Monday, September 23, 2013

Statement to the A-H School Board on Eleanor & Park Book Selection

Chair Heidemann, members of the board, and Superintendent Carlson:

My name is Julie Blaha and I am president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, our local teachers union.

At the public work session of September 9th, members of this board questioned the judgment of our high school media specialists. Specifically, the board members criticized the choice of “Eleanor & Park” for the summer community reading program called, Rock the Book, which for our high school students.

Those comments by members of this board were reported by the local paper. National Public Radio has subsequently reported the story on its website.

Our library media specialists were shocked to see their work disparaged.

They followed every policy set by this board.

They went above and beyond their required duties to encourage students to read.

They recommended a book that has been widely praised for its high quality and relevance to teens.

And most bewildering of all, was that a board that prides itself on collaboration, would make snap judgments (like declaring the book age inapporiopriate in the paper before completing the book challenge process) without talking with media specialists themselves, or even reading the book.

If the board members had read the book, they would know that it’s a story about two students who fall in love, make the right choices and beat the odds. They rise above bullies, poverty and domestic abuse.

To ignore that is to ignore a powerful, positive message for every teen who ever felt awkward or isolated in high school. As Linda Holmes wrote for N-P-R, focusing only on the profanity of bullies and abusers, “makes the act of telling a story about rising above misery a miserable thing.”

A deeper concern in our community is that the reaction by the board harkens back to issues surrounding LGBT bullying in our district.

About four years ago, we came to you concerned that district policies created a chilling atmosphere regarding LGBT issues in our classrooms. Some of you questioned, or flat out dismissed, our assertion that teachers were unsure if they would be supported for standing up for LGBT students. Some of you wondered what kinds of specific school board actions could cause that kind of atmosphere.

Well, this is the kind of thing we were talking about.

Knee jerk reactions to complaints cause a chilling effect that stifles creativity, innovation and student engagement.

We need to know that our school board can stand up for us when we exercise good professional judgment. At minimum, we need to know that you will at least talk with us before making decisions.

If you won’t stand up for us, it is harder for us to stand up for our students.

Before you make any further decisions on this topic, I hope you will talk with the professionals working directly with our students.

Beyond that, it is clear that we need further discussion on how we as professionals use our judgment. We look forward to working with you so that you can understand the work we do.

Julie Blaha
President, Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota