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October 10, 2012 4 min read
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| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

ALA Campaign Against Book Burning Turns 30

How many of you brushed off your copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the 30th Annual Banned Books Week? Organized by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week, which ran through Saturday, celebrates open access to information, while issuing a call to action against censorship.

Hosts of organizations use the week as a way to engage students on literacy and law; it only helps that the books frequently targeted for banishment can provide some of the most challenging and captivating reading experiences for students.

Schools and libraries offer public readings of banned books, as does the ALA, which ran its Second Annual Virtual Read-Out, wherein YouTube users upload videos of themselves reading passages of censored books. Monterey Trail High School, in Elk Grove, Calif., offered a Forbidden Book Display. Others got more creative, as with the San Francisco-based event, “Naked Girls Reading Banned Books.” (I suppose student engagement at that would be more limited. Or the reverse.)

The list of objectionable material grows longer each year. Some books, to be sure, are mainstays. Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931; it was No. 7 on the list of most-challenged books in 2011; critics have said it makes promiscuous sex “look like fun” and includes drug use. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has been challenged at least four times since 1993 for being, among other adjectives, “repulsive.” Perennial target The Catcher in the Rye has been called (brace yourselves) obscene, anti-white, vulgar, profane, excessively violent, overly sexual, blasphemous, a “filthy, filthy novel,” and the real humdinger, “negative.” And The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, objectifies living beings as “Things” and contains whimsical feline anthropomorphism.

(OK, that last one might not be real.)

Of challenges to reading materials between 2007 and 2011, only seven states—Delaware, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Vermont—had zero reported incidents. The ALA recorded 348 challenges in 2010, but estimates it is only alerted to about a quarter of all challenges.

The ALA notes that schools can work to avoid such conflicts by engaging parents early, relating the story of a South Carolina librarian who formed a book club where parents could read and learn about the literature available in school.

— Ross Brenneman

| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Should the Common Core Change Everything?

Not long ago, a survey of teachers found large numbers sizing up the Common Core State Standards as pretty similar to what they’re already teaching. The architect of the survey, William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University, saw in this a distressing sign that too many teachers don’t grasp the depth of the change the standards represent, so they might well resist embracing it (or, he theorized, they simply hadn’t read the standards).

That makes a new entry into the common-core conversation all the more interesting. Chester E. Finn Jr., the founder of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, argues in a new blog post that the common core is so far-reaching that, if implemented properly and fully, it will “change everything” in American education. He details 20 aspects of our schooling system, from preschool to college, and textbooks to teacher training, that must undergo a significant evolution if they are to faithfully reflect the standards’ vision of a good education.

Since Finn is clearly on the advocate side of the common-standards fence, it’s unsurprising that he would call for a thorough revision of all segments of education that are touched by them.

Finn raises some of the thorniest issues facing the standards, and suggests that a lack of response—on a deep level—to the reality of the standards in enough sectors of American education could cripple them. How you feel about that prospect, of course, has everything to do with your view of the standards themselves, and, very possibly, with the early signs of how tests to gauge their mastery are shaping up.

One can reasonably ask whether the common standards will change everything, and also whether they should. There is outcry when parts of the education world resist change for the wrong reasons (institutional sluggishness, for instance). But there is also a form of resistance based on reasonable disagreement. How does that fit into the grand plan to implement the standards?

Take, for instance, Finn’s contention that the current form of the school calendar will have to yield—presumably to something longer—to meet the goals of the standards. Even some of those who love the common core could reasonably question whether this is a good idea, or even feasible. Is more necessarily better?

Another thorny area of implementation is the matter of curriculum and instructional materials for teachers. Finn suggests offering voluntary guides for teachers who might find them useful. But how will they know, in the dizzying swirl of material being produced for the standards, what truly reflects them? Here Finn wades into some really sensitive stuff, since he echoes an idea that’s been floating around for a couple of years now: someone, or a group of someones, that might rate how well materials are aligned to the standards.

The reason this idea has bopped around with no resolution is that it’s radioactive in a country accustomed to local control over what is taught and what materials are used. Whatever you think of the idea, there are many people who will reasonably disagree with you. Which raises the question, once again, about what thorough implementation of common standards looks like in the curriculum-and-materials segment of the landscape.

Finn asks who will apply the publishers’ criteria that guide what materials should look like if they’re faithful to the standards.

Who, indeed?

There are many flammable zones in this endeavor. Ones that even a well-crafted battle plan might not be able to resolve.

— Catherine Gewertz

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week

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