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A right to read

Don’t block avenues to knowledge by Emily Garrison Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 11, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.

My freshman class read a short story recently that contained a quote from dystopian author Ray Bradbury: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."

After a moment to reflect, Josiah raised his hand and asked: "Mrs. Garrison, why would someone want to burn a book?"

I was caught off-guard by his earnest curiosity. It reminded me that the U.S. has not generally been on the list of countries who ban or burn books. That happens elsewhere. Not here.

But I couldn't tell Josiah that book "burning" was just a foreign practice. There have been plenty of recent stories in the media about groups wanting to limit student exposure to material, most notably stories of people of color.

Each of these controversies spurred over school libraries has left me confused and discouraged; when we strip students of the opportunity to grow empathy for differing perspectives, we build fixed mindsets and intolerant divisions. We will inevitably deepen the political and social divide already canyoning through our country, and infringe on students' own agency to read when we tell them that only certain perspectives are valid or acceptable.

To date, 46 states use the Common Core State Standards in developing the K-12 curriculum; Arkansas used Common Core as a foundational model for its own academic standards, which support using diverse voices and reaffirm the longstanding value of evaluating arguments in works "of public advocacy" and those of "historical and literary significance."

The Arkansas standards also contain this note on content for grades 11-12: "To become college and career ready, students must grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought whose range extends across genres, cultures, and centuries. Such works offer profound insights into the human condition and serve as models for students' own thinking and writing."

The human condition is one of complexity and for our students to go through public school without an equally complex education is an injustice to them and to our future citizenry.

In previous, less tumultuous years, I have witnessed students discuss with maturity and critical thinking the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the intense, eye-opening stories by Khaled Hosseini, Maya Angelou, or Sherman Alexie--all authors common on banned-book lists.

I believe in the power of stories as a bridge from ignorance to understanding. Storytelling has an infallible power as a great empathy-builder. As an educator, I want to be trusted to present these materials with professionalism and sensitivity.

Arkansas needs a policy that outlines student rights to age-appropriate, diverse histories and perspectives as long as the text cannot be deemed unnecessarily vulgar or obscene. Should the text be challenged, the reasoning for removal must outweigh the educational or social/emotional purpose of the text, especially if it provides representation for a historically marginalized group.

For text challenges, the state should mandate a formal system requiring justification. Parents should retain the right for their own child to not read a text on moral/religious grounds; however, they must formally justify removal that would affect all students.

A district committee of teachers, administrators, and community members must review reasoning provided by complainants. The school boards would hear proposals from the committee and accept or reject the petition for removal. They must also determine whether banning the book infringes on a student's right to a public education (14th Amendment) and freedom of speech (First Amendment). A formal system for concerned individuals could remove the burden off teachers for handling these issues alone and ensure diverse texts are not removed due to an individual or group's personal beliefs.

Locally, school boards and district leadership teams should provide research-based professional development for teachers to aid in discussing complex issues with students. These trainings could be open to community members, as well; finding common ground between schools and wary community groups is essential, and ensuring transparency may quell any community fears about classroom conversations. Public forums could be held to aid in understanding text implementation and the benefit of using them to help students master state standards.

I responded to Josiah's question with one of my own: "What is there to gain by destroying books?" My students and I grappled with this question together. They responded, ironically, with what we would ultimately lose: culture (per Ray Bradbury), avenues to knowledge, and eye-opening stories.

These bright, capable students would lose access to enduring understandings of human resilience and much-needed conversations.

Emily Garrison teaches in northwest Arkansas. She is a 2022-23 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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