Worried about District Support for Classroom Books

Q:  I’m a classroom teacher and I feel like my district administration has become fearful of the potential for complaints from parents about what we’re teaching, especially with all the attempts around the country to ban books with LGBTQ+ content or about race. As a result, some teachers aren’t sure where we stand, or rather where the district stands when it comes to supporting us and the choices we make regarding the books in our classrooms. Is there anything we can do to feel less uncertain?

We hate to think of teachers feeling uncertain, inhibited, or prohibited as they go about the important work of choosing books and other instructional materials for the classroom.

Unfortunately, the current climate around books in classrooms and libraries is charged and polarizing, and the rhetoric has sometimes devolved into threats—real or perceived. In particular, as you note, materials that affirm the lives and experiences of LGBTQIA children and teens and/or discuss the racism faced historically and today by those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) have come under intense scrutiny. As a result, some district administrators and board members are feeling scared and uncertain themselves. It’s also not impossible that some district administrators and board members may agree with complaints. 

So what can you do to feel less uncertain?

We want to start by emphasizing the critical work that goes into selecting materials, because it provides an essential foundation when discussing, and if need be defending, your choices, whether you’re doing so in an informal conversation with a parent, a formal discussion with a colleague or administrator, or as part of the materials reconsideration process.

So the first thing we suggest is making sure you’re doing everything you can to make choices that you can professionally defend. That means being able to say yes to the following when it comes to choosing books and other materials for your classroom (including required reading, “choice” reading selections, and books in your classroom library):

Educator Checklist for Curriculum Materials Selection

  • I’ve followed the district’s policies and procedures for curriculum/instructional materials selection. (If you don’t know or aren’t sure if you are following district policies and procedures, this should be your first step moving forward! Policies are approved by the school board; administrative procedures typically detail how policies are carried out. Wisconsin school districts are required to have board-approved policies and related procedures for selection of instructional materials, along with a process for addressing concerns about materials. If your district has not provided clarification on how you should go about following these policies and procedures, your questions can start there.) 
  • I can speak broadly to the role of every book in supporting the curriculum, including those that are “choice” books and/or part of my classroom library (e.g., “My classroom library is curated to support students literacy and development as readers by providing them with a variety of books to reflect their identities and experiences, expand their understanding of the world, and to meet their wide-ranging tastes and interests.”)For books that are required reading for all students, or “choice” titles for units, I can articulate how they each support curricular goals.
  • For books that are required reading for all students, or “choice” titles for units, I can articulate how they each support curricular goals.
  • For every book in my classroom (required reading, choice book, classroom library), I can point to one or more reviews and/or recommendations in professional library/education resources that recommend or support using the book with the grades/ages of the students in my classroom. 

If You’re (Still) Feeling Uncertain ….

To get back to your original question: Is there anything you can do to feel less uncertain regarding the district supporting your choices? 

First, identify the concern(s) you have and why you have them. Be as clear as possible in your analysis, as this will help you in determining any next steps you decide to take. For example, has something been expressly stated that leaves you feeling like you won’t get support, or are you responding to frustrating and vague suggestions? Is part of your concern that there are steps in your district’s policies and procedures that lack clarity, or where practice has clearly, over time, diverged from policies and procedures? Make a list of things to potentially address. Then decide on next steps.

 Do you and your colleagues want to have a meeting with your direct supervisor to clarify policy, process and/or expectations?  Do you want to include administrators higher up?

If you are feeling prohibited from selecting materials with certain kinds of content, you can consider talking about what has—or hasn’t—been said or done that makes you feel this way. If something has been intimated, you can reiterate what you heard and say: “This left me concerned that the district won’t support or approve the choices I’m making even though I’m following board-approved policies and procedures in selecting books to use with my students.”

You can also prepare additional talking points, drawing on things such as state requirements regarding pupil nondiscrimination, which includes selection of library and instructional materials, and any policies your district has adopted and/or statements it has made regarding equity and inclusion.

Your talking points might include things such as:

  • Our curriculum, and the policies and procedures to select instructional materials, have a clearly stated goal of X ( e.g., preparing students to be citizens of their community, their country, and the world).
  •  We also have a stated commitment to equity and inclusion (if this is true). How can we fulfill that commitment if we ignore the realities of some students’ lives?
  • Selection of curricular materials, including literature for the classroom, should be grounded in curricular goals, professional judgment, and our role as a public institution with a responsibility to all of the children, teens, and families in our community. 
  • Making decisions out of fear or the desire to avoid controversy is untenable, and no book is guaranteed free from controversy.

We know that not every teacher may feel comfortable—or safe—initiating such conversations. Only you can decide what is right for you. You also could consider including a union representative, if that’s possible, although this will likely change the tenor of the meeting so it’s important to think carefully about the tone you want to set.

Regardless, document the outcome of the meeting—make notes that include the date, who was present, and what was discussed. And if you aren’t alone in feeling uncertain, talk and work with your colleagues on a plan to get clarification and, we hope, affirmation that if you are fulfilling your responsibility to students, the district will fulfill its responsibility to support you in your work. 

Selected Resources

  • Your district’s policies and procedures for selection of instructional materials.
  • Finding book reviews in BadgerLink (video; Wisconsin resource). (We also encourage you to connect with your school librarian, not only as a general resource for information about books, but for help about where to find reviews and other professional assessment information.)
  • How to Write a Rationale (National Council of Teachers of English). NCTE members can also access their database of rationales.

May 2024