Teachers in the Central York school district in Pennsylvania put together a list of books and other educational resources in the summer of 2020 to help colleagues and students navigate classroom discussions around the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing national dialogue on topics of race.
But that fall, the school board voted to effectively ban the use of the resource list, a decision that was to take effect in fall 2021. The list included children’s books on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the autobiography of education activist Malala Yousafzai.
At the time, the decision drew national attention, as well as protests.
Ben Hodge, a performing arts teacher, and Patricia Jackson, an English teacher, were among those leading the protests in the York, Pa., district. Eventually, the pushback led the board to reverse the decision, reinstating access to the list’s materials.
Now, more and more efforts to limit what books are used or available in school libraries and classrooms across the country are springing up. Hodge and Jackson, who together serve as advisors for the district student group Panther Anti-Racist Union— where students can process current events through art, poetry, and activism—spoke with Education Week about what educators facing similar challenges to classroom materials can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To what do you attribute your district’s reversal of banning the resource list?
Hodge: It was a beautiful kind of multi-collaborative approach. The Panther Anti-Racist Union, we jumped in immediately on this. Once the students found out, they wanted to do something about it. And they asked me what I was going to do about it. And I said, “It’s not about what I want to do, it’s what you want to do about it.” And so they started talking about protesting, and we went in and worked with the administration closely.
We had meetings with the principal, and talked about what we could do to still voice our First Amendment rights and protest this decision, but not disrupt the school day and cause any problems for the school district in that way.
And so we came up with a plan to protest each day, from 7:00 to 7:30 [in the morning], which is basically before the first bell rings to go to your classes. So we wanted to make sure that we stayed within that time frame. And we met outside school, and protested with signs that were made by the students and our plan was to just go outside in the bus port and protest with signs that said “education is not indoctrination”—stuff like that.
There were also community members who were aware of the banned book list, and we had a community member who created an Amazon book list of all of the books that were on here and had people donating books. People were buying all over the country and sending books to this individual, as well as our club, to distribute at a community-wide book fair. So there were a lot of different things going on at the time. But it was really spearheaded through the Panther Anti-Racist Union’s protests that we were doing in the mornings, along with some of the TikTok and social media.
So it was a really big social media presence. And it was also just getting the word out there and being present at the protests. And the media caught wind of it. And that’s really how it blew up.
What advice would you offer teachers in a similar scenario?
Jackson: A teacher has to be willing to stick their neck out, first and foremost. Because the backlash is going to come, and you are just a cog, and you are supposed to spin with the other cogs. And when you deviate from that they will come for you.
One, you need to know the policies in your school district, because they will just try to shut you down just by scaring you on the premise of your employment. You need to know what the policies are not just for how [the administration] is going to come for you, but how you are protected by those policies.
The other thing, too, is I’m a union rep. And I talk about low-hanging fruit, that teacher who comes to school late every day, who doesn’t show up for meetings, who doesn’t turn in their lesson plans. You cannot be that teacher, because if they decide to turn their lens on you, you will be very easily disposed of. You have to be that teacher in the building that the kids know that if they’re having a problem, they can come to you. Those kids who are happy to come into your classroom, those kids who might not come to school at all, if it weren’t for your class, that kind of a teacher.
Then, the other important thing is you have to be that teacher who is comfortable facilitating, not directing the kids. It’s their story, it was the story of these [Panther Anti-Racist Union] kids that really got the national attention, not Ben and me. It was the children. And you have to be that teacher who can inspire children to tell their stories. Not only tell their stories, but to listen and uplift the stories of other people. And that’s how you bring in all these different DNA strands of kids who just bind together and the stories just get bigger, and the voices just get louder.
We were very lucky that we live in a state where unions are legal. Because every step of the way I was in touch with the Pennsylvania Education Association to let them know what was going on with us. So they kept a pulse on what was being done, [on] the attacks that were made against Ben and me. And somebody took it to the next level to make sure that we were in touch with the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. And we were also mentored by that attorney to make sure that we were not stepping outside of bounds, which was very good. I think that we were emboldened by the ACLU lawyer that we could go a little harder because of what our rights are. And we had to be very careful of that kind of thing.
Hodge: You have to ask, “Is this the hill that you’re ready to die on?” This was a human rights issue, and this was an issue that I was OK with losing my job over it. It is not for the faint of heart. And you have to be able to work with the administration.
My principals, Patti and I, I would say we have good relationships with [them], where we tell them the truth, we let them know what’s going on. But we also say when something’s not right. We help give them information and feedback about what’s going on. It is not about trying to do this us against the world. You really have to find anchors, and find people who are going to support you, and are going to help you weather this storm.
It is imperative that you help these kids set and control a narrative. That was crucial to our success. I have seen in other cases where the kids are going off, and God bless them, they have the right intentions, but their signs are causing problems, they’re disrupting the school day. And people are looking for excuses to say, “See, they’re cutting school, see, they’re missing out on classes,” and we didn’t give them any opportunity [to say those things] because we were working within the parameters of what we could do without causing any extradisciplinary referrals.
What about advice for teachers working in states with legal restrictions on what can be discussed in class around race and gender?
Jackson: They’re going to have to get creative, and teachers are terribly creative, particularly our elementary counterparts.
I think they need to hand it over to some of the larger organizations that are capable of fighting these fights for them, the ACLU, and one of the most forgotten organizations out there, the American Library Association. I cannot say it enough, and I say it to everyone I talk to: Every book that gets targeted needs to be reported to the American Library Association. If you elevate your situation to these organizations, they can fight on a level that teachers are not capable of.
And I’m going take it back to the kids. These are teachable moments.
Hodge: It’s a terrifying situation that we find ourselves in. My heart really does go out to those individuals in those states with that legislation. I would say contact your legislators. That’s one option. But also, what is the club policy? Because more of the legislation that’s being put out there is speaking directly to the curriculum, or what is actually being taught in the classroom, during the class day. So perhaps a club is the way you work around it.
I’ve seen some of this, where [schools] attempted to do some banned book clubs. Maybe if they’re saying, “Well, that can’t happen during the school day, then maybe I get a bunch of kids who want to meet after school, and we want to read these books.” That’s to me about getting creative. I think keeping that spirit alive in some way is super important. Or creating a club where you can come in, and you can talk about how the kids feel about what’s going on with that legislation, have them do that.
And again, I understand that during the school day, that might be problematic. So look for creative ways to do that outside of school. And also contact your parents. There’s got to be parents who disagree with that, and have an issue with that. And maybe start showing up and speaking at school board meetings.
Jackson: It’s galvanizing your community. The majority of people ... just think the wheels are turning the way they’re supposed to. They’re going about working two, three jobs, quietly mowing their lawn, doing their thing, and this horrible thing is erupting beneath their feet. And when they become aware, they’re very upset. Just waking the community up to say, “Do you see what’s going on? Are you OK with this?” And I will say that, again, they’re not OK with that, and they’ll speak up.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as These Teachers’ Book List Was Going to Be Restricted. Their Students Fought Back