Publication Date

January 24, 2024

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Undergraduate Education


  • United States

I did not know how to take the news. My internal dialogue was struck dumb as I checked my district-approved “classroom library” app for an updated list of vetted and approved books. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed novel written as a rebuke of McCarthyism and censorship, was approved. I could allow my students to read it.

A pile of bullets

As calls for book bans become widespread around the United States, teachers like are navigating difficult terrain in their classrooms. Timberland Regional Library/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

I abandoned a singular dependence on the state-approved textbook early in my teaching career. Yes, that textbook with its supplemental materials made lesson planning much easier. It was not, however, worth the cost of teaching students that history was nothing more than what was found in the textbook. I wanted my students to learn that history is a process, that historians did not find truth on page 50 of some prescribed text. Instead of a textbook that my students could skim mindlessly to find the “right answer,” I direct my students to bookshelves to do the far more complex work of parsing the intricacies of history, society, and the human condition. Free and ready access to a wide range of books is foundational to my curriculum.

The best way to get books in student hands is to have books on hand.

Of course, libraries offer students access to books. My county has a great public library system, but the best way to get books in student hands is to have books on hand. Like many districts across the nation, our schools’ so-called media centers have a smattering of books and reference materials but hardly anything inspiring. Furthermore, these media centers are closed to students much of the year while they are used for Florida’s endless litany of standardized tests. The most immediate place for students to have access to books is the classrooms they inhabit five days a week.

The very existence of a state vetting process for books is anathema to the values that I as a historian, bibliophile, and teacher hold sacred—even if the censors could approve every book that I submitted. As Bradbury warned, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Here in Florida, the match was struck by our state legislature with the passage of House Bill 1467. Educators are left trying to keep the flames from spreading while trying not to get burned. How do we integrate the notion of free inquiry and critical thinking in our teaching while protecting ourselves from arsonists empowered by law to light matches?

The fire begins when law is translated into local policy. In my experience, it is hard to find anyone within my school district who wants to withhold books from students. Our chief academic officer is a case in point. He was tasked by the school board to chair a committee assigned to bring the district into compliance with the law. I know him. I worked for him when he was a principal and an advocate for what he called “reading-rich classrooms.” He used to advocate for having as many books on classroom shelves as possible so as to inspire a student to read. His goal was to instill in students a love for reading for the sake of reading. Yet as chief academic officer, he bears the burden of shaping a policy that undermines everything he stands for. During the public workshop announcing the new policy, he was clear about their motives. He said, “The lens in which we look is through the legislative requirements.”

To satisfy these requirements, his committee developed a process by which secondary teachers are required to scan classroom books into a database and to submit that file to state-appointed media specialists. Books do not have to be removed from the classroom itself, but they must be reviewed and approved before they can be accessed by students. As books are approved, the lists for each school are made available to the public.

As professionals, teachers understand that our classroom libraries are subject to scrutiny. Academic freedom is predicated on professional responsibility. We are not offering our students access to Fifty Shades of Grey or The Anarchist Cookbook. The books on my shelf have already been vetted—by me. A parent has never come to me with a complaint about a book in my classroom. Should such a complaint arise, however, that is a conversation between myself and the parent, and perhaps my administrator. Vetting books should not be the role of the state, particularly when so many people seem intent on playing with matches.

Any bookshelf with more than three titles is certain to contain a book that is in some way offensive to someone. Many of my peers are intimidated by the hazard of submitting their libraries to state and public scrutiny. Despite reassurances that my school district’s vetting process protects them, they are pulling books from their shelves that they fear might get them into trouble.

Many teachers in social studies, literature, and the arts are self-censoring.

What books are being pulled? The focus of such laws and policies is no secret. The district is focusing on “sexually inappropriate” content without literary merit. LGBTQ+ themes are the first to go. Teachers understand that “sexually inappropriate” means “gay.” Plotlines around racial and ethnic injustice are also suspect. According to Florida Administrative Code rule 6A-1.094124, any reference to systemic or cultural racism is critical race theory and is banned from classroom discussion. Walter Dean Myers’s book Monster, about a black teen accused of a crime, was rejected from my library (a decision I have appealed). The convergence of sex and race is, presumably, why the media specialists rejected Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Regardless of local policy, the law coerces teachers into quiet compliance. Scanning books into the database is just one more mindless mandate that we must satisfy to do our jobs. Many teachers in social studies, literature, and the arts are self-censoring. I saw one of my peers with a box of books she was donating to the library. She told me, “There’s just no way these books are going to be approved. I just can’t take the chance.”

What does she fear? The relevant laws are vague; consequently, the local policies become reactionary. My peers fear parental lawsuits for trying to indoctrinate their children into “woke” ideology. They fear the possibility of a third-degree felony, including prison time, if a book happens to include a scene that could be considered pornographic. They fear losing their jobs. Nobody knows whether these fears are legitimate, but we have mortgages to pay and our own children to raise. For many of us, it is not worth the risk to submit potentially problematic books to a state database and to public scrutiny.

Other teachers are taking a more militant stand. The most common strategy is to remove all books from their classrooms. Some teachers have even removed posters, leaving blank walls around their barren bookshelves. A colleague I talked to at a state union caucus summarized this strategy: “I want [parents] to be outraged. [Policymakers] won’t listen to us, but they’ll listen to the parents.”

I do not have the same faith in parental outrage.

At our August open house, our principal informed us that any books not vetted, which at this point was almost all of them, had to be covered or taped off to ensure that students did not have access to them. I was outraged. I wanted to inspire the same outrage from the visiting parents. I covered all my bookshelves with deep red paper. I then placed a sign on each explaining that “These BOOKS have not been VETTED by the STATE. They may contain DANGEROUS KNOWLEDGE.”

The results were disappointing. Most families simply ignored the obvious absurdity of bookshelves covered in red paper. A handful expressed disgust as well as support for my message. To my knowledge, none of them carried that outrage with them when they left the room. I doubt that my colleagues’ empty bookshelves elicited a better response.

So I chose a different strategy. I added books to my library. I chose to overwhelm the censors with malicious compliance. I increased my library from around 500 books to 700. If they wanted to vet my books, I was going to submit a monster list and challenge all rejections. But policy confounds this strategy, since unvetted books cannot be released to students. After six months, only 34 of my 700 books have been vetted. This constitutes a de factoban without the inconvenience of having to actively reject a book. The censors are in no hurry.

We have reached a point where trying to find ways to skirt the letter of the law while undermining its match-wielding authoritarian intent is simply not enough. In my many years of teaching history, whenever my lesson revolves around the challenge of authoritarianism, there is always an underlying question: Why did so many people comply with authoritarian regimes? And what I always want my students to learn from my class is that the only morally legitimate response is disobedience. As always, the best way to teach is through example.

After that disappointing open house, I ripped the red paper down. I’m not pulling a single book from my shelves, I’m not telling a single child they can’t read a book, and I’m not submitting any more books to be vetted. I’ve complied as much as I plan to.

Editor’s Note: Since this article went to print, has informed Perspectives that he resigned from his position after his school removed his classroom library.

Michael Andoscia is a high school history teacher in Florida, a proud union rep, and an advocate for teachers and students.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.