By: Jamie Gregory
When I was a classroom English teacher, I would try to find cheap books for young adults or buy books I’d read that I loved. My classroom library was more or less a hodge-podge of often-discarded selections, which wasn’t something I worried about because I could rely on the school library’s collection. I also didn’t have the money to purchase hundreds of books, didn’t have a place in the room to store all of them even if I did, and I certainly didn’t have the time to keep up with book reviews and what was new, etc. I knew that was my school librarian’s job.
Thanks to the popularity of educators such as Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller, the concept of classroom libraries has gone through a major resurgence. Literacy powerhouses like Scholastic and Follett are even marketing items to classroom teachers who need help establishing and managing classroom collections. Teachers can buy pre-packaged classroom bundles of books, library management software, and labels.
But what about the more nuanced aspects of librarianship that don’t easily transfer to the classroom?
In part, what differentiates school librarians from classroom teachers is explicit training in anti-censorship ethics. Indeed, every one of the seven major tenets of librarianship as set forth in the Library Bill of Rights relate to censorship in some way. In a democracy, the freedom of information and the rights of all viewpoints to be shared equally and freely are essential. Furthermore, the third tenet specifically calls on us to actively prevent censorship:
“III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
This is especially true in education, in which young people are exploring the world and developing a sense of self-identity. Those in charge of educating them should be open-minded and help students exercise their First Amendment rights, including the freedom to read.
Classroom teachers experience censorship and book challenges but without the training necessary to defend book selections and reasons why choice and representation matter. Since they teach in a smaller, more intimate setting than a school library, it’s understandable that parents may file more complaints about what they find in their child’s classroom library than in the school library.
Not surprisingly, censorship advocates focus on diverse books as being inappropriate for younger readers (9 of the top 10 challenged books in 2019 featured diverse content). For example, consider examples from Loudoun County, VA, and Kalamazoo Public Schools in MI. Loudoun County’s website briefly explains the diverse classroom libraries initiative, along with a helpful FAQ page. Parents and advocacy groups argued against including books depicting rape, violence, and LGBTQ characters. The Washington Post reported in January that 2 books will remain in elementary classrooms: Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman. Some books were reassigned from elementary schools to middle and high schools, which of course is its own form of censorship. The article quotes familiar arguments, describing LGBTQ books as “unsafe, ‘leftist propaganda,’ and ‘morally corrupt.’”
Kalamazoo Public Schools at first attempted to use a diverse books classroom initiative to solely focus on racial and ethnic diversity, which left out diversity issues related to disabilities, socioeconomics, and sexuality. It quickly reversed course, realizing after parent input that the diversity initiative itself needed to be more inclusive and, well, diverse.
Yet explicitly and implicitly teaching LGBTQ children through the removal of books that they do not matter, their life experiences are immoral, they are merely political pawns, and they do not deserve equal representation in literature can lead to emotional trauma, harmful self-identity, bullying, physical harm, and suicide (read the National Coalition Against Censorship’s report). The books are not unsafe; banning them is.
As we celebrate School Library Month and National Library Week, here are some steps classroom teachers can take to prevent censorship of classroom libraries and protect their students’ right to read freely:
- Use this important guide from the American Association of School Librarians, Defending Intellectual Freedom: LGBTQ+ Materials in School Libraries, to help guide LGBTQ book selections, challenges, and censorship.
- Be sure to read and incorporate the National Council of Teachers of English’s statement on classroom libraries and the right to read.
- Ask your school librarian to help evaluate any book donations. People often have good intentions when they clean out their closets, but avoid accepting old books which might promote stereotypes and misinformation. It is okay to recycle books which no longer have a place in society.
- Collaborate with your school librarian to learn how to conduct a diversity audit. Do you know if the books in your classroom accurately and fairly represent all of your students? School librarians are dedicated to staying updated about new publications.
- Enlist your school librarian to help you start a wishlist for donations. This should reflect the diversity of the students in your classroom.
- Clearly state a policy for accepting used books and tell students how you select books for your classroom library. As any school librarian can tell you, the most important document to have is a selection policy for your collection. Ask that the school develop a classroom library selection policy, and be sure the school librarian is at the helm.
- Do not label books. Labeling promotes censorship. Use general topics/genres as a way to organize books. Use concepts such as “Self-Discovery,” “Family Struggles,” or “Friend Drama,” and be sure the book selections within those concepts are diverse. Make sure your method of organization is inclusive.
- Have an open mind. Realize that you are not a student’s moral guardian, and your personal beliefs do not guide a student’s reading selections.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.