By: Kate Lechtenberg
Recent book challenges in the news have involved permission slips sent home by classroom teachers when students would be reading a potentially controversial book (see the Springfield, MO case with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Biloxi, MS case with To Kill a Mockingbird as examples), and I’d like to take some time to review the bigger picture surrounding classroom text selection, parent communication, and the sticky question of “permission.”
When educators consider issues commonly labeled as “controversial,” our first reactions are often defensive or fear-based: What if parents question me? What if someone gets upset? That’s where many permission slips come from: the desire to make sure we’ve covered our bases so we can’t get in trouble later.
Here’s a list of promising intellectual freedom principles and practices to help us reframe the question from one of permission to one of communication.
1. Start and end with policy
Most classroom teachers do not receive the same kind of training about selection and reconsideration policies that librarians receive, so school librarians can support classroom teachers by helping teachers locate and process these documents. Understanding your school’s policies can give you confidence to trust in your professional selections.
Locate and read your “Instructional Materials” policies and administrative guidelines for both selection and reconsideration/complaint procedures. No policy? Skimpy or outdated policy? Consult the pros:
- NCTE’s Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs
- ALA’s Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries
Also, don’t forget about your school’s “Teaching Controversial Issues” (or similar) board policy. These statements are often very supportive of the inclusion of issues labeled as controversial, and they rarely require parental permission before including them in the curriculum.
2. Remember that “controversial” is a relative term.
“Controversy” is in the eye of the beholder; we can’t presume to know which topics, issues, or words will be controversial to every parent. Recently, Marley Dias and Patrisse Cullors talked about “controversial” topics at the ALA Midwinter Opening Session, and Marley continually used scare quotes to remind us that everyone finds different topics “controversial.” Cullors agreed, pointing out that the Black Lives Matter movement is not controversial to her friends and family: it simply reflects the urgent priorities that reflect her experience in U.S. society. However, those who have called her a “terrorist” might find readings about the movement to be highly controversial.
3. Avoid red-flagging particular books, topics, pages, or words as “controversial.”
Since any book can be considered controversial by some reader, we do ourselves a disservice when we highlight some books — but not others — for permission slips, age restrictions, or other red flags. For every parent who appreciates a permission slip, another parent may be offended that you chose to label a particular book as controversial (see this parent’s humorous response to a permission slip about Farenheit 451). NCTE’s Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books and ALA’s statement on Labeling and Rating Systems offer full rationales for this principle.
In addition, promote the idea that literature is more than the sum of its parts. Book challenges often focus on individual pages, scenes, or words in a book, and we need to keep our conversations focused on books as a whole literary work. In your communications with parents, avoid calling attention to potentially controversial issues out of context. Yes, Hop on Pop may appear to promote violence against fathers on one page, but the next page says, “No! Don’t hop on Pop!”
4. Create a school and classroom culture that supports reading choices
When students have choices in their reading on a regular basis, there is more opportunity to engage with books that are a good fit for individual needs and interests. Independent reading with books from the school library or book clubs or literature circles in small groups give more autonomy to students and to parents–and it makes responding to concerns about books less disruptive to your overall teaching. A parent request for an alternate text is easily accommodated in a classroom that thrives on choice reading, but when every text is a whole class text, parent requests can feel like extra work for teachers and unfair stigma for students reading alternate texts. When you do have whole class texts, we can be prepared with rationales to help explain choices to parents.
5. Focus on building communication and partnerships, not seeking permission
So if any book can be labeled as controversial, should we send permission slips for every book, magazine article, or political cartoon we read?
My answer is no. When seeking permission to read is the only communication we have with parents about their learner’s reading life, we set the expectation that parents should be involved in reading choices only when teachers identify a possible problem.
Instead, let’s we need to focus on building strong communication and real partnerships with parents so that they understand their rights and respect our professional expertise and desire to support their students’ development. While some schools may still choose to require permission slips, consider these steps as alternatives that eliminate the need for permission:
- Include positive, upbeat descriptions about your approach to selecting materials in your syllabus, classroom newsletter, or email communications. See high school English teacher Penny Kittle’s letter to parents as one example.
- Talk frankly with your students, as I do in this video about the process of learning one’s own reading interests — and limits. Sweet Valley High helped me learn my childhood limits, The Basketball Diaries helped me learn my young adult limits, and I’ve learned that when a book isn’t right for me, the solution is to put it back. Students can learn this lesson too, with our help.
- Have these same conversations with parents. Discuss your learners’ reading choices at parent teacher conferences, or share a video message like the one I shared with parents when I was a school librarian: Working together to grow readers.
- At the start of each new unit or reading experience (especially those that will involve student choice), send a friendly email reminding parents of your commitment to finding a book to meet every learner’s interests and needs. Communication cannot be a one-time thing!
- Encourage parents to read children’s and young adult books along with their students. Take a look at the the online book club parents in Springfield, MO recently started.
6. Clarify educator and parent roles.
The educator’s role is to select materials for groups of students or make recommendations for individual students based on student abilities and interests, instructional objectives, professional expertise, and school board policies. The parent’s role is to monitor his or her child’s individual reading life, in relation to their values and beliefs. As you’re communicating with parents, remind them that they can contact you to discuss particular concerns or topics they would like their child to avoid when reading. Then, educators can work with individual parents to select books for their child that meet instructional objectives within parental constraints.
7. Stay grounded in professional guidelines
All of the principles, practices, and policies discussed above are rooted in intellectual freedom statements from ALA and NCTE. We cannot forget that school librarians and classroom teachers have professional expertise and experience that makes us qualified to select instructional materials for students in our disciplines and grade ranges. So before you start drafting a permission slip or rethink your book selection, review some key statements from NCTE and ALA that remind you of your professional values and expertise, and reach out to Millie Davis at the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center (email@example.com) or Kristin Pekoll at the OIF (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more support!
- ALA: The Freedom to Read Statement
- ALA: Access to Resources and Services in the School Library
- NCTE: Students’ Right to Read
- NCTE: Students’ Right to Read Challenged Books
- Notable First Amendment Court Cases
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.