UPDATE 12/4/2020: The Burbank Unified School District Superintendent, Matt Hill, recently issued a statement laying out his reasoning for banning five classic texts from the District’s required reading lists. The books will be allowed in classroom libraries but no student can be required to read them. NCAC is disappointed in the District’s resolution to this matter and continues to advocate for the District to adopt stronger book review policies and to follow them when books are challenged. In addition, we are disappointed that students will not have the chance to be guided in the kinds of classroom discussions former Burbank USD students describe from their time reading Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. (Sungjoo Yoon’s essay can be read here and Chloe Bauer’s essay can be read here.)
UPDATE 11/16/2020: This Los Angeles Times article details racist incidents that were blamed on the books that have been removed from classrooms. NCAC continues to urge the school district to allow teachers to teach these books. The books tell anti-racist stories using historically-accurate racist language. Teaching them requires compassion and sensitivity, and teachers must be given the educational resources to do so. But banning books does not erase racist ideas or prevent racist incidents. We support the work being done in the school district to diversify the curriculum and expand the voices and stories included in classrooms. However, we remain concerned about the manner in which these books were removed before an official review process was completed. NCAC is continuing to monitor this case.
Original post 9/17/2020:
NCAC is urging the Burbank Unified School District in Burbank, CA, to retain several books in their curriculum and allow teachers to teach the books while they are under review. The challenged books include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. [Editor’s note: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was subsequently added to this list and has also been removed from reading lists.]
Burbank USD policy states that, when a book is challenged, the book should remain in use while the challenge is pending. The District has apparently violated its own regulations by instructing teachers to stop using the books while it assesses the merits of the challenge. Parents who file complaints are permitted to ask for alternative assignments for their own students, but should not dictate what all students in the District are allowed to read.
The books in question grapple with complicated and difficult realities of America’s past and present. But curricula have been developed that make it possible to teach the books with sensitivity and compassion. Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are included on the Library of Congress list of “Books That Shaped America” and have been taught in schools throughout the country for many years. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1977. The Cay is an award-winning young adult novel that tells the powerful story of how an 11-year-old boy learns to reject the racist views of his upbringing and to recognize the humanity of those normally deemed the “other” by society.
At a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are in the streets protesting systemic racism, it is more important than ever for educators to teach books that help their students understand the role that race has played in American history and how it continues to shape our society. The Burbank schools have an obligation to help its students understand why the books are so painful and their responsibility for confronting racism. To do so, they must provide teachers with the resources and support they need to teach these books successfully.
In accepting an award from the National Council of Teachers of English in 1998, Mildred Taylor said: “As a parent I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words, but as a parent I do not understand not wanting a child to learn about a history that is part of America, a history about a family representing millions of families that are strong and loving who remain united and strong, despite the obstacles they face.”
It’s important to remember that, while parents can opt their students out of reading these books, students who are prevented from reading classic texts with the benefit of guided analysis by professional educators can never opt in.
NCAC and six co-signing organizations strongly urge the District to return the challenged books to the classroom while the review process is underway and to give serious consideration to their importance as the process moves forward.
Hear a recent Burbank student share her frustration at the proposed ban here. (Comments begin just after minute 9.00.)
Read the full letter to the school district below. Click here for a full screen view: