‘Educators are afraid,’ says teacher attacked for ‘Romeo & Juliet’

Book banning in public schools is, according to new reports, at an all-time high as right-wing groups and Republican-led legislatures target works that address race, racism, gender, sexuality and other issues they don’t want students to discuss in classrooms.

It isn’t the first time the country has gone through book banning, but, according to the American Library Association’s annual report on book censorship and a PEN America analysis members of the book banning movement have waged in recent months more challenges to books in schools than ever before.

They have also raised the level of rhetoric to include accusations that those who promote books they are challenging are sexually “grooming” young children. (You can read more about this here and here.)

More books are banned than ever before, as Congress takes on the issue

Parents are being urged to challenge parents through official tip lines (in Virginia) or lawsuits (in Florida), and teachers say they are confused and scared by the threats to their profession, livelihood and reputations.

One teacher, Sarah Mulhern Gross, a National Board-certified English teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J., has already been lambasted by vitriolic critics for the way she discussed “Romeo and Juliet” in her classroom last year.

In the post below, she writes the danger to students in the the soft self-censorship of teachers who do not want to fall afoul of book banners and what they believe are dangerous laws that limit what they can say in class.

Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Learning Network, Scientific American, ASCD, the Nerdy Book Club blog, The New Jersey English Journal, and The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. Her most recent writing can be found on Medium. Sarah has presented for NCTE, NJCTE, NJCEL, NJEA, the New York Times Learning Network, Fordham University’s Summer Literacy Institute, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the New Jersey Science Teachers Association. She’s a founder and organizer of NerdcampNJ .

This wave of book bans is different from earlier ones

Last year, I was quoted in an article in the School Library Journal about how I discussed toxic masculinity with my high school students when we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” together. Within days, far-right publications twisted my words to denounce “woke liberal indoctrination in schools.”

Strangers sent me messages on social media accusing me of indoctrinating students, of being unprofessional and unintelligent. I received a handwritten letter addressed to me at school. The letter accused me of being a “low-life, pseudo-intellectual, swallow-the-lib/woke/b—s— koolaid a — h—-.” [The hyphens were added to replace letters because of Washington Post style and not in the original].

The author(s) decried my commitment to a more modern, inclusive curriculum as “filth, idiocy, non-intelligent crap.” They included an annotated copy of Cardi B’s “WAP,” suggesting I teach it to my students in the “spirit of modern, diverse, and inclusive voices.” They went on to disparage Black artists and the Black community.

I won’t lie. I hesitated when it came time to plan my “Romeo and Juliet” unit this year. Should I skip the play? Should I not introduce my students to the possibility that toxic masculinity could play a role in the play? Should I not talk about how Shakespeare invented adolescence, and neuroscience shows he wasn’t fa
r off in teenage brain development? Would reading the play result in more attacks?

I am a high school English teacher; when did it become acceptable to target teachers over curriculum choices and lesson plans? I taught the play as I have in the past, but not every teacher can or will make that decision. We are facing an epidemic of book and curriculum challenges that lead teachers to quietly censor what they do in their classrooms.

This isn’t a case of one or two parents complaining about teachers. A single New Jersey parents’ rights group on Facebook has over 10,000 members. Why would any educator risk the wrath of these groups by sharing books that these groups believe are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology?”

Since last March, these partisan groups have grown more organized and intent on antagonizing teachers. I just saw a post on a local “parents’ rights” Facebook group saying teachers who share books with LGBTQ+ characters need to be arrested and jailed. A comment that stated, “parents need to have these predators [teachers] charged for child endangerment !!!” was one of many that accused teachers of grooming students or indoctrinating children via the curriculum.

These groups coordinate and encourage parents and local citizens to storm board of education meetings, serve members of the board of education and school community with legal papers, challenge books, and flood teachers and schools with OPRA/FOIA requests. They label educators as pedophiles, fascists, and child abusers.

They seem to be everywhere.

And they are terrifying to anyone working in education.

When partisan groups can attack educators for the books they share, it’s understandable that educators are afraid. Classroom libraries, those shelves of paperbacks in many classrooms, are almost always funded entirely by teachers. Scouring garage sales, book giveaways, and thrift stores is a regular occurrence for teachers who want to provide students with books that act as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” (Rudine Sims Bishop). Small decisions about the books shared (and not shared) in classrooms and libraries will have far-reaching impacts on students. When teachers fear being attacked for even mentioning a book to a student, they will stop talking about books. They will close their classroom libraries.

When social media is filled with messages about “torturing woke teachers” and “declaring war on liberal educators,” teachers are understandably afraid of being targeted.

Silence leads to erasure.

Erasure of books. Erasure of stories. Erasure of what students need.

Teachers and school librarians have already admitted to quietly removing books that partisan groups might view as problematic. They are not ordering new books included on lists put together by organizations such as No Left Turn in Education. Fearing threats, social media campaigns designed to intimidate, and even criminal charges in some states, educators are participating in soft censorship to protect themselves. I’ve caught myself worrying about what a random community member might think of my classroom library display for Black History Month or if I will be targeted for sharing a novel with an LGBTQ+ character. I am lucky to work in a supportive district, but that doesn’t prevent partisan groups from targeting teachers like me.

My classroom library is for all
of my students. Some books speak to my ninth graders, and some speak to my 12th-graders. What speaks to one student may not speak to another. Parents have the right to tell their child what to read, but that right does not extend to control over all students.

One parent preventing their child from reading about specific topics is not the same as all children losing access to books. But these partisan groups want to make it so difficult for teachers to even discuss books about specific topics that it’s easier for many educators to stop offering them altogether. When that happens, we all lose.

When teachers decide they can’t risk adding books that deal with race, gender/sexuality, or certain aspects of history to their classroom library, most people will be unaware. Newspaper articles aren’t written when a teacher decides not to read “All-American Boys” with students or cancels an order for “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”

If an educator doesn’t read aloud “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” aloud this year, most people won’t notice. When “A High Five for Glenn Burke” isn’t offered as a book club choice this year, it will likely go unnoticed. If a teacher decides not to buy “The Magic Fish,” “The New Kid” or “Ask The Passengers” for their classroom library, it won’t cause an uproar.

If an educator decides not to allow independent reading because a student’s book choice might offend … someone, it won’t make the news. When educators stop booktalking or reading aloud titles with LGBTQIA+ characters, titles that reflect accurate history, or titles that address race, gender, and/or sexuality, there won’t be letters of support or rallies. There is no outcry because no one sees it happening.

Except for our students. They notice. They’ll see when their teachers no longer recommend books that tell stories reflecting their lives or the lives of their classmates. They know when they can’t find a book that speaks to their heart. They will know when their teachers are afraid to affirm their lived experiences. And that erasure cuts deep.

Young people deserve to choose what they read. They deserve access to stories that reflect the full spectrum of history and humanity. We must trust educators to use their professional judgment when choosing which books to have in their classroom and curriculum.

Soft censorship may be even more dangerous than the loud challenges taking place. Today’s young teachers are learning to fear being challenged for best practices, so they are learning to avoid anything that could result in angry letters, OPRA requests, or targeted social media campaigns. Those teachers may never add “controversial” books to their libraries, booktalk lists, or read alouds because they will be traumatized by what is happening now. Even veteran teachers are traumatized.

Adults determined to fan the flames of the culture war are erasing years of important work in schools. They are fighting a war against their own children, determined to hide the existence of the real world from their children. And like all wars, young people will be the casualties.

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