Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
When the YA Authors Are the Students:
Learning from Cissy Lacks
I predict, in fact, that the next surge of censorship will concern student writing . Students who really author (italics added) outgrow just being somebody's children. --James Moffett, Storm in the Mountains A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness. Carbondale IL Southern Illinois University Press, p. 229.
Each year, this column has re-ported the scores in the annual battle between the censors and those who believe children and young adults in school have the right to intellectual freedom, the right to read and write and speak freely on all matters that affect their lives. It has not been easy to declare a winner. NCTE's SLATE, the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and People for the American Way monitor censorship attempts that come to their attention. The 1994-1995 issue of People for the American Way's Attacks on the Freedom to Learn , for example, reports that, while the number of individual censorship attempts has risen steadily over the past thirteen years, last year the number actually decreased slightly. Still, the success rate of the censors rose from 42% in 1993-1994 to 50% in 1994-1995. That is, in 50% of the cases where an individual or group objected to the availability of a text or other material in school, that material was removed or restricted in some fashion from all students. The Giver , My Brother Sam Is Dead , Seventeen magazine, and Spielberg's Schindler's List made this year's most frequently challenged books and materials list. Student publications and performances continued to be frequent targets of censorship in the past year.
Clearly the recorded actions of censors have many unrecorded effects. Anecdotal records suggest that many teachers regularly opt to stick with what is felt to be safe rather than spend contentious time with angry community members or risk loss of a job and a career. What is seen as "safe" varies from district to district, but unsafe topics, according to PAW, continue to be sexuality -- particularly gay sexuality -- religion, rebellion, and anything at all expressed in "objectionable language."
Fortunately, many teachers do take the risks of fostering intellectual freedom in their classrooms; but, in an environment such as the current one, it is difficult to find many who would argue against the fundamental belief that no matter what materials are selected, the teacher remains, and should remain, in control of what the students get to read and write about in class. We are advised and we advise others to select carefully, to construct thoughtful rationales for each of our selections, and to have clearly articulated policies for selection and review of instructional materials. The August, 1995, SLATE Starter Sheet by Mary Sheehy Moe, "Selection and Retention of Instructional Materials -- What the Courts Have Said," concludes that courts do pay attention to the fact that a policy is in place, regardless of the quality of the policy. So long as the teacher in the role of school authority remains in conscious control of the students' reading, writing, and speaking, the courts have been less likely to side with censors. The following scenario raises important questions about the degree of control the teacher, and the school, should have.
It's early in the year. You plan to have your urban African-American students write plays. You decide to have them read August Wilson's Fences , and view the films Stand by Me and Cadence. You are not a novice teacher. You know the language in these works is rough, but it is realistic and close to the language that your students hear and use. You write out your plan and list the works the students will be reading and viewing. You send a copy of your plan to your principal. You send a letter home to your students' parents explaining the proposed reading and viewing, offering the option for their children to opt out of reading or viewing the works. No parent objects. The principal offers no objections. You begin the unit.
The kids read Fences and view the films. You work with them to create their own scripts drawing on their life experiences. The unit is a success. The kids want to have their scripts read aloud in class. You plan class time for this and videotape the readings so the kids can see what their scripts sound like when performed. Although some of the kids mumble through their scripts and some clown around for the camera, they enjoy the process and you save the tape because it captures an important moment in your class.
Two months later, you come home at night from seeing Little Women and find a message on your answering machine telling you not to bother going to your classroom tomorrow. The principal announces that he has seen the film you made and has arranged to have your classes taken care of. He will see you in the administrative offices first thing in the morning.
It turns out that when a disgruntled student in another class had complained that you let your students write "profanity," the principal went to your room after school, opened your locked closet, took the videotape of your students reading their scripts in class, viewed it in his office, heard the f-word, and arranged on the spot to have your classes covered -- permanently.
Following a five-day open hearing by the school board -- at which the students' classroom tapes are played before the press and some 250 people from the community, without the students' permission -- you are found guilty of permitting students to break the student discipline code that prohibits student profanity in school. The Board declares that "The video is a violation of our black community; it is a violation of our white community; it is a violation of the values within our community and it is a violation of the ethical teaching standards practiced by all educational professionals" ( The Riverfront Times , March 29-April 4, 1995, Number 860, pp. 13, 15).
With less than three years remaining for your eligibility for retirement, you are fired. The board denies you unemployment compensation, so you live on your savings until you successfully appeal -- twice -- and finally do receive unemployment compensation.
As an award-winning veteran teacher in your district, you reason that other schools in the area, knowing the quality of your work, will hire you. They won't.
This is the story of St. Louis veteran teacher Cissy Lacks, who was fired from Berkeley High School by the Ferguson-Florissant School Board in March, 1995, and whose case is scheduled for Federal Appeals Court in early November, 1996. It is an important story to watch, for it has many lessons for teachers:
1. Cissy Lacks did everything right and still got fired.
2. Her teaching went unchallenged in the same community for 21 years: she was "safe."
3. Her school district has a strong, clear academic freedom policy protecting teachers and students from arbitrary limits on "`the study, investigation, presentation, and interpretation of facts and ideas in the classroom,' provided that the work falls within the framework of district curriculum objectives and school board policy" ( Education Week , June 21, 1995, p. 41). Books on the board approved curriculum include Wright's Black Boy .
In an interview with Cissy Lacks in November, 1995, I learned that she continues to suffer the consequences of her refusal to control her students' creative writing. A multicultural studies grant that she has written and had funded and renewed for three years in a row was denied funding this year on the grounds that the proposal was "too vague." She has applied for other jobs in area schools to teach her specialties, journalism and creative writing; but so far there have been no offers. She is hard at work on her case, which she and the NEA, representing her, feel is the companion case to Hazelwood in that it has the potential to affirm or revoke the teachers' right to due process.
When I asked Cissy Lacks what she has learned from this episode that she would pass on to other teachers, particularly beginning teachers, her advice was clear: "Don't stop teaching well. And don't apologize for teaching well. Document everything, especially good reports you get from your administrators." About control of student writing, she said, "People ask me if I couldn't have predicted that the kids would write as they did. I say, `No.' I'm talking with them about technique and style. If you're really good and you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, then you can't predict what the kids will write. The only way you could predict is if you assigned the writing. But then that wouldn't be real writing."
NCTE was helpful to Cissy Lacks. As she explained, because of a letter from Deputy Executive Director, Charles Suhor, she was able to show that her student-centered approach to teaching writing was not unique: "The board kept talking about my methods, but I was able to show that the student-centered method I use is the recommended method by the NCTE and that it is the method that has been used in Creative Writing classes for decades."
She is not so much bitter as deeply concerned about the effects of her case on other teachers and students. One of her students told her, "I didn't know you could get in trouble and get your teacher in trouble for doing your work." She has heard of a district teacher saying to her class, "Now remember, no profanity. I don't want to be a Cissy Lacks," and hearing this makes her concerned because it "gives the students the message that what's important is the teacher, not their writing." Cissy Lacks says, "Teachers aren't talking enough about what they're doing in classrooms. They need to tell everyone, explain what's happeningÉ. I think teachers used to close their doors and teach as they knew best, but many teachers are afraid to even do that now."
It will be a long stretch for Cissy Lacks between now and November 6, 1996. Those who would like to write to her with support may do so at P.O. Box 11454, St. Louis, Missouri 63130. Meanwhile, we shall all watch with great interest to see what happens when the censored YA authors are the students.