Friday, March 4, 2011

Vancouver Schools Celebrate Freedom to Read

Despite incendiary allegations in an article published this week in The Vancouver Courier newspaper, let me state unequivocally at the outset of my commentary that there is no flagging, removing, or banning of books going on in Vancouver schools. 

And I am very proud of that fact.

I and others at the VSB Ed Centre Learning Services division work collaboratively with teacher-librarians and teachers to ensure we support and create a dynamic, responsive reading culture where students have a wide range of choice to read quality print and online resources for information and interest, with attention to their different cultural and social backgrounds, their abilities and skills.

That said, the first lesson in media literacy is that you don't need to believe everything you read, that it is important to critically examine the foundations upon which any argument is made.  The use of incendiary tone and masterful literary allusion cannot be allowed to mask shoddy groundwork that amounts to an unpleasant blast "signifying nothing," built as it is on the fabricated account of banning and removal, very poor research, and obfuscated, questionable intent.

Teacher perspective:  he should have done his homework.  Oh, and some of these alleged bureaucrats are members of our local teachers' unions.

Here is my response, sent to The Courier yesterday for their consideration for publication, not as a letter but as an opinion piece to offset the dismal piece by their writer.  I love blogging -- it's my decision to publish!

Freedom to Read Week:
VSB Celebrates Reading – not Banning – Books

Ironically, exactly as Mark Hasiuk was working himself up into a lather over the deplorable conditions in Vancouver schools where strict compliance with the forcible removal and banning of classical literature and other worthwhile books is overseen by The Group of 6 Bureaucrats (Vancouver school bureaucrats target children’s literature: ‘Diversity’ guidelines threaten classics, The Vancouver Courier, Feb 28), Canadians celebrated Freedom to Read Week (Feb 20-26).

In the US, Americans concerned with freedom to read promote awareness of the issues during Banned Books Week in the Fall, but Canadians celebrate the freedom to read, no less in Vancouver schools than elsewhere, as we head into the light of Spring. The theme of this year’s Freedom to Read Week event, sponsored by Canada Council for the Arts and the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council, is Yes/Oui. The Councils’ views are grounded in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protects the rights of Canadians to the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including the freedom to read as part of that precious heritage. For more information, check out the website ( or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

I am sorry Mr Hasiuk didn’t get back to me as he had indicated he would by email last week when he inquired about a list of “flagged or removed” books to support the thesis of his article. Had he called, I would have enjoyed telling him it was Freedom to Read Week, and it would have taken me mere seconds to check our web-based catalogue and reassure him that over 100 copies of the original Charles Dickens version of Oliver Twist have resolutely remained propped on shelves in 109 Vancouver elementary and secondary school libraries, with countless additional versions of graphic, easy, abridged, re-told, adapted and other iterations of this wonderful story as well, such that there is little excuse for any child not to have access to the joy of an age-appropriate or ability-considerate Dickensian tale told here in Vancouver. It would take a little longer to get information on how frequently students take this particular title out.

Another quick check of our district’s online school library catalogue would have allayed Mr Hasiuk’s fears about works by Twain, Alger, Carroll, Lewis, and Dahl. I would have enjoyed telling him about our district’s reading culture where 1.7 million items circulated amongst our 60 000 students and staff in the ten months, September to June, making us the 10th largest circulating library system in the province. Empty bookshelves are a goal, not a dilemma, here in Vancouver school libraries! It means our students are reading lots.

As the teacher-librarian who works with those Mr Hasiuk terms our district “bureaucrats” and with the district’s teacher consultants, I was surprised to see the American checklist, copyright 1998, which, in no particular order, lists criteria for selection. The checklist was provided simply as an example of how criteria are used for selection of materials, and yes, how criteria may be used for de-selection (or weeding). I can assure you there are more recent guidelines for selection of resources for BC classrooms and school libraries, including Evaluating, Selecting, and Acquiring Resources (formerly a BC Ministry of Education document, revised 2008, for Educational Resource Acquisition Consortium / ERAC - search VSB Webcat for pdf version) which asks reviewers to consider 13 different social aspects of the work to “identify potentially ... offensive elements in content or presentation and to highlight [the ways] resources support pro-social attitudes and promote diversity and human rights.” Again, this is available online through the Vancouver web-based catalogue which I could easily have shared, had Mr Hasiuk called to continue his research as he had indicated he would.

Mr Hasiuk needs to understand that books are selected in Vancouver for their quality, their appeal to particular groups of readers, and their match with curriculum and inquiry needs. Qualified teacher-librarians are resource experts in their schools; they learn how to select and de-select materials according to accepted criteria. While they appreciate materials recommended by district experts, including members of the Social Responsibility team, as teachers, they have the rights and the responsibility to give thorough consideration of all materials provided to students; while the Ministry provides lists of prescribed resources for use in subject areas, other lists of resources are recommended, not mandated, for use in classrooms or school libraries. Whatever the reviewing process, the final decision to acquire and use the suggested resources rests on the educator’s autonomous assessment of its suitability for a particular educational purpose, including reading enjoyment. One important criterion in the search for depth in our school library collections is the principle that it is important to strive to provide every child with opportunities to read and learn about others like him/herself.

Finally, commitment to freedom to read and access to information is real here in Vancouver; no books are removed from shelves and no orders are issued to have them removed unless the materials contravene the district policies posted online, including, for example, VSB Policy IIAD on Hate Literature. Should members of the public or other staff find materials offensive, they may pursue a rigorous Challenge process which is articulated in VSB Policy KLB on Public Complaints.

It is a great source of pride to me that I have lived, parented, taught, and worked in a city and a school district that are both diverse and so accepting of the range of differences that reflect the Canadian – the human – experience. Fear not for the reading well-being of Vancouver’s children. The agenda here is simply to ensure that very good books are in very good hands.

Moira Ekdahl
Teacher-librarian and TL Mentor, Vancouver School Board


Chris said...

I've been really glad over the years to work for a district that not only does not censor books, but also supports t-ls with a reconsideration form, support at the district level for answering questions and concerns, and even at one point, workshops for t-ls and administrators on selection. No challenges to Robert Munsch from principals in this district! (Thomas's Snowsuit - "disrespectful to principals")
-Chris Evans, t-l, Tyee Elem.

meredyth kezar said...

Well I haven't been aware of any book banning in the VSB in almost 30 years I have worked here. That's probably why there is no list of books that has been banned. Mark Hasiuk also seems to be desperate for a reaction without having interviewed the "bureaucrats" involved...

Anonymous said...

My name is Suzanne Hall; I am a teacher and the District Librarian in SD42. I read Mark Hasiuk's recent article about Vancouver banning books with interest and dismay. He seems remarkably misinformed! Moira has clearly refuted his claims about book banning; I want to challenge his assertion that “a sound argument can be made that no children’s book worth reading has been written since the 1960s”. I call ... horsefeathers!

I have always been (and still am) an avid reader of children’s and teen literature, both for work and by preference. I have read many, many thousands of these books over my 44 years, so I AM qualified to state unequivocally that children’s literature overall has improved in leaps and bounds since “the classics” like Oliver Twist, The Swiss Family Robinson, and The Secret Garden, were written.

I wonder about two things:
• How recently has Mr. Hasiuk revisited those classics; has he actually read them through the eyes of an adult, or is he just remembering them fondly through the mists of time?
• Has he read enough current/modern children’s literature, or even done adequate research, to actually be entitled to print that assertion? Has he read Harry Potter? The Hunger Games? Uglies? The Lightening Thief? Goodnight Mr. Tom? Bone? I Am a Taxi? Tale of Despereaux? The Young Samurai series? The Graveyard Book? A Single Shard? The Firework Maker’s Daughter? Shel Silverstein’s poetry? Bobbie Kalman’s non-fiction books? Stephen Biesty’s cross-section books? If he doesn't have an extensive background on which to base an opinion, then where at least is the research for his “sound argument”?

Don’t get me wrong; the classics have an important place in literary collections. My own two favorite books are A Little Princess (a classic) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (a modern novel). However, like fashion, children’s literature has evolved with the times; it is written by people living in a particular setting for children of that setting. Today’s children need, have, and deserve their own literature which reflects their issues and experiences. Oliver Twist and The Swiss Family Robinson were written in the early 1800’s – almost 200 years ago! Would you expect adults to be satisfied only with books written before automobiles, airplanes, telephones, and TV existed; before women were allowed to vote; indeed before Canada became a country?

A fair and thoughtful reporter looks at feedback received and makes amends where they are due. In my opinion, Mr. Hasiuk was factually wrong about the situation in the Vancouver School District, so he should publish another article which sets the record straight – and an apology wouldn’t be out of line, either. And, while he is entitled to a personal preference for the children’s classics, he has not supported his claim about the quality of today’s children’s literature. Surely even an opinion piece ought to reflect some level of journalistic integrity, no? Is he fair and professional enough to follow up with appropriate responses? Judging by the tone and muddy thinking of his first article, I doubt it ... but I’d love him to prove me wrong!

Mark Roberts, teacher-librarian said...

The ability to provide readers the opportunities to freely read and access information are fundamental to our society. Vancouver Board of Education's libraries provide this opportunity in a strong way by encouraging students to develop a love of literacy.

A strong field of contemporary children's writers and illustrators with a diverse range of stories, ideas and illustrations are constantly inspiring children of all ages, young and old.

Julia said...

So I'm just wondering - has CS Lewis been banned from VSB libraries then?