In School Boards We Trust

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In the United States, the weaponization of school boards has led to a purge of minority voices from school curricula, rendering the teaching profession more arduous than ever.  

 

Sunday morning in New York, and I am scheduling an announcement to go out tomorrow informing my eighth graders that their summer reading assignment is due. It is the second week of August. A handful of my eighth graders have yet to return from their summer vacation, but I am already inundated with emails and texts about the summer reading. I weed through the various requests for extensions and claims of broken links to find the essays of those who have truly done the reading. These eighth graders write about injustice and violence and growing up black in the United States. The neighborhood rioted because they believed Khalil did not receive the justice he deserved. Starr uses her voice to speak out against police brutality in her community. Khalil’s past as a drug dealer did not matter; what happened to him was still unjust.

One of my students shares that after reading The Hate U Give, she finds herself gravitating to stories that deal with prejudice. I email her a list of books, most of which have been banned by one school board or another throughout the United States. All Boys Aren’t Blue, a collection of personal essays by a queer black man coming of age in the United States. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the tale of a young artist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The Henna Wars, about a Bangladeshi-Irish teenager growing up in Dublin who comes out as a lesbian in the midst of a rivalry with a fellow artist and schoolmate.

There are some good stories here, I write back. Let me know what you think.

 

School boards: Unsung heroes of the community

According to the National School Board Association, school boards are “the community’s education watchdog.” The NSBA goes on to state that “[s]chool board members are the unsung heroes in communities throughout the country,” and that “[m]ost school board members are elected by people in the community to represent their values, views, and desires for the public schools in their district.”

In my town of White Plains, the White Plains Public Schools district is represented by seven members of the Board of Education. In a city where 46% of the inhabitants are White, 30% Hispanic and 11% Black, the Board of Education is made up of mostly white and mostly non-educators. Only two of the seven members have a background in education, and only one is an active teacher, albeit in a different (and more affluent) school district. The president is an executive at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. The members are liaisons for parent outreach and youth programs and local LGBT activist groups. They oversee a K-12 curriculum that includes texts such as Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman and A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park; analyses of Edward Scissorhands and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a multi-week study of To Kill a Mockingbird; and an end-of-year unit on coming of age amidst cultural conflict.

The fact that the White Plains Board of Education would allow educators to teach so-called controversial material in the classroom takes me by surprise. Of these novels, Seedfolks has faced a challenge in Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools. In 2022, Newbury Medal winner Linda Sue Park traveled to Duvale, Florida, to protest against the state’s banning of the Essential Voices curriculum in K-12 education, a policy that largely targets authors of color, Native American stories, and representations of non-Christian faiths. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to top lists of banned books from Virginia to Mississippi to California.

Critics object to depictions of violence and profanity in these banned books; some go as far as to claim that texts that portray the white characters as antagonists perpetuate “racial divisions” amongst students. Florida has restricted the teaching of Advanced Placement African American Studies and instead has proposed a curriculum that promotes climate change denialism and Creationism and downplays the atrocities of chattel slavery. High school history textbooks in Texas gloss over the genocide of indigenous populations and the war crimes perpetrated by the United States and claim that salvation was delivered to Africa in the form of the cross. The contributions of women, immigrants, of queer and disabled advocates are largely absent from lesson plans. The Arrowhead Union High School District in Wisconsin has even banned signs proclaiming classrooms as “safe spaces”. Critics of “safe space” signs call them “divisive imagery” and have called for the further banning of “any flags, stickers and other displays that have to do with race, ideology, sexual orientation, gender preference or political affiliations.”

School boards and the community’s vision

Like many of my teacher friends, especially those who have remained in Texas, I am dismayed by the news coming out of Alabama and Indiana and wherever else conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have made their mark on public school curriculum. Since the coronavirus pandemic, there have been over 80 challenges to 207 school board elections, challenges driven by conservatives who want to capture local school boards and turn them into battlegrounds to fight mask mandates, mandatory vaccinations, and gender-affirming care.

In 2021, the first Black principal of my alma mater, Colleyville Heritage, resigned after being accused of teaching and promoting critical race theory. Parents took to the school board complaints of James Whitfield’s tattoos, pictures of him and his (white) wife on their private Instagram, and his letter of condolence over the deaths of Black youth who had died as a result of police brutality. Those like us, the brown, black, and Muslim alumni, shared the news on Twitter and sent messages over Instagram. Can you believe this is happening, and Why am I surprised, and To be honest, when was Colleyville not racist?

The fight by conservatives to weaponize school boards has included not only a revamp of the curriculum but also the signage that goes up on classroom walls, hallways, and building facades. Six miles from my adopted hometown, The Carroll Independent School District has approved Southlake High School to publicly display “In God We Trust” signs but rejected variations of the motto in rainbow colors or Arabic. At school board meetings, Muslim parents demanded to know why the district would draw the line at the Arabic language. Clips from the meeting popped up on TikTok and Instagram and then died down, and “In God We Trust” (in English, donated by the community) went up in schools. Separation of church and state took several seats.

I am reminded almost every day that the lessons I upload would most likely have gotten my teacher certification revoked in several states across the United States, especially in my home state of Texas. My high school friends and I commiserate over stories of hate crimes in the hallways from when we had been high schoolers, almost fifteen years ago. Stories of hijabs being pulled off our heads, teachers blatantly turning a blind eye, summer reading lists carefully purged of Black and brown voices, history textbooks that rewrote slavery as salvation. We remember the Christian youth groups forming prayer circles around the flagpole outside the school, the Muslim students being asked to take off pins and buttons that proclaim allegiance to other gods, other countries. We share clips of Southlake’s and news of James Whitfield’s suspension and say Did we expect any better, even as we ask better of this place that used to know us.

 

“Unfit to be my child’s teacher”

Over the summer, boxes of young adult novels accumulated in my classroom. I spent an afternoon unpacking the haul, shelving away copies of The Hate U Give and Clap When You Land and All Boys Aren’t Blue, books that have been banned in school libraries across the United States. This year, the 8th grade English curriculum will cover segregation in the deep South and redlining in windy Chicago; students will read of fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin and her refusal to give up her bus seat; they will read of Amanda Gorman and police brutality, and they will learn about the United States that they live in.

Even as I sit through department meetings, even as I sift through bins of donations and sort out the autobiography of Frederick Douglass from Alicia Keys’ graphic novel, I am aware that this is an increasingly rare privilege. Had I remained down South, where my parents chose to make their life after they uprooted us from Bangladesh, I would be knee-deep in a different kind of fight. Had I remained in Bangladesh, my class novels would not have gone beyond The Scarlet Pimpernel and As You Like It and Northanger Abbey, Books about queer youth or magic or infidelity would have had to be smuggled into my home, hidden from the increasingly fanatical eyes of my mother and my brother.

Almost two decades removed from my school life in Bangladesh and my brief (and stupendously horrible) stint at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, I now sit at the other end of the teacher’s desk. I have already fended off emails and phone calls from parents who say they are deeply disturbed by my instructional choices and my focus on gender equity and marginalized voices. These parents insist that if I am to continue, then they will pull their children from my school and enroll them elsewhere, perhaps in Florida. I respect your decisions regarding your child’s education, I write back. I hope you are successful in finding a school that better aligns with your values.

These impositions from lawmakers and school boards have made the already arduous job of being a teacher even more arduous. Even in my school in New York, where the student body is mostly Hispanic and West African, teaching so-called “controversial” texts warrants irate phone calls and in-person visits from parents. We do not want our children to learn about feminism in the classroom. What you are saying goes against God. We do not want to send our children to a school that allows gender-neutral bathrooms.

My ten years in the classroom have not made me dread these conversations any less.

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