Let me reintroduce someone who has been a character in my blog postings almost from the beginning. Alex was my student in the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program 12 or 13 years ago. Our relationship didn’t end with her graduation. In fact, it’s grown and deepened. I have been her thought partner and sympathetic listener through her work in classrooms in Chicago and LA. I’ve learned just as much from her as she’s learned from me. This summer she, her husband and 7-month-old son have relocated to the Atlanta area to be closer to Zubair’s family, where Alex is teaching 8th grade language arts in a DeKalb County public school.
I worried about what kinds of constraints Alex would have to adjust to in her new setting. Georgia is not exactly a red state. After all, it has two democratic senators and it voted Democrat in the last presidential election. Nonetheless, its history has been shaped by a long conservative tradition, much like its other Southern neighbors. It’s also important to mention that Georgia is a non-union state, so the protections from her union membership in Illinois and California are no longer available to her. After all those years in blue Chicago and LA where Alex taught with virtually no political constraints on subject matter and pedagogy what adjustments would she have to make in a very different setting?
I’ve attached below our most recent exchange which contains some surprising and heartening answers to that question. What you need to know before you read Alex’s letter is that the book in question, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, tells in free verse the story of a young woman who finds salvation and love through her poetry. It contains some unrestrained criticisms of traditional religious practice, as well as some muted “sex” scenes which depict masturbation and, as Alex describes it, heavy making out. No actual intercourse.
I recommend The Poet X book! I haven’t read her other books yet but hope to. I had a really interesting experience at school the other week! A parent complained about the book choice. I understand her concerns — it includes a page on masturbation and has many other descriptions of sexual thoughts and a heavy makeout scene. To her credit, she read the whole book. She really liked it but believes that, due to the sexually explicit language, it would be an appropriate high school book, not 8th grade book. She also wanted a permission slip for the book. Her initial emails were quite disgruntled. I spoke with my principal to get some guidance, then called the parent and we had what I think was a very good conversation. She felt better knowing there were some pages I wouldn’t read out loud, and I explained different ways I’m presenting the book and the various topics. I told her I’d notify parents about books ahead of time, even though it’s not the standard practice for my school. We’ll see if she takes any further action, but her concerns seem to be assuaged enough.
One of the most notable parts of this experience was how supportive my school was. My principal has read the book and is completely supportive of our using it as an 8th grade class novel. After my phone call with the parent, the principal, school librarian, and another teacher all showed up at my classroom, to hear how it went, ready to support me. With fewer state and district protections for teachers here in GA, things seem to be on a school- to-school basis, and so I feel lucky to be in my school community.
I think you once said something along the lines of: If you don’t get fired during your career at least once, then you aren’t doing it right. You aren’t pushing the envelope enough. I could be imagining that Marv-ism! I’m not trying to get fired, but I think that if I can nudge the boundary in this kind of way, address the conflict, and come out the other side with some resolution AND having pushed for the instructional materials I wanted, that’s the perfect kind of educational moving & shaking that I want to do.
Let’s start with The Poet X. When you mentioned it in our last exchange, I immediately decided it was something I wanted to read, so I ordered it from the library. It’s here now on the top of my pile, waiting for me to finish the book I had already started. (Note: My wife and I have since both read the book and were really impressed by it.) But now, I’m going to pause the current book and read the Acevedo because your story about the questioning parent and the way your administration has handled her and supported you is one of the most heartening stories about the current state of education I’ve heard in a long time. It proves that gutsy educators can still do the work the way it should be done. With your permission, I’d like to try to tell the story in my blog because it has the potential for encouraging other teachers and administrators to not be intimidated by the censorship efforts that are happening almost everywhere. I don’t know if I can do justice to it, but I’d like to try.
I give the questioning parent a lot of credit because unlike most parents in her position, she actually read the book. I’m sure I’ve told you what happened to me early in my teaching life in NH. I had a book in my class library (it wasn’t even a whole class reading assignment) which was about a teenager who gets hooked on drugs. To support her habit, she gets involved in turning tricks. Awful things happen to her and she dies. In its way, it’s a very moral(istic) book because she pays the ultimate prize for her sins. A student who was clearly out to do me in showed a few of the juiciest pages to her mother who NEVER read another page of the book and therefore had no context for the pages she had been shown, the way girls in too many YA novels used to get pregnant the first time they have sex, as a punishment for their sin. That parent called the district superintendent to report me; of course, she never contacted me directly the way your parent did. Now, my superintendent was a really impressive and visionary man. He didn’t fold immediately the way so many cowardly administrators have who are all too quick to throw their teachers under the bus. He called me, asked me to give him a summary of the book and an explanation for why I had included it in my class library. That’s all he needed. He said, “Thank you. I’ll take care of it,” and that’s the last I heard of from him or the complaining parent.
You are so fortunate to find yourself in the hands of an administration whose first impulse is to support you and not to panic about the potential political fallout. You deserve a lot of credit for the successful resolution of this episode because of the way you handled the contact with the parent. She deserves a second shout out for not trying to ban the book, but to raise a legitimate question about whether it would be more appropriate for older students. You may not be as lucky in the future in the kind of parents who challenges you. They could be more unreasonable and less willing to be collaborative in problem solving, but it sounds like your administration has enough backbone to withstand less rational confrontations. I wish that for all teachers.
By the way, I’ll take credit for that comment about every teacher needs to at least risk getting fired at some point in their careers. I went through it in my own teaching years, and it clarified for me what principles I was willing to fall on the sword for. I’m sure you would be up to the challenge.
This exchange with Alex offers hope that there are still places where courageous and determined people can still prevail in the schoolhouse against the book banners, those opposed to “causing students discomfort” and those who will fold when the first shrill parent voice protests. I worry that the negative, repressive attitude toward teachers that prevails in so much of the country creates a chilling effect which leads teachers to back away from any risk taking, even though they feel their children need it and will benefit from it.
I am not naïve about the fact that in many states where legislatures and governors are really dug in to their hardline conservative positions about books and teaching, there is a real threat of getting fired for doing what Alex has done with The Poet X. Here’s where the discussion in our email exchange about firing becomes relevant. Most teachers enter the field because they want to do something positive for children. When the system erects obstacles to your ability to make good on that, what’s left beyond the paycheck? That’s playing a big part in our loss of current and prospective teachers.
We need more stories like this to remind us of what’s still possible when teachers and administrators put their minds to it. Thanks, Alex, for showing the way.