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If You Give A Student A Book: School Censorship and Representation

Image via Time

For educators, bibliophiles, and parents alike, there are few things more devastating than hidden and empty bookshelves in elementary school classrooms. In Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida, books intended to be devoured by young students, created as portals to new and exciting worlds, are now desperately shoved into closets, cabinets, and drawers in an effort to disguise them from plain view. 

This is the reality in a growing number of Florida schools. A string of state laws recently passed have left bookshelves empty in classrooms. Educators, faced with losing their teaching license or paying a hefty fine, are left with little choice but to clear their classrooms of books, much to the devastation of students. Because they are often unsure of which specific books are categorized as “inappropriate,” many teachers have erred on the side of caution and restricted access to all books in classroom and school libraries. Preemptively restricted books will remain off-limits until a “media specialist” can come and vet each book. 

Let us take a closer look at what these laws look like. HB 1557, The Parental Rights in Education Act, also dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, bans gender identity and sexual orientation education in kindergarten through third grade classrooms entirely, and only allows it in older grades in “accordance with state standards.” HB 7, The “Stop W.O.K.E” bill, bans teaching someone that their race or sex should cause them guilt or psychological distress. HB 1467 mandates that an online database of every book in the school must be devoid of “material deemed harmful to minors,” and that any parent can challenge the inclusion of any books in the collection. In all these laws, the language used to describe what is permissible is too vague to ensure perfect clarity or understanding—this, of course, seems to be intentional. DeSantis’s government has crafted laws hazy enough to be twisted to fit any definition they later choose. 

Those instituting book bans claim that they are justified because the books’ content is not appropriate for classroom environments, especially elementary schools. However, upon examining which specific books have been targeted, a different story comes to light. A list of books banned in Duval County includes titles such as Before She Was Harriet, by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome; Chik Chak Shabbat, by Mara Rockliff and Kyrsten Brooker; and My Two Moms and Me, by Michael Joosten and Izak Zenou. In fact, all 176 books on the list are from the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, which intends to “feature characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities.” Categorizing books that serve to be more representative of the experiences of non-white, non-heteronormative, non-able-bodied students as “inappropriate” for a classroom setting, this could not be any more misguided. In fact, classrooms are particularly important places to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) education. 

Representation of minority backgrounds in education is so critical because it impacts students’ presence in the classroom. Research has demonstrated that students who do not feel as though they are represented in the authors or images of a given field have a more difficult time identifying with or believing they belong in that field. Conversely, students become more motivated to learn when they think their classrooms recognize them and can connect to them. 

Representation has proven time and time again to carry such significance. In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark carried out a series of experiments called “The Doll Tests” that aimed to observe how segregation in schools impacted African-American children socially and emotionally. The subjects were children aged three to seven who were asked to identify the race of four different dolls; prescribe the dolls attributes; and say which ones they would prefer to be associated with. The majority of the Black children preferred the white doll to the black, saying that the black dolls were “bad” and that the white dolls looked most like them. This study was cited in the Brown v. Board of Education case to prove that Black children felt a sense of inferiority to white children as a direct result of segregation. It also goes to show why it is so critical to incorporate inclusive reading materials into classrooms— young children of color deserve to see stories of themselves and their cultures represented in the classroom. We are doomed to have history repeated in classrooms almost eighty years later, as children once again do not feel adequately valued in academic contexts. 

Beyond benefiting the diverse children that they represent, banned books also push children who are not part of minority groups to learn more about other cultures and peoples. It is important for non-minority children to become cognizant of existing forces of oppression in order to develop empathy and support their minority classmates. By keeping stories of marginalized identities out of classrooms, the Florida state government is exacerbating the divides that already exist so blatantly in American society. 

Some might question how teachers can handle teaching DEI when American schools already lag behind peer nations in traditional academic benchmarks. However, this skepticism fails to account for how the proper funding allocation, training, and resource use could ensure that DEI education is correctly executed. And irrespective of whether schools can implement actual DEI curriculum, the presence of books in the class pertaining to minority experiences still supports children by giving them the confidence to pursue their academic and social goals.