Middle school students in Reading, PA, are protesting what they see as unjust scrutiny of their classroom libraries—using their own voices even as teachers express reservations about speaking out.
In mid-December, teachers at Muhlenberg Middle School were told that they must read every book in their classroom library and classify them before January 21, according to Acacia O’ Connor, coordinator of the Kids’ Right to Read Project with the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). O’Connor was given a copy of the memo sent to teachers at the middle school, dated December 17, 2013. She says the categories that teachers are to use when analyzing their titles include whether a book is insensitive or offensive in a cultural, religious, gender or ethnic manner—determinations that she says are too subjective.
“If you have a mother constrained to cooking in the kitchen, is that gender insensitive?” asks O’Connor. “How are you going to define any of these categories?”
Students appear to agree, and created an online petition in December that lobbied for the district’s school board to put a stop to the request. Launched by Caroline Bartley, an apparent middle school student, the petition has generated more than 2,365 signatures, attracting the attention of writers including young adult luminary Judy Blume, who tweeted about the situation and contacted NCAC, where she is a board member, about the situation, O’Connor tells School Library Journal.
Those actions prompted the group to send a letter to the Muhlenberg School Board on January 14, which included as co-signers the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers.
“As organizations concerned with the freedom to read, we are writing to discourage you from implementing any policy that would require teachers to ‘red flag’ books on the basis of their content,” reads the letter, which was copied to Donna Albright, Muhlenberg Middle School’s principal, among other stakeholders in the district. “Rating or flagging books because of their content reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements—those that some may find objectionable—rather than viewing the work as a whole. In short, it demands that teachers do the exact opposite of what they instruct students to do in classrooms and on exams—read a work completely and critically.”
To date, O’Connor says the NCAC has received an acknowledgment from the school board that they received the letter but little else. Repeated calls by School Library Journal to Superintendent Joseph Macharola were not returned, and teachers at Muhlenberg Middle School declined to speak to SLJ, expressing concern about talking with the media.
O’Connor says that’s not surprising. “This has the spirit of a witch hunt, is the sense I am getting,” she says. “It seems to be a pretty antagonist environment. The principal of this school doesn’t see the value of classroom libraries period. She has made it clear.”
The impetus for the school’s directive to teachers, explains O’Connor, occurred after two teachers returned from the National Council of Teachers of English‘s annual convention in November with books for their classroom libraries. The teachers appear to be Jennifer Vroman and Michael Anthony, according to a Google cached copy of the Muhlenberg School Board minutes of November 13, 2013, where the board voted to approve their requests to attend the conference. (The original page has been made inactive or protected, according to a link from Google.) Vroman and Anthony are both English teachers at the middle school, according to the school’s site.
According to O’Connor, one teacher at the school was told not to distribute the books, while the other teacher was allowed to give books to students. When students noticed the inequity they complained, and all the books were taken away. That’s when the memos were sent to teachers requesting information about the content of all of their classroom libraries’ books.
This is not the first time Muhlenberg has placed literature on notice. In 2005, the district removed Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree from the Muhlenberg High School curriculum, although it eventually returned the title to classrooms and to the school library.
Today, students are not willing to stay silent. “We refuse to be idle,” they say in their petition. “We need to show them that young adult literature is a life-changing thing for young people to be exposed to. We won’t stop until every book on every shelf of our school is saved.”