Acclaimed book ‘recalled’ from some Chicago school classrooms (update)

(U[pdate: Book publisher issues statement criticizing Chicago Public Schools)

An award-winning graphic novel about a girl coming of age in Iran — which is also a Common Core literary text for seventh grade — was ordered removed from some Chicago public school classrooms, resulting in protests and letters demanding its return. The American Library Association said the action “smacks of censorship.”

The book is “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic and disturbing coming of age memoir about a girl living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The French-language book was turned into an animated film in 2007. The book won several awards and the film was nominated for best animated feature.

The controversy is described in the following series of letters and statements sent/made Friday from different parties in the controversy. First is the text of a letter from the American Library Association to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and top school officials  asking that  “Persepolis” be put back in classrooms from where it was removed.

Following that is Friday’s statement from Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools, who says that all copies of the book should be removed from seventh grade classrooms. She also said that the book “may be appropriate” for upper grades but officials have to work out curriculum guidelines and other materials first.

Then the publisher of the book, Knopf Doubleday,  issued a statement calling Byrd-Bennett’s statement “ambiguous” and saying that the school system was indeed trying to limit the book.

Some teachers and students protested the book’s removal Friday, and the Chicago Teachers Union issued a statemen. condemning the book removal.

Here is the letter from the American Library Association:

David Vitale, President of the Chicago Board of Education
Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago

March 15, 2013

Dear Ms. Byrd-Bennett, Mr. Vitale, and Mayor Emanuel:

On behalf of both the American Library Association (ALA) and its First Amendment legal arm, the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), I am writing to express our organizations’ deep concern regarding the “recall” of the book Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi from multiple Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high schools. Persepolis is an award-winning work that is well reviewed and widely praised for its sensitive and remarkable depiction of a young woman’s coming of age during the Iranian Revolution.

Earlier this week, a directive was issued by administrators at the Fullerton network and Lane Tech High Schools for this book to be removed from school libraries and classrooms. Emails from Aisha Strong of Fullerton and Christopher Dignam of Lane Tech explicitly direct CPS staff to physically remove Persepolis from classrooms and libraries. A subsequent email from Jeremy Dunn provides “clarification from the Chief Education Office that the directive to remove Persepolis from schools does not apply to school libraries, and that any further challenge or attempt to remove this or any other book from a school library must be guided by the Collection Development policy which outlines the review procedure.”

While we applaud the CPS Department of Libraries for adhering to its own very well-crafted policies on school library collection development, particularly Policy 604.7, we remain exceedingly troubled by the standing directive to remove the book from classrooms.

We understand that concerns about the content of Persepolis – particularly regarding specific passages, language, and images deemed graphic or otherwise objectionable – were brought forward by a CPS principal, sparking the current removal and review of this book as teaching material. In addition, we understand that the driving concern behind this “recall” is access to Persepolis by CPS seventh graders, yet the book is identified as an instructional text in the CPS Literacy Content Framework (Common Core) Seventh Grade Toolset – a curriculum guide provided to teachers for the 2012-13 school year.

The CPS directive to remove this book from the hands of students represents a heavy-handed denial of students’ rights to access information, and smacks of censorship. Censorship results in the opposite of true education and learning. Young people will only develop the skills they need to analyze information and make choices among a wide variety of competing sources if they are permitted to read books and explore ideas under the guidance of caring adults. As an institution of democracy and learning, CPS has a responsibility to actively model and practice the ideals of free speech, free thought, and access to information at the heart of our democracy.

We fully support the talented CPS teachers and librarians who work so hard to thoughtfully and sensitively explore vital but often difficult ideas and information with their students.

We request and would appreciate an explanation of these actions, and we encourage you to both retain and return the book as quickly as possible to the students of Chicago Public Schools. Such action will reaffirm the importance and value of the freedom to read. We must send the message to students that in this country they have the right and responsibility to think critically about what they read, rather than allowing others to do their thinking for them.

Sincerely,
Barbara Jones
Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
Executive Director, Freedom to Read Foundation

 

And here’s the letter from Byrd-Bennett:

March 15, 2013

Dear Principals:

I am writing to clarify an email you received from Network Chiefs earlier this week about the graphic novel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. First, let me be clear – we are not banning this book from our schools.

Persepolis is included as a selection in the Literacy Content Framework for seventh grade. It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum. If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms.

We have determined Persepolis may be appropriate for junior and senior students and those in Advance Placement classes. Due to the powerful images of torture in the book, I have asked our Office of Teaching & Learning to develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong, but important content. We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades.  Once this curricular determination has been made, we will notify you.

Also, please be reminded that central school library collections are governed by the New Collection Development Policy For School Libraries. We are not requesting that you remove Persepolis from your central school library. Therefore do not remove this book or any other book from the central school library, unless you have complied with the policy.

Thank you for your patience and understanding in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you and your staff.

Sincerely,

Barbara Byrd-Bennett
Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools

 

And here is the statement from the publisher, Knopf Doubleday:

The Chicago Public School district has issued an ambiguous statement regarding the present and future availability of Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS to students. PERSEPOLIS is a coming of age memoir about a girl in her early teens. The book has been read and taught in school districts across the country, without caveat or condition. In addition, Marjane has met with students across the country, including students in Chicago. The fact that Chicago is trying to limit this book’s use in classrooms and curriculums, suggesting teachers need guidance before they can discuss it, smacks of censorship.

 

Paul Bogaards

EVP, Director of Media Relations

Knopf Doubleday

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 15, 2013