The list of books by these teachers was going to be restricted. Their students fought back

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Teachers from the Central York School District in Pennsylvania have compiled a list of books and other teaching resources in the summer of 2020 to help colleagues and students navigate classroom discussions around the George Floyd murder and dialogue National that followed on race-related topics.

But this fall, the school board voted to ban the use of the resource lista decision that was to take effect in the fall of 2021. The list included children’s books about 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 District of Pennsylvania. Eventually, the pushback led the council to reverse its decision, restoring access to the documents on the list.

Now more and more efforts to limit which books are used or available in school libraries and classrooms across the country are popping up. Hodge and Jackson, who together serve as counselors for the district student group Panther Anti-Racist Union — where students can address current events through art, poetry and activism — spoke with Education Week about what educators facing similar challenges with school materials can do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To what do you attribute your district’s refusal to ban the resource listing?

Hodge: It was a nice multi-collaborative approach. The Panther Anti-Racist Union, we immediately jumped into this. Once the students found out about it, 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 what I want to do, it’s what you want to do with it.” And so they started talking about protest, and we went in and worked closely with the administration.

We had meetings with the principal and discussed what we could do to continue to express our First Amendment rights and protest this decision, but without disrupting the school day and causing trouble for the school district in this way.

And so we came up with a plan to protest every day, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. [in the morning], that is, before the first bell rings to go to your classes. So we wanted to make sure we stayed within that time frame. And we met outside the school and protested with signs made by the students and our plan was to just go outside in the bus port and protest with signs that said ‘education doesn’t is not indoctrination” – stuff like that.

There were also community members who were aware of the banned books list, and we had a community member who created an Amazon book list of all the books that were here and had books donated by people. People were buying all over the country and sending books to that person, and to our club, to distribute at a community-wide book fair. So there were a lot of different things going on at the time. But that was really spearheading the Panther Anti-Racist Union protests we were doing in the morning, and some of the TikTok and social media..

So it was a very big presence on social media. And it was also about spreading the word and being present at the protests. And the media got wind of it. And that’s really how it exploded.

What advice would you give to teachers in a similar scenario?

Jackson: A teacher must first and foremost be willing to go out of their way. Because the backlash is going to happen, and you’re just a cog, and you’re supposed to turn with the other cogs. And if you stray from it, they will come looking for you.

First, you need to know your school district’s policies because they will just try to shut you down just by scaring you on the premise of your job. You need to know what the policies are not just to know how [the administration] going to come for you, but how you are protected by these policies.

The other thing, too, is that I am a union representative. And I’m talking about the fruits at hand, about that teacher who arrives late for school every day, who doesn’t show up for meetings, who doesn’t turn in his lesson plans. You can’t be that teacher, because if they decide to turn their lens on you, you’ll be very easily eliminated. You need to be that teacher in the building so the kids know that if they have a problem, they can come to you. Those kids who are happy to come into your class, those kids who might not come to school at all, if it wasn’t for your class, that kind of teacher.

Then the other important thing is that you need to be that teacher who is comfortable facilitating, not directing, children. It’s their story, it was the story of those [Panther Anti-Racist Union] kids who really got 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 just telling their stories, but listening to and elevating the stories of others. And that’s how you bring in all these different strands of children’s DNA that just tie together and the stories get bigger, and the voices get louder.

We were very lucky to 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 the pulse of what was going on, [on] the attacks that were made against Ben and me. And someone escalated to make sure we were in touch with the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. And we were also mentored by this lawyer to make sure we didn’t go out of bounds, which was great. I think we were emboldened by the ACLU lawyer that we could go a little harder because of our rights. And we had to be very careful about that stuff.

Courtesy of Patricia Jackson

Hodge: You have to ask, “Is this the hill you are willing to die on?” It was a human rights issue, and it was an issue that I was willing to lose my job for. It’s not for the faint of heart. And you have to be able to work with the administration.

My managers, Patti and I, I would say we have a good relationship with [them], where we tell them the truth, we let them know what’s going on. But we also say when something is wrong. We help to give them information and feedback on what is happening. It’s not about trying to do that us against the world. You really have to find anchors and find people who are going to support you and get you through this storm.

It is imperative that you help these children define and control a narrative. It was crucial to our success. I’ve seen in other cases where kids go away, and God bless them, they have good intentions, but their signs cause trouble, they disrupt the school day. And people are looking for excuses to say, “See, they’re cutting school, see, they’re missing classes,” and they weren’t given any opportunities. [to say those things] because we were working within the limits of what we could do without provoking extradisciplinary dismissals.

What about guidance 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 the teachers are terribly creative, especially our primary counterparts.

I think they have to hand it over to some of the greatest organizations that can fight these fights for them, the ACLU, and one of the most forgotten organizations, the American Library Association. I can’t say it enough, and I say it to everyone I talk to: every targeted book must be reported to the American Library Association. If you elevate your situation to these organizations, they can fight at a level that teachers are not capable of.

And I’m going to bring it back to the kids. These are teachable moments.

20220829 ben hodge headshot BS

Courtesy of Ben Hodge

Hodge: It’s a terrifying situation we find ourselves in. My heart goes out to those people in those states who have this law. I would say contact your legislators. It is an option. But also, what is the policy of the club? Because more of the legislation that is put in place relates directly to the curriculum, or what is actually taught in the classroom, during the school day. So maybe a club is how you work around it.

I’ve seen a few, where [schools] attempted to do prohibited book clubs. Maybe if they say, “Well, that can’t happen during the school day, so maybe I have a group of kids who want to meet after school, and we want to read these books.” It’s for me to be creative. I think keeping that spirit alive somehow is super important. Or create a club where you can come in, and you can talk about what the kids think about what’s going on with this legislation, ask them to do that.

And again, I understand that during the school day this can be problematic. So look for creative ways to do this outside of school. And also contact your parents. There must be parents who don’t agree with that, and have a problem with it. And maybe start showing up and speaking at school board meetings.

Jackson: It galvanizes your community. Most people… just think the wheels turn the way they’re supposed to. They go and do two, three jobs, quietly mow their lawn, do their thing, and this horrible thing bursts under their feet. And when they find out, they are very upset. All you have to do is wake up the community and say, “You see what’s going on? Are you okay with that? And I’ll say, again, they don’t agree with that, and they’ll talk.

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