A COPLAC Digital Distance Learning Course

Author: gordon (Page 2 of 2)

Progress: Forms, Files, and F-Bombs

In the past few weeks, Baylee and I have made some tremendous strides in our research about the Ellen Hopkins censorship dispute in Norman. It looks as though this case will have a lot of material for us to discuss in our website, regardless of the fact that the school district did not end up taking Hopkins’s books off the library shelves of Whittier Middle School.

Norman Public Schools


Our initial email to Nick Migliorino, the current Norman Public Schools superintendent, was funneled through several layers of bureaucracy and suspicious questions about the publicity of our project. Eventually, we wound up talking to Kathryn Lewis, the Director of Libraries for the district. We spoke to Ms. Lewis in a phone interview last Monday in an effort to better understand the processes involved in challenging written material in the district, as well as the specific case from 2009.

Our talk with Kathryn Lewis was nothing like we anticipated; she was extremely pleasant, friendly, and seemed genuinely excited to help us with our project. She did not seem hostile or hesitant to answer our questions, perhaps partly due to the fact that the district’s policies on materials reconsideration take deliberate precautions against censorship. This is what the policy states regarding the challenging of a text by a parent or parent group:

“A student or his/her parent or guardian has the right to reject the use of instructional resources which seem incompatible with his/her values and beliefs. Alternate assignments will be provided upon request; no parent or guardian has the right to determine the instructional resources for students other than his/her own children.”.

NPS Policy 5002: INSTRUCTIONAL resources (revised 01/15/2010)

This final clause was likely instrumental in delivering the eventual denial of the parent complaint against Ellen Hopkins’s Glass and Crank; removing these books from the library shelves, rather than just asserting that they not be taught in the classrooms, restricts access to the entirety of Whittier Middle School. The policy that includes this, however, is marked “revised 01/15/2010,” which is about 4 months after the Ellen Hopkins dispute, so it is unclear whether this version of the policy is the one that was followed by the district administration when they kept Hopkins’s books but canceled her visit.

The Complaint

Whittier Middle School; normanpublicschools.org

In addition to sending us a PDF of the district’s materials policy, Ms. Lewis was able to locate and send us the original reconsideration form submitted by the parent complainant upon hearing about Ellen Hopkins’s visitation plans. We do not know the parent’s name, but the form she sent includes over 4 entire pages of “age-inappropriate” quotes and passages from Glass that the parent supplied as evidence against the text. Most of them deal with either explicit language or sexual content.

The complainant’s list of the themes in Glass that she found inappropriate for Whittier students

The files also include a scanned copy of a memo from November 10, 2009 (about a month after the initial complaint), detailing the school board Reconsideration Committee’s decision to keep the books on the library shelves. The memo lists several reasons that the committee voted to keep the books, most notably this: “The powerful message on teen drug addiction far outweighs the concern about sexual content.”

Moving Forward

The resources provided by Kathryn Lewis give us a strong textual foundation from which to build our informative website. This week, Baylee and I will be at a conference in Albuquerque, so it will be a little bit more difficult to make substantial progress. However, we have already contacted Karin Perry, the original Whittier librarian involved with the case, who has expressed interest in answering any and all questions we have about what exactly went down in 2009. We will prepare some questions for her soon. I would also be interested in learning the name of the parent complainant and the names of those on the Reconsideration Committee, but I’m not sure if this will be possible. Regardless, in the next few weeks, we will probably focus on planning the website, gathering more information for a timeline, and perhaps visiting Whittier Middle School and the Norman Public Library system.

A Chat with USAO’s Research Librarian

Last Thursday, Baylee and I sat down with Nicole McMonagle, the resident research librarian at USAO’s Nash Library. We wanted to know what kinds of resources and archives the library had to aid with our research tasks and help us more fully understand and represent the 2009 Ellen Hopkins censorship issue in Norman.

Nash Library (photo courtesy of USAO’s The Trend)

Nicole was very excited about our chosen case. However, she was sad to inform us that the archives collection at Nash Library is small and still under renovation and digitization. The library has quite an extensive collection of newspapers, she said, but not much that would be relevant to Norman, which is about 30 minutes away from Chickasha. This was not anything I wasn’t expecting; USAO is a school of under a thousand students, so I knew there wouldn’t be a very extensive range of archival material available that didn’t directly pertain to the school and the surrounding area.

Regardless of the archival limitations, Nicole directed us to some very helpful online resources and databases to which the University provides access. Among these are additional newspaper databases, including the archives to the Daily Oklahoman dating back to 1904. We also have access to the digital archive collections of the University of Oklahoma, which is, like our case, also located in Norman. These should all be useful for us down the line, in case we start to lose our current reserach momentum.

Addison, the Nash Library cat (photo from library.usao.edu)

As for further research, Nicole suggested we make a visit to the Norman Public Library system to inquire about their archives. Setting up an appointment to speak with one of their librarians or archivists could help us access information and records closer to our case. She is confident that one of these libraries will have a cohesive collection of local Norman newspaper archives, which would be a great place to look for articles about the controversy at Whittier Middle School. With this in mind, Baylee and I will work on contacting someone from a Norman public library this week. She also suggested we reach out to Karin Perry, this Whittier librarian who won the Hopkins visit and who facilitated it off school grounds when it was challenged. Perry now lives and works in Texas, but we are planning to contact her about holding a Skype or Zoom interview.

Overall, our interview with Nicole assured us that there is no shortage of materials to plow through if we reach a dead-end in our research. We have many different paths through which to direct our research this week. Nicole also said she would keep an eye out for other notable Oklahoma censorship cases, in case we find that ours still doesn’t have enough material.

Project Progress: A New Direction

It has been a turbulent week for me and Baylee! We decided, after last week’s class, to change our topic entirely. While I was excited to get to talk about Brave New World (since I’m reading it right now, too), we couldn’t find more than a few newspaper articles about the 1988 censorship case at Yukon High School. Essentially, the case started and ended within 2 days, and there was hardly any material.

Fortunately, Baylee has connections in the librarian world. She learned about a case where an entire author was challenged: young adult novelist and poet Ellen Hopkins. Hopkins is the author of several controversial teen-centered books like Crank (2004), which deals with meth addiction, and Impulse (2007), which handles themes of mental illness and has some sexual content. However, the New York Times Best-selling author has been praised by experts on these subjects for the way her work handles them, especially in educating teens away from things like drug abuse.

Ellen Hopkins Books, Simon and Schuster

The Case

In 2009, just a few years after Hopkins released Glass, the sequel to Crank, a librarian at Whittier Middle School in Norman, Oklahoma (just about 30 minutes from us) won a contest to have Ellen Hopkins make a speech at the school. In the time leading up to the scheduled talk, a group of Whittier parents submitted a formal challenge of Glass, but the administration did not process it in time, instead canceling Hopkins’s visit altogether.

The Daily Oklahoman, 22 September 2009 (Newspapers.com)

Thankfully, Hopkins was allowed to speak at a college in Moore instead; the event drew crowds from all over the state due to the media coverage of the controversy.

This will be an ideal case for us to explore because we have already uncovered a rich store of documents and media related to the event. Ellen Hopkins herself responded to the incident with a lengthy blog post, including a poem about censorship. It can be found here: https://ellenhopkins.livejournal.com/7107.html

Moving Forward

While most of the records and resources so far have been easily accessible, some have evaded our search. In the wake of the Norman superintendent’s decision to not allow Hopkins to speak at any Norman Public School, conservative Oklahoma City local news anchor Kelly Ogle used his weekly “My Two Cents” segment to show support for the ban on Glass and Crank, saying he was glad that the “inappropriate” books were taken off the library shelves. The clip of this airing, however, seems to be removed from the internet entirely. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Hopkins herself blogged about the newscaster and riled up her devoted fanbase.

The superintendent at the time of the incident, Joe Siano, retired a few years ago. We sent an email last week to the current Norman Public School superintendent, Nick Migliorino, requesting information such as school board proceedings, patron complaints, and adoption or challenging policies and procedures. We received a reply from the district’s Director of Public Relations, asking us questions about the nature of the research and how publicly the findings will be presented. We are hoping to hear back from one of these officials sometime this upcoming week.

In the meantime, we have an appointment on Thursday with our university research librarian to inquire about research tools and resources. We are also planning on getting in contact with the Whittier Middle School librarian who originally coordinated Hopkins’s appearance, Karin Perry, who now lives in Texas. If we are able to set up a Skype interview with her, we could gain very valuable insight into how the incident unfolded.

Sociology and Censorship in “Politics in Children’s Literature”

In the last year, I decided to pursue a degree in sociology as well as my original English major. While I initially thought of these programs as distinct schools of thought, the farther I advance in either, the more they blend together. I find that I am always reading for evidence of social context, ideology, and rhetorical motive; it is not a stretch for me to read any text as political, but this thankfully does not make reading less enjoyable. Belinda Louis’s article, “Politics in Children’s Literature: Colliding Forces to Shape Young Minds,” brought to mind a myriad of sociological theories that might help explain the power dynamics that drive issues of literature’s censorship and regulation.

Past Piety

Several facets of book censorship relate back to a central idea common among conservative ideologies: the Myth of Past Piety.

Essentially, this is the faulty belief in a “golden age,” at some point in the past, where society was more morally righteous and prosperous. In our sociopolitical context, we often point to the 1950s as the “golden years” of the United States; we worship its “traditional family values” and see it as a time of ease and nostalgic perfection. This is, of course, a political sentiment; for whom, exactly, were the 1950s a utopia? Certainly not for those of racial and sexual minorities.

When access to a book for children is limited, the censorship is often to preserve the ever-esteemed “canon” of older literature which has its roots in this Past Piety mentality. As Louis suggests:

Parents feel comfortable when their children read books that the parents read when they were in school. As a result, many district lists essentially consist of award-winning, nonprovocative books from a bygone era. New and exciting titles can hardly find a foothold on district-approved lists.

It is natural for parents and even teachers to feel admiration and nostalgia for the texts that shaped their young lives, but it becomes harmful when it discourages the critical thinking and modern-day relevance that comes with adopting new and interesting works.

The fallacy of Past Piety also informs attempts to maintain a gleaming, idealized version of the past when presented with contrary evidence. A parent who looks fondly upon decades past might be hesitant to let his/her child or teenager read a book like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which suggests that the past was not so pious.

Censorship and Social Class

Sociological theories about the intersection of social class and family structure have profound implications for how parents of different socioeconomic statuses approach the education of their children. A common explanation for why children of lower-income families have more difficulty in school is that unlike middle- and upper-class parents. many working-class and poor parents lack the time or the resources to assist their children at home. In many cases, these parents spend their afternoons and evenings working to make ends meet, rather than attending PTA meetings like their higher-SES counterparts. This does not mean lower-income parents do not care about their children’s educations, but that they do not have the means to invest as much. Issues of censorship, then, become mostly middle-class and upper-class issues. Low-income and low-education parents are most likely to trust the decisions of the teachers and school boards, rather than challenge them. To challenge the inclusion of a controversial book requires free time, privilege, and power.

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