“I’m done! I’m done! What do I do now?” Every teacher, in every classroom, hears this many (thousands) of times daily from their students. In my classroom, for more than a decade, the answer has always been “Get a book and read.” That is until last week when I was told to pack up my classroom library until further notice.
The state of Florida, where I teach, has passed vague laws on what books teachers can and cannot have in their classrooms.
The next day my first group of students entered and immediately asked, ‘Where are all of our books Mrs. Phillips?’ Our books. Not mine, but theirs.
House Bill 1467, signed by Governor DeSantis in March of last year, basically states that schools must be transparent in their selection of instructional, library, and reading materials. Meaning that parents have the right to know what their students are reading and a means to view those materials. All materials must be free of pornography, gender identity issues (for students in Kindergarten through third grade), as well as any books relating to discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin. The books must also be approved by a certificated media specialist.
On the surface, this seems reasonable, but it goes much deeper. The bill does not name specific books to ban, nor a system in which to vet the books. It does, however, come with a fear-mongering threat of a class three felony, which could cause a teacher to lose not only their teaching certificate, but their right to vote as well.
Many schools, including my own, do not have a full time media specialist. Due to budget cuts, we have a media specialist every other week. That means we have one person to vet thousands of books in our school alone, before we can have them in our classrooms. In addition to the mountain of work now laid in her lap, she hasn’t even been given a system to vet the books with. Currently, it is a subjective process of a single person reviewing each book with a 12-point questionnaire. One of my issues is that what one person finds offensive, another may find silly. For example, the book ‘No, David’ by David Shannon. On one page an illustration of David running pantless down the street is shown. One media specialist may find this humorous, as it was intended, while another may label it as pornographic. The lack of directives and specificities makes me fear for the future of school-based libraries.
In an attempt to shield their teachers from disciplinary actions, my district issued a directive to make all classroom libraries and media center books unavailable to students until further directed. We have been told that this is a temporary move as the district works toward compliance with this law, but with only one person to vet thousands of books, it doesn’t feel very temporary.
I work in a low socio-economic neighborhood and most of my students do not have access to books at home. Last year, with the help of my family, friends, and community, I was able to start running a Little Free Library out of my classroom. When my students finished group and had free reading time they were welcome to choose a book from my library to take home. They could keep it, share it, or bring it back and trade it out. They loved it. Word got around and students from outside my groups started asking to come and get books and I welcomed them.
Last month I put a call out on social media for more books. I was running low, and people came through. Friends shared my posts and wishlists and within a week I had more than 200 new and used books to add to my library. I sorted through all of the books to make sure they were age, topic, and level appropriate for my kids. The Friday before we were told to cover our books, I was able to give away 100 plus books and I’m thankful for that.
So after a staff meeting filled with grumbling teachers complaining about our governor, the state of our state, and venting about how disrespected, unappreciated, and undermined this makes us feel, I headed back to my room to begin packing up my classroom library.
The next day my first group of students entered and immediately asked, “Where are all of our books Mrs. Phillips?” OUR books. Not mine, but theirs. My kids know that I use my time, my money, and my resources to collect these books and curate a library for them. They are meant to build a foundation in literacy and inspire a lifelong love of reading, not just for educational purposes, but for enjoyment as well.
I explained to them that there was a new rule and until we had someone look at all of our books we had to put them away. Shoulders slumped, faces looked confused and sad, and one of my most voracious readers, who typically gets 3-4 books per week from me, started to cry. My only offer of comfort was to explain to them the access they have to books at the public library both in person and online.
My teaching is affected. My heart doesn’t feel as in it as it once did. Parents trust me with the safety and well-being of their most valuable possession every day. Not only their physical well-being, but also their mental well-being. I’m furious that there has been talk of putting guns in teachers’ hands, but I’m not trusted enough to put a book in a child’s hand.
I love teaching and I’m a damn good teacher. I deserve the autonomy to make decisions within my classroom for my students. I am a certified educator. My goal is to educate and expand thinking, not indoctrinate as we’ve been accused of doing. My goal is to build lifelong readers and learners, inspire curiosity, and engage students. That doesn’t happen without books. Books of all subject matters and ranges. Students need and deserve the opportunity to discover their passions and escape this crazy world in a book.
I don’t know what this means for the future of libraries, books, and education. What I do know is that although our Governor loves sell t-shirts touting our state as the “freest state in America,” his version of freedom is tearing apart classrooms and sending teachers in search of new careers where not only will their expertise be recognised, but they will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Andrea Phillips teaches 3rd grade students in Florida.