“Words. I had always loved them. I collected them like I had collected pretty stones as a child. I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savoring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch.”
Before we go too far down this week’s road, let me put this out there. I am a reader. I have consumed books for over 5 decades, reading everything from histories to romances, biographies to mysteries, and everything in between, Currently I read roughly 20-25 books a year, A smaller number than I care to admit, but not an unsubstantial number.
One of my earliest memories is when I was about 12, I wanted to read Jaws by Peter Benchley, It was considered too mature for my age. After much consideration, I was permitted to read the book with a caveat, the chapter detailing the sexual liaison between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper was dog-eared and forbidden. Somehow I read the book and survived. Would I place such restrictions on my own children? Probably not. But this was the household of my parents and they set the rules the best they could.
Though to their credit, throughout the years I’ve had access to all types of great literature, from the Outsiders to Catcher in the Rye, from Catch-22 to Breakfast of Champions, from Harper Lee to William Burroughs. Some I thought were brilliant. Some failed to strike anything inside me despite peers telling me how fantastic the works were. A case in point is Charles Bukowski, who I consistently fail to appreciate despite so-called intellectuals heaping praise on him.
For me, books have always been a passport to a world that existed outside my daily routine. They’ve taken me to India and to Narnia. I’ve traveled with authors from The Land to Canary Row, I’ve gone back in time and forward to the future. Read authors that I agreed with and also those who I opposed. My favorite book is The Blank Slate. During its reading II routinely threw it across the floor in frustration. Books have been a means to slip my terrestrial bonds.
All of this is a long way of saying I value the written word. Even more so, I value the bricks of the writing – words.
Words have precious meaning, but all too often we are cavalier in their usage. We use emotionally charged words to bring passion to a political argument.”Rape” and “Lynch” are two examples of powerful words used about lesser offenses to elevate impact. In the past, I’ve argued that employing this strategy only serves to minimize the power of those words that should be reserved to describe two of the most horrific acts man is capable of inflicting on their fellow beings.
This week in response to McMinn County Tennessee removing MAUS from the 8th-grade curriculum, the word ban was cavalierly tossed about. Removing the book from the curriculum means that it will no longer be required reading for McMinn County 8th-graders based on the school board’s interpretation of community standards. It does not mean they are seizing copies and burning them. More on that in a minute.
In case you are unfamiliar, MAUS is a graphic novel – what I used to call a comic book and before that my father referred to as funny books – that tells the story of writer/illustrator Art Spiegelman’s Jewish parents living in 1940s Poland and depicts him interviewing his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Nothing funny about this book, it’s harrowing, emotionally packed, and has proven effective at conveying the horror of the Holocaust. In 1992 Spiegleman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize,
The novel contains strong language – how strong is dependent on personal taste – and what some would consider graphic pictures – also dependent on personal taste. I’m guessing he chose these words and pictures as a means to convey the horror of the circumstances.
On a far lesser level, I make a similar decision every time I include the word “fuck” in a post. It’s never done lightly and while I accept that at times such a strong word is the only alternative, I also recognize that by including it, I risk losing the ears of some of those that I’m trying to reach. It’s a calculated risk that is never entered into lightly.
McMinn County is a small county in Southeast Tennessee. A glance at the school report card compiled by the TNDOE shows that it’s home to about 5K kids. There are two high schools and 7 elementary schools – which in McMinn County are pre-k to 8th grade. 85% of the kids are white, while roughly 6.5 are Hispanic and an equal amount self-identify as Black. Not exactly a hotbed of diversity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, other than that not a lot of people of color have decided to reside in this small mostly rural county.
Being rural, and small, provides fodder for critics to paint them as ignorant. A portrait that may not be accurate, their schools are performing at a similar level to other schools in Tennessee – in 2019, both ELA and math were hovering around the 32% proficiency rate.
In looking at this instance it’s important to note that MAUS was not “banned” from the district but removed from the mandatory curriculum. That might seem like a small distinction, but remember words matter. As far as I can tell, kids can still read MAUS, they can still buy the book at the mall, and they can still download it from Amazon. I would put forth the argument that in 2022, it’s virtually impossible to effectively ban any book. And the publisher of MAUS has likely seen a substantial spike in sales based on the actions of the McMinn County School Board.
Before we go much further, I think it’s also worth noting that the board’s action took place on January 10th. That’s over two weeks ago. Why the delay in response? Were we waiting on carrier pigeons to deliver the news from the rural county? Or was the outrage being timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day? Sorry, about the cynicism, but it comes with years of experience.
Fortunately, the McMinn County School Board provides us with a transcript of the conversation that proceeded the vote to remove the book from the curriculum. Despite what some may lead you to believe, there were no calls to eliminate the teaching of the Holocaust. There were no efforts to downplay the atrocities endured by those who suffered. There was no effort to whitewash history.
There were questions around the appropriateness of certain words and images. Ones that would result in disciplinary action if used by students outside the classroom in the hallways and cafeteria. There were questions around to what extent the objectionable words could be redacted. And most importantly there were questions about an alternative text that could be used to still effectively teach the Holocaust. As voiced by board member Tony Allman,
I understand that on tv and maybe at home these kids hear worse, but we are talking about things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so. And we are teaching this and going against policy?
Instruction leader Melasawn Knight made a compelling counter-argument,
I think any time you are teaching something from history, people did hang from trees, people did commit suicide and people were killed, over six million were murdered. I think the author is portraying that because it is a true story about his father that lived through that. He is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time, maybe to help people who haven’t been in that aspect in time to actually relate to the horrors of it. Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he uses that language to portray that.
Both sides continue to make arguments that provoke thought and support their concerns. Ultimately school boards are elected to reflect the concerns of their community, and in that light, the board voted to remove the book.
We often talk about the importance of local control, and nobody bangs that point like the elected officials of Nashville. We don’t want anyone telling us what our kids should be taught, yet we are shocked when others demand the same right.
Books come and go from a school’s curriculum. Huck Finn, A Scarlet Letter, Tess of the Baskervilles. have all suffered a fate similar to that of MAUS, yet I don’t recall anyone arguing that these books were being banned. I also find it ironic that many of the parents screaming that all children should have access to all literature are likely also closely monitoring the content of their children’s cell phones. I know, different subject, right?
Personally, I believe any conversation about books is a good one. Nothing makes people want to read something like a little controversy. The reality is that as long as the curriculum is considered a local decision, there will be discussion over the appropriateness of certain books. I would ask, what’s more authoritarian, “banning” books, or banning conversations about books?
Of course, we could adopt a national curriculum. That would ensure that all kids are being taught using the same materials. Both the Broad Academy and Chiefs For Shane – two organizations that commissioner Schwinn is affiliated with – are big proponents of a national curriculum. As is their financial master, the Gates Foundation. Unfortunately, with the way things are structured, that would mean that folks in either Texas or California would likely be making decisions about the local curriculum. I don’t think anybody is enamored with that prospect.
Tennessee already has a process in place to help local districts gauge the quality and appropriateness of curriculum – the textbook review committee. Every year, textbooks associated with a subject are brought to the review committee, whose sole function is to help compile a list of quality materials for schools to use. If the committee does its job properly LEAs aren’t faced with these kinds of issues. The ELA adoption process took place in 2019 and its problems have been well documented,
To provide materials for 8th-grade instruction McMinn County chose a company favored by Commissioner Schwinn, LearnZillion. You might ask, how did LearnZillion’s product Expeditionary Learning do on its review. Not so well it turns out, they failed in 2 out of 3 categories on their initial review(LearnZillion – GuidebooksGrade 8). in fact, the district had to secure a waiver to implement the curriculum. A voiced primary concern was whether the materials met Tennessee state standards.
The subject of the adoption process was raised during the McMinn County board meeting, with District Superintendent Lee Parkinson offering a compelling description,
I can help you a little bit with that. We have a textbook and instruction materials quality commission. This is who approves these curriculums for us. We have to adopt a curriculum that is approved by the state department. This curriculum was high on the list in the state department. They are responsible, Mr. Shamblin, for not necessarily vetting but they do determine age appropriateness.
It just so happened, to give you all a little bit of background on this, this commission and the state department is made up of two directors of schools, a principal, one teacher or supervisor from grades K- 3, one teacher or supervisor from grades 4-8, one teacher or supervisor from grades 9-12, one member not employed in the education system of the state and each of the three divisions, that’s grand divisions in the state. That’s west, middle, and east, and that totals nine members. The Education Commissioner or the Deputy, or an Assistant Commissioner of Education, serving with the Commissioner’s designee, shall be an Ex Officio Secretary of Commission with the right to vote and shall serve without additional compensation.
This is a state-approved curriculum. We ought to be asking questions a little bit further up the line.
Doesn’t sound to me like a well-run adoption process. What we are left with is evidence of what happens when the textbook commission is not allowed to do their work.
Williamson County is a different version of the same story. The company providing materials for the district is another one of Commissioner Schwinn’s favored vendors, in this case, Wit and Wisdom. Once again we are forced to enter a conversation that wouldn’t be necessary had the commissioner not inserted herself into the adoption process. As a result, her friends benefit while her charges are left to clean up the mess. Messes that make a hard job, even harder.
Word on the street is that the situation is about to get even more farcical as recently appointed textbook commission member Laurie Cardoza-Moore has decided to weigh in. She has indicated that she would like to see McMinn County Schools keep MAUS as part of the curriculum. per her press release,
“I am in the process of contacting the McMinn County Public Schools to request that they reconsider this decision at the next school board meeting and further ask them that experts be allowed to testify why this book should remain one of the most important tools in our arsenal to fight antisemitism in Tennessee today,” she noted. “I have been involved in reviewing education standards, textbooks, instructional materials and supplemental materials for over a decade in Tennessee, Florida, Texas, California and Ohio to ensure that our children are not being indoctrinated with antisemitic, anti-American, anti-Judeo-Christian, revisionist history, Holocaust revisionism or racist curriculum. One of the instructional materials had the opportunity to review was Maus. You can’t imagine my disappointment when I read the decision by the board in McMinn County. I’m working to get that decision revised.”
This should make for some strange bedfellow.
Nowhere has anybody followed up on the subject of what book will be substituted for MAUS. Some have made the argument that no book is as good as MAUS. The old, one-way, or highway argument.
Maybe they should consider V is for Vendetta or Diary of a Teen-age girl. Sorry, I could resist.
Two honest suggestions would be Night. by Elie Wiesel and Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. by Emanuel Ringelblum.
Bottom line, I’m never in favor of banning books. But nor do I believe that all books should be mandatory in schools. I also believe in having honest conversations and words matter. If I lived in McMinn County would I be upset about the removal of MAUS? Probably, but it wouldn’t stop my child from reading it if they so desired.
The reality is that we now live in an age where banning a book is virtually impossible. There are too many avenues of access to shut down. As a result, we must change our language to facilitate a more fruitful conversation. And again, any conversation around a book is a good conversation, because it means somebody is reading.
Monday we will find out if Governor Lee has the cajones to continue his pursuit of revamping the state’s formula or funding schools. Commissioner Schwinn is making the case that all stakeholders are on board and ready to set sail. Word on the street is that if you ask superintendents how they feel about Governor Lee’s proposed reformation, you’ll find less than 10% in support. The vast majority feel that it’s a rush job that needs a more methodical pace towards fruition. Should make for a fun Monday.
The TNDOE may no longer be fully staffed but that won’t stop them from churning out multi-million dollar RFPs. The latest comes with a price tag of $14 million and,
The State seeks to procure training in effective literacy practices and the implementation of High-Quality Instructional Materials for up to 7,000 5th – 12th Grade Educators. Any Tennessee general or special education teacher, library specialist, or school principal serving any of the grades 5-12 will be eligible to be a Participant in the training provided their district chooses to participate.
The training will be a two-course sequence. Course One will be delivered by the State virtually and asynchronously (i.e., with Participants completing it at their own pace without real-time instructor interaction) in Spring of 2022 and designed for Participants to complete over the course of one week. For Course One, the Contractor shall develop and deliver training materials to the State in a form compatible with the State’s learning management system, Open edX. Materials for Course One shall provide direct instruction on and/or include:
I’m telling you when PET Director JC Bowman tells you that if you drive by the Tennessee State Department of Education offices in a car with ou- of-state plates, they’ll throw a contract in the car, it’s hard not to believe him.
You might have seen a new press release from the TNDOE bragging about partnering with SAS to use old scores as some kind of predictor on where kids would be without the impact of the pandemic. Some sort of learning loss measurement.
The newly released pre-pandemic projected scores are based on students’ 2018-19 TCAP scores and assume that students had the “average schooling experience” prior to the pandemic compared to students’ scores on the 2020-21 TCAP assessment. This data analysis tool is available to the public each year, with additional features included by SAS this year.
I’m not sure what’s considered an “average school year” but this data is nothing new, The state has been releasing it for years, they just don’t send out a press release over it, I particularly am fond of this quote from new Deputy Superintendent Rachel Maves,
“Using the TVAAS tool we produce each year, we recognize the importance of releasing this new projected data to continue to speak honestly about the learning loss that has occurred across our state as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide solutions to get our students back on track,” said Rachael Maves, Chief of Preparation and Performance, Tennessee Department of Education.
Honestly, words matter.
I was thinking today that Commissioner Schwinn just doesn’t get enough credit for tireless and selfless work on behalf of Tennessee families, To rectify that I’d like to declare February 11th Tennessee’s first official Best for Schwinn day. It’ll be a special day for us to gather and tell stories about the historic efforts put forth by Ms. Schwinn. Bill Gates has agreed to be the Grand Marshall for the day’s activities and SCORE’s David Mansouri has promised to ensure that Ms. Schwinn’s shoes will be so polished that day, you’ll see your reflection. Mansouri is also preparing a special piece on the violin to be played at the evening’s ball. Those who fail to honor the day, run the risk of receiving a visit from the state office of Homeland Security.
That’s a wrap.
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