engage with these texts so children are provided an accurate account of the country from which they live. How can we expect them to help guide our future if they are denied the truth of our past?
Reading, writing, and talking about books is the work we must do despite legislators attempting to scare us into silence. I’m not saying this work will be easy. Teachers feel more surveilled and face more scrutiny than any time before. But if we are to ever eradicate the scourge of racism within our country, it won’t be through silence. And it certainly won’t happen by banning books from our classrooms.
Brian Kissel has been an educator for 20+ years as a literacy professor, former elementary school teacher, and former elementary and early literacy coach. He graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia where he focused early childhood development—particularly in the area of young children’s writing development. Currently he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy and serve the Department of Teaching and Learning as the Director of Elementary Education and ECE Programs at Vanderbilt University.