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Tennessee textbook panel refines school library guidelines for ‘age-appropriate’ materials

The Tennessee Textbook Commission on Friday decided to approve general guidelines for school districts to avoid having their books banned statewide under a new law, even as a member sought to dig deeper into the details of defining what is age-appropriate for students.

Commissioner Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a conservative activist, criticized the award-winning young adult novel “Hatchet” as an example of a book that should be pulled under a law 2022 which aims to ensure that library materials are “appropriate to the age and maturity level” of the students who can access them.

“I’m here to represent the parents,” said Cardoza-Moore, who lives in the suburb of Williamson County, south of Nashville, where “Hatchet” was one of the 31 contested texts last year as part of the County District’s new English Language Arts Curriculum.

“The content is not only overmature or inappropriate, it’s vulgar,” she said of the 1986 Newbery Award-winning wilderness survival novel. for our students, our children?

But Linda Cash, who chairs the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission, said the new law directs the 11-member panel of appointees to provide guidance — not to set hard-and-fast rules or regulations.

It is also not The commission’s job, Cash said, is to define what constitutes violence, sexual content, offensive language or addiction for educators and school officials who are already expected to screen library books and other materials. education according to their age.

The law — one of several school censorship measures passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee since 2021 — has heightened tensions over what can be taught about race, sexuality and gender. history in Tennessee public schools, including the extent to which books and curricula should reflect the diversity of America’s peoples and ideas.

Across the country, classrooms have become a battlefront for conservatives who want more “patriotic” education and less teaching that touches on systemic racism, racial bias, sexuality and gender identity. .

Tennessee laws and book bans spark challenges

Tennessee was among the first states to pass a law intended to restrict K-12 classroom discussions labeled critical race theory about the legacy of slavery, racism, and white privilege. This field of study, typically found at the college level, explores how politics and law perpetuate racist systems.

This year, as challenges and book bans increaselegislators past the governor’s plan requiring periodic reviews of the library “so parents are empowered to ensure content is age-appropriate.” A second measure gives the state textbook commission veto power over local school board decisions regarding book challenges.

Currently, many school boards are facing challenges and at least one lawsuit.

This week, the Sumner County School Board, north of Nashville, voted 7-3 to keep the children’s book “A Place Inside of Me” on shelves following parent complaint. The book includes a poem and illustrations showing a black child dealing with his emotions after a police shooting.

And at a hearing last week in Williamson County, a judge hinted that he would likely reject a lawsuit filed by a group of conservative parents about a program the group says violates Tennessee law banning the teaching of critical race theory.

The state’s textbook commission is using model guidelines from the Tennessee School Boards Association, along with recommendations from an advisory committee of school librarians, as it works with the Department of Education to release new guidelines on the age appropriateness by early December.

The new law gives the 12-member commission — which includes teachers, administrators and citizens — the power to ban books statewide in response to appeals of local school board decisions about disputed materials.

Members of the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission are preparing to meet in Nashville on November 18, 2022.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

The statute also directs the commission to develop an appeals process, which Cash said the panel will work on in January.

But Cash, who is superintendent of Bradley County Schools, hopes there won’t be a need for appeals.

“I really trust and believe in our local districts to manage this process, and I think they will,” Cash told Chalkbeat.

Librarians defend their references to select books

Two school librarians who spoke to the commission on Friday said it was “very rare” for schools to receive complaints about library books.

Katie Capshaw, president of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, said she had only received two complaints in nine years as a librarian. Both issues were resolved in discussions with parents, she added.

Blake Hopper, a school librarian in rural County Claiborne, said he hadn’t filed a complaint in nine years on the job.


Blake Hopper and Katie Capshaw, representing the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, answer questions during a meeting of the Tennessee Textbook Commission.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

The two librarians served on the commission’s advisory board to develop the new guidelines. Their main message to commissioners: Schools serve a diverse student population and need flexibility to help their students become lifelong readers.

What may seem inappropriate for one student’s age and maturity level may not apply to another student from another city or town, they said, urging the commission not to issue blanket statewide bans.

“Our job as librarians is to get the best for our students,” Capshaw said.

They took issue when Cardoza-Moore said they heard reports that some school staff didn’t have time to properly screen books “dropped off” at their doorsteps.

“Books are not dropped off at a school,” Capshaw replied. “The way it works is the books are chosen, which is why there is a selection policy.”

She said librarians are trained to choose books and usually given a budget to buy them, or have to raise money through fundraisers.

The commissioners have identified specifics they may want to include in their guidelines, such as the length of the review process and the number of times the same book can be challenged.

Meanwhile, 19 community and education advocacy organizations have come together to form the Tennessee Coalition for Truth in the Classrooms to oppose censorship of teaching and materials and “promote the teaching of truthful history in our schools”.

“The development of false narratives and attacks on diversity and equity and inclusion efforts are causing disruption in our schools, hindering our students’ learning and negatively impacting mental, social and emotional of teachers, as they are threatened with a range of actions,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, state director of the Education Trust in Tennessee, which led the coalition.

You can watch the full committee meeting here.

Marta W. Aldrich is senior correspondent and covers the Chalkbeat Tennessee State House. Contact her at [email protected].

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