Why Everyday Advocacy + Opposing Bans?
Across the country, books – especially young adult and diverse books – are increasingly challenged, censored, and banned. These books are essential, immersing students in what Sims Bishop frames as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors,” helping them become compassionate humans who think in complex and critical ways. In some communities, there is also pressure to limit the topics teachers and students can discuss, undermining students’ opportunities to thoughtfully develop their own understanding of the serious issues they know exist around them.
We know how scary it can be when a book or a topic is challenged. We know that feeling of helplessness when faced with what seems like overwhelming odds against us. But we can make a difference, in our local settings, as part of our everyday life as teachers, to change the public narrative about our teaching, and to provide reasons for our choices.
Lessons from Everyday Advocacy
Teachers who work in ways that are smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable are changing public perceptions of literacy education, and these principles can guide our efforts to build understanding and support for our work - and defend it when needed.
As you read through these guiding principles, think about how to work in smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable ways if you encounter book challenges, banning, and censorship.
Keep in mind: context matters! You can build support in different ways, depending on the local context and the kinds of discussion happening in your community.
Click the numbers below to learn more!
> 1. Before an Issue Arrises - Being Proactive
If you’ve been supported so far, or at least left alone, on the diverse topics and YA literature your students engage in, you may still want to proactively create understanding and support for your instruction to prevent challenges from arising, or provide support if questions or doubts do come up.
Proactive advocacy keeps others informed about what you’re teaching and why you’re teaching it–before a problem arises.
How do you become proactive? Start focusing on ways to work smartly and safely.
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1. Know why you teach diverse YA books. Think about rationales for these books and what they can offer students. Know the literature and know what books work well for students in your context.
2. Build awareness. Help others understand why you teach diverse YA lit or support discussion of complex social controversial issues.
Whom do I want to/need to reach? (students, parents, other teachers, administration, community members?)
Why do I want to reach them? (to help them understand the value of YA lit? to show them ways of teaching YA lit? to help them understand how YA lit helps students learn and grow?)
What do I already do to build awareness with colleagues, administrators, parents, or community members?
How can I build relationships with individuals from these various groups so they trust my thinking and my commitment to the supportive care of the children in my charge?
What else could I do?
Click here to see possible talking points for teaching diverse YA lit
3. Find and develop allies. Create a network of like-minded people for both support and outreach.
Who are the like-minded people in my school or community who might be good allies?
Are there others who might shift their thinking on the issue? (“undecideds”)
How do I reach each group?
Working in ways that are smart and safe leads to tactics that can create change. Tactics include actions or materials to help others think about issues in new ways or to strengthen their understanding.
Click here to see possible proactive tactics to raise awareness and develop allies
> 2. In the Midst of an Issue - Being Strategic
If you or your school has been challenged about a book, lesson, or discussion topic, there are many moving pieces to consider about your own situation: To what extent do you need to protect your job? How strong are your relationships with fellow teachers, parents, administrators? How supportive (or not) is your administration? How much energy can you devote to an advocacy effort? If you are ready to take action, great.
A few key principles:
1. Build on the proactive work you’ve already done, especially the relationships you’ve developed with students, parents, colleagues, administrators and community members. If you’ve already explained your educational philosophy and actions, and kept people well informed, many will appreciate and support you.
2. Don’t try to fight battles alone. Allies give legitimacy and strength to your efforts. Speaking out alone can leave you very vulnerable, but multiple voices (especially the voices of parents and community members) show that your teaching approaches are justified and widely shared.
3. Plan and act strategically. Who has the power to make decisions about the issue? What arguments will carry weight with that person or persons? What facts and information will you need? What concerns or pressures are on their mind? And what sort of communication will best promote your advocacy – letters? Petitions? Speaking at a board meeting? Protest demonstrations? Quiet one-on-one meetings? Some actions may feel exciting but don’t necessarily exert the pressure to get results.
Fortunately, there are toolkits and guides to help you work through the process, so we don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel. Check out the resources here on this site and those of Unite Against Book Bans, among others.
Steps and strategies:
● Get as fully informed as possible about the challenge. Who is involved? How many complainers? Is there an organization or community group promoting the effort? What is their actual concern? Who provides funding for this group? Are there unspoken agendas at work?
● Use one-on-one meetings with parents and care-givers. If the complaint is from just one family, consider holding a one-on-one meeting just with them, so they feel safe and respected, and don’t need to grandstand or save face.
● Use one-on-one meetings with allies. These can also galvanize support and can enable you to hear various points of view to increase your understanding of the situation.
● Be aware of the officials or administrators who have decision-making power around the issue. There may be a book reviewing committee, for example, where book selection decisions are made.
● Identify other influential officials who are not directly involved but are able to support your effort. Local and national organizations may also be working on your issue and may provide lawyers, consultants, or materials to help you. Unite Against Bookbans, which provides the toolkit we listed, is one such group.
● Consider the tactics you can use to promote your advocacy. A highly visible public demonstration can show the level of public concern about the issue, but cannot actually hammer out a solution. Conversely, a private meeting can allow for quiet, rational argument and listening to one another, but lacks the transparency of a public action.
● Weigh the pros and cons of going public through social or news media. Such publicity can galvanize support, but can raise the temperature of the conflict. When news and social media publicized a school board’s banning of the graphic novel Maus, local activists complained that this only caused the board to dig their heels in on the matter.
● Finally, make use of concrete, real-life stories. Many people who are fighting for some kind of censorship do not realize the psychological harm it can do to students whose identities or needs are being silenced. And stories are often much more convincing than abstract, logical arguments.
> 3. After Restrictions are Enacted - Moving Forward
Steps you can take if a restrictive law or policy is in place
Fortunately, many schools and districts support books and discussion on important social issues. But if you are in a district where state laws or local policies restrict your teaching, you might feel overwhelmed, unsure if you can make a difference. Community organizers teach us this: look for small victories where you can find them, and take small steps that can help keep your enthusiasm for change going. And if your life situation and your energy for activism enable you to step up, you may want to join efforts to get restrictions rolled back. Here are some suggestions, first for the classroom, and then for wider advocacy.
Classroom Strategies for Change that implicitly support students’ cultural identities without ever explicitly teaching or even mentioning forbidden terms, concepts, or social issues:
Much as good literature and discussion can help young people explore their identities, having a caring teacher learn and support who they are is equally powerful. Students can write about their families, the special people in their lives, their knowledge or concerns about their neighborhood or community, and interests they have outside of school. When students share this writing in the classroom, they learn to respect and appreciate one another. One teacher we know used art projects to have students create “shields” with symbols to represent aspects of their family and culture and took turns explaining these to the class.
The concept of “funds of knowledge,” developed by Luis Moll and others, reminds us that considerable cultural knowledge resides in children’s heads–it’s developed in their families, their communities, and often through their own outside interests. When students bring that knowledge into the classroom, the teacher learns who children are and what they know, signaling that their knowledge and culture are of value. Many sites (like this one) offer strategies for helping students to share such “funds of knowledge” and connect it to the formal curriculum.
Students can identify issues in their school or community that they care about, research the issue, and then write and give speeches to advocate for action to solve the problem or celebrate an achievement around it. As students do this, the teacher not only supports equity, but implicitly helps students develop criticality in thinking and a sense of agency and responsibility for their community. (See resources for YPAR and books by Blackburn, Ochoa, and Mirra, et al for ideas.)
Identity can be academic as well as cultural. Speech teacher Tina Curry, for example, realized, from a one-to-one conference with a student, that she lacked knowledge of her students’ own purposes for reading and writing. Now she invites students to write about their reading and writing identities, so she can learn about them and build on their intrinsic motivations for learning. Similarly, some math teachers ask their students at the start of the year to write their mathematical autobiographies.
Finally, all of the strategies we’ve outlined for pro-actively building support for your teaching apply as well, if legal or policy restrictions are already in place. Letters home to parents and caregivers can explain how your instruction is compliant and at the same time caring and committed to the growth and well-being of your students. Developing allies among your fellow teachers and with parents/caregivers will still stand you in good stead if the atmosphere in the community is contentious.
Participating in wider advocacy
Remember the Guiding Principles of Everyday Advocacy: Work in ways that are smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable.
Everything we’ve suggested about pro-active efforts or addressing ongoing challenges still applies. It’s essential to be well-informed about the situation, about the advocates for restriction and for more open education, about your students’ parents and care-givers, and about the school administrators and politicians in your community and what they believe about bans.
As you go increasingly public, remember to protect yourself and your job. Work with your allies so that you aren’t out there on your own. Standing up alone to speak at a school board meeting only leaves you highly vulnerable, and isn’t likely to achieve change.
How actively and openly you advocate for more open and honest instruction and book access will depend on your individual family obligations and your readiness to be more public in your efforts. Do what you can do and don’t feel bad about what you can’t.
Context matters. Is your battle a state-wide issue supported by a majority of voters? Is the restriction enacted by a local school board, the result of a vocal minority? Is the censorship coming from an individual principal in response to a few people?
Strategy and tactics depend on that context. You might need to build new allies which could lead to long range coalition building. You might need long term education with parents, community members, colleagues and administrators.
Decision makers may shift. Sometimes you need to appeal to a higher level. If an edict comes from a principal, you may need to go to the superintendent or the school board. If it’s a school board decision, you may need to move to the state level.
Getting involved with local, state, and national coalitions can often help you feel inspired to keep going. National organizations like Pen America and the ACLU have specific strategies and support for teachers. And you may be able to create your own local group to keep your spirits up and move this work forward.
Voting. Maybe it goes without saying, but learn about the stances of local, state, and national candidates on the issue of bans and censorship. Meeting with them in small groups can help you become an informed voter and may also help you influence their stance. Come with an elevator pitch, your stories, and your knowledge of schools.
Read about what others are doing to create change, working in ways that are smart, safe, savvy, and sustainable: ACLU banned book clubs, student elected to Boise School Board, Pen America Resources, and this article on advocacy and people. These specific resources might also help: “Communicating During Contentious Times: Dos and Don’ts to Rise Above the Noise” and “How to Respond to Community Concerns about Critical Race Theory.”