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A Classroom Without Books: Florida Teachers Told To Remove Classroom Libraries for Review

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

This September, many Florida elementary students may be entering classrooms stripped of their books. Between the state’s new “Don’t Say Gay” educational gag order and its 2021 law forbidding teaching “Critical Race Theory” — which is a term that has been twisted by the right to be represent something completely divorced from the actual theory taught in law schools — schools are scrambling to make sure they’re in compliance with vague and confusing new standards.

Brevard Public School teachers were told to pull their classroom libraries entirely until every book in every classroom could be vetted by a library technician. The average elementary school classroom has several hundred books. If a school has a full-time librarian — which is hardly a guarantee in most of the country — and assuming a conservative 20 teachers per school, that would require each school librarian to vet thousands of books before classroom libraries can be returned.

Previously, most of these elementary school classrooms have had a robust book collection for students to choose from during silent reading time or when they finish an assignment early. It’s chilling to imagine kids returning to find these shelves empty until each title has been deemed acceptable.

Not all districts seem to think a library technician has to evaluate the books, though. These laws are confusing, and each district is interpreting them differently. Palm Beach County has asked teachers to complete a “Classroom Library Checklist” to see if their classroom library conforms with new legislation.

Classroom Library Checklist

The first step is to check if they have any books on the School District of Palm Beach County List of Titles Submitted For Review. As of June, those were: Call Me Max by Kyle Lukoff, I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and Flamer by Mike Curato. All three are well-reviewed LGBTQ titles for children or teen audiences.

Then comes a long list of baffling criteria. This is an incomplete sampling. (Bolded is the criteria and unbolded is my commentary.)

Does a book “explicitly instruct” on sexual orientation or gender identity? If so, is it for above grade three? If so, is it “developmentally appropriate”?

What counts as “explicit instruction”?

What counts as “developmentally appropriate”? Clearly, positive reviews from experts in the field aren’t sufficient.

Does the book promote, compel, or encourage a student to believe one or more of the following: “

Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior to members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.”

I would love to see the state of Florida name one book in elementary classrooms that “compels” children to feel superior to members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.

“People are racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Does this mean no books that mention any person in history ever being oppressive are not allowed? It’s hard to read this in a way that doesn’t ban any discussion of the existence of racism and sexism.

“An individual should be discriminated against because of the historical actions of others of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

Again, I would love to see examples of books in any elementary school classroom that encourage students to discriminate against others.

“A person bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

The idea that elementary school classrooms (or any classroom, or any bookshelf anywhere) are full of books that tell readers they “must feel guilt” for the history of discrimination in the U.S. is a complete fabrication.

White guilt is not the goal of antiracism: in fact, it’s a setback that encourages apathy and inaction. It’s white people who become fixated on our own guilt, not antiracist resources encouraging it. And certainly, social justice educational books for elementary students are not arguing that that children reading them “must feel…anguish” or “psychological distress.”

“Does the book propose that racism is currently embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons?”

This section explains that Florida teachers must not “suppress or distort historical events including how individual freedoms have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination,” though they’re not allowed to use the 1619 Project or any resources that refer to it. They are not, however, allowed to acknowledge that racism is currently a part of American society.

So under this system, when did racism in U.S. society end, officially? Was it when slavery ended? After Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Obama’s election? Is it okay to refer to racism from 10 years ago, or is that too current?

It’s worth mentioning that Florida currently has a teacher shortage. Over 9,000 positions are unfilled for September, as of early July. Reportedly, about 450,000 Florida students went to school last school year with unqualified, uncertified teachers.

The state’s teachers are paid roughly $15,000 annually below the national average. Already a difficult, underpaid professions, some teachers have quit following the passing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, especially as LGBTQ teachers faced parent pushback for even mentioning their spouse in the classroom.

It’s not a coincidence that laws like this create a hostile working environment for teachers and a worse learning environment for students — a classroom without books can hardly be called an improvement in learning conditions. Weakening public education provides a gap that private schools can fill, which has been a right-wing strategy for years. Not only are laws like this discriminatory and harmful in themselves, but they also pave the way for further gutting of public education.

If you are a Florida resident, contact your legislators to let them know you oppose these bills and support higher teacher pay and better working conditions. If you’re not a Florida resident, pay attention to local politics — these tactics spread.

You can keep up to date with censorship news by signing up for our Literary Activism newsletter and reading the weekly Censorship News Round Ups. Don’t forget to also check out our anti-censorship tool kit. Most of all, don’t get overwhelmed and complacent: these are the fights that will determine what the future of education — and the country — looks like.