The Tennessee Book Committee is refining the school library’s “age-appropriate” guidance

The Tennessee Textbooks Commission on Friday voted to approve general guidance for school districts to avoid having their books banned statewide under a new law, though one member tried to delve into the details of how to define what is age appropriate for students.

Commissioner Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a Conservative activist, has criticized the award-winning young adult novel Hatchet as an example of a book that should fall under a 2022 law designed to ensure library materials are “appropriate for the age and maturity levels” of the students who read them can access.

“I’m here to represent the parents,” said Cardoza-Moore, who lives in a Williamson County suburb south of Nashville, where “Hatchet” was one of 31 lyrics published last year as part of the county’s new English-language arts curriculum were challenged.

“Not only is the content overly mature or inappropriate, it’s also vulgar,” she said of the 1986 Newbery Award-winning wilderness survival novel. “Is this what is best for our students, our children?”

But Linda Cash, chair of the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission, said the new law instructs the appointed 11-member panel to provide guidance — not set out any strict rules or regulations.

It is also Not the commission’s job, Cash said, is to define what constitutes violence, sexual content, profanity or substance abuse for educators and school officials, who are already expected to screen library books and other educational materials for age appropriateness.

The law — one of a series of school censorship measures passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee since 2021 — has increased tensions over what’s taught about race, sexuality and history in Tennessee public schools including the extent to which books and curriculum should reflect the diversity of America’s people and ideas.

Across the country, classrooms have become a battlefront for conservatives who want more “patriotic” education and fewer classes that touch on systemic racism, racial prejudice, sexuality and gender identity.

Tennessee’s laws and book bans create challenges

Tennessee was among the first states to enact legislation designed to restrict what it called critical race theory in the K-12 classroom about the legacy of slavery, racism, and white privilege. Typically found at the college level, this field of study examines how politics and law maintain racist systems.

This year, as book challenges and bans mounted, lawmakers passed the governor’s plan mandating regular library reviews “so that parents have the authority to ensure content is age-appropriate.” A second measure gives the state Textbooks Commission veto power over decisions the local school board on book challenges.

Several school boards are currently dealing with challenges and at least one lawsuit.

This week, the Sumner County school board north of Nashville voted 7-3 to keep the children’s book “A Place Inside of Me” on the shelves following a parent’s complaint. The book contains a poem and illustrations that show a black child dealing with his emotions after a police shooting.

And during a Williamson County court hearing last week, a judge indicated he is likely to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a conservative parent group over the curriculum that the group claims violates Tennessee law, which prohibits instruction in critical race theory forbids.

The state textbook commission is using model guidelines from the Tennessee School Boards Association and recommendations from an advisory panel of school librarians as it works with the Department of Education to issue new age appropriateness guidelines by early December.

The latest law gives the 12-member commission – made up of teachers, administrators and citizens – the power to ban books statewide in response to appeals against local school board decisions on offending materials.

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Members of the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission prepare to meet in Nashville on November 18, 2022.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

The statute also directs the commission to develop an appeals process, which Cash said the panel will work on in January.

But Cash, the Bradley County Schools superintendent, hopes there won’t be an appeal.

“I really trust and believe in our local districts to manage this process and I think they will,” Cash told Chalkbeat.

Librarians defend their credentials to select books

Two school librarians speaking before the commission on Friday said it was “very rare” for schools to receive complaints about library books.

Katie Capshaw, president of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, said she’s only received two complaints in nine years as a librarian. Both matters were worked out in discussions with the parents, she added.

Blake Hopper, a school librarian in rural Claiborne County, said he hasn’t complained in nine years on the job.

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Blake Hopper and Katie Capshaw, representatives of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, answer questions during a Tennessee Textbook Commission meeting.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

Both librarians served on the commission’s advisory board to develop the new guide. Her main message to the Commissioners: Schools serve a diverse student body and need flexibility to help their students become lifelong readers.

What may seem inappropriate for one student’s age and maturity level may not apply to another student in a different city or community, they said, urging the commission not to enact nationwide statewide bans.

“Our job as librarians is to bring out the best in our students,” Capshaw said.

They raised concerns when Cardoza-Moore said she had heard reports that some school staff didn’t have time to properly review books that were “dropped off” on their doorstep.

“Books are not handed over to a school,” Capshaw replied. “The way it works is that books are selected, which is why there is a selection policy.”

She said librarians are trained to select books and are usually given a budget to buy them or have to raise the money through fundraisers.

The commissioners identified details they would eventually like to include in their guidance, e.g. B. how long the review process should take and how many times the same book can be challenged.

Meanwhile, 19 educational advocacy groups and community organizations have formed the Tennessee Coalition for Truth in Classrooms to oppose censorship of instruction and materials and “encourage truthful history teaching in our schools.”

“The development of false narratives and attacks on diversity and equity and inclusion efforts are causing disruption in our schools, hindering the learning of our students and negatively impacting the mental, social and emotional well-being of teachers as they are threatened with a range of actions” , said Gini Pupo-Walker, state director of Tennessee’s Education Trust, who led the coalition.

You can watch the full committee meeting here.

Marta W. Aldrich is Senior Correspondent covering the Statehouse for Chalkbeat, Tennessee. Contact them at [email protected].

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