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Fahrenheit 352? What Alachua County educators are saying about book removals

Buchholz High School Teacher stands in his classroom in front of a George Orwell quote. The quote reads, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." (Elliot Tritto/WUFT News)
Buchholz High School Teacher stands in his classroom in front of a George Orwell quote. The quote reads, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." (Elliot Tritto/WUFT News)

Even as national attention focuses on Florida and other states controlling what books students can read, some Alachua County teachers haven’t faced any issues with certain books being removed from public schools.

Jay Winter Collins, a part-time teacher at W.A. Metcalfe Elementary School and children’s book illustrator, said if her book "Rhonda the Alligator" becomes less available in schools, she’s open to the idea. 

 “I would love it if they banned this book because then there would be more sales,” Collins said.  “So, ban it, please.”

Written by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, she said the book is about diversity. Rhonda tells the story of an alligator born orange and blue who is different from other alligators in the Everglades. Rhonda is bullied for her unique colors and realizes her uniqueness should be cherished. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signed the Stop Woke Law on April 22, 2022. 

According to theFlorida Senate, HB 7: Individual Freedoms “prohibits instructional materials reviewers from recommending materials containing any matter that contradicts certain principles.

Collins said Metcalfe hasn’t been affected by the law, and Alachua County hasn’t come up with a statement addressing it.

“So as far as I know, everybody still just has their books out on their shelves that the kids can check,” Collins said. “I am not going to change my bookshelf unless I'm told.”

Collins said the school has a very specific curriculum. At first, students must pass a test or be recommended by a teacher within the school.  She has more freedom than traditional classrooms, but worries about how much control the politicians are trying to impose on schools.

Collins believes there are some books the library won’t approve of. She had to take one book off her bookshelf: "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak. 

She said there’s a page where the protagonist, Mickey, is walking through a kitchen and his clothes fall off with a depiction of a visible penis.

“I don’t disapprove of it showing but it's just that it's a distraction for the class,” Collins said. “If it's an older class, you can say, 'Hey, it's a drawing,' you know?”

She teaches advanced inquiry, where the students investigate careers, mostly through internet research. 

“It’s besides books, but it's still the media and the questioning of what state government wants to regulate," Collins said. 

However, she feels literature teachers’ job is to make kids think about controversial subjects. 

But schools like Buchholz High School have started to experience its effects.

Patrick Gallagher teaches 11th-grade AP English at Buchholz High School.  Teaching English for 26 years, Gallagher has a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Florida and an educational leadership certificate.

“I love my job. It is the only thing I have ever wanted to do in my entire life,” Gallagher said. 

Gallagher’s curriculum has recently been altered by re-evaluating every piece of media. 

“Whether it be a book, movie, article or a YouTube video, we have to submit to be approved,” he said. 

According to Gallagher, the process involves a media specialist with a certificate to review the submitted information. With all his educational background, he feels his degree means nothing anymore. 

“This is completely superfluous,” Gallagher said. “This is creating a ridiculous amount of work for the two librarians to have this weight on their shoulders as well because we already had a process.”

According toPublic School Review, Buchholz has over 2,000 students and 84 teachers.

And according to Gallagher, over 30,000 books will be re-evaluated from the school’s library. 

Gallagher said there were other alternative ways to suspend a book before the law was enacted. He said if enough parents complained, the principal would review if the book was worth teaching. They can also present it to the Alachua County School Board. 

He said there are three points of criteria the media specialist has to undergo to define what’s disapproved: Pornography, child's comprehension, and ideology.

Gallagher said the first and third criteria are subjective and have no guidance.

Pornography has no definable term.

One of the books Gallagher can no longer teach is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. According to Britannica, “the absurdist, nonlinear work blends science fiction with historical facts, notably Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, during the Allied firebombing of that city in early 1945.”

Gallagher said the book came under scrutiny from the American Library Association at times with profanity and made it inappropriate. 

He said a picture depicts half circles, which present the idea of breasts. 

“At the end of the day, we have to define what is pornographic or not,” Gallagher said. “Like the nudity in a renaissance painting, is it porn or art?”

Regarding ideology, Gallagher said books like ‘The Hate You Give’ can interpret negative views on police and law enforcement. 

“Maybe DeSantis felt this book had a negative view of police and has “woke” ideology,” Gallagher. “As he said in his re-inauguration speech this year, Florida is where woke goes to die.”

Gallagher feels DeSantis is using the word woke as ‘newspeak’, the propaganda language used in George Orwell’s classic book, 1984. 

He feels this was done on purpose by the state’s administration to define things on their terms.

Due to the law, Gallagher can’t use any of his books until approved. He said he started an inventory of every book he’s bought or received from past students.

Because his curriculum had changed, he had to improvise and teach only from the textbook.  

“Technically speaking, I haven't gotten a straight answer on it. There isn't a state-adopted textbook for AP English language because it's an elective,” Gallagher said. “So technically, under the law, I would have to approve that book.”

Gallagher is concerned about the repercussions that take place if something goes wrong. 

“So, what if a parent decides that I sent home a book with inappropriate activity?” Gallagher said. “Who is legally liable because it's a felony? Is it me, the principal or is it the person who approved it under the law?”

Another Buchholz English teacher, Richard Burns, said he was notified of the change on Jan. 31.

Some books, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are already approved because it’s on the district's list of recommended texts for 12th-grade students. 

Burns said he hasn’t had to improvise any of the curriculum, but will in the future. 

“I don't know how, if you're teaching current events, how you would even do it because you couldn't have people reading newspaper stories from the day because they wouldn't have been vetted yet," Burns said. 

Burns said the Stop Woke law affected how he covered literary theories in class, but he hasn’t seen much of an impact in the class.

“Education isn't always comfortable, and sometimes it's a little bit disturbing,” Burns said.  “Sometimes, you learn things about the world that you wish you didn't know. You know, ask any biology student? We deal with those things, and we move on.”

Before the "Stop Woke Law" was passed, banning books wasn’t a new topic in the American education system. 

Rob Sanders, an author, retired elementary school teacher and a member of the LGBTQ+ community has experience with books being banned. 

One of Sanders’ books, “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag,” was tied for first as the most banned picture book of the 2021-2022 school year across the county, according to the PEN America Index of School Book Bans,

Published in 2018, it takes place in 1978 when Harvey Milk and designer Gilbert Baker created the first Pride flag. It's off-limits in five states; Florida, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

According to the same report, he has two other books banned in two separate states. “Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution” is banned in Florida and “Peaceful Fights for Angry Rights” can’t be read in Pennsylvania classrooms.

“I don't write about controversial topics. I write about history,” Sanders said.  “If someone is trying to pick and choose what part of our past and our history can be told, or the history of which groups of people can be told, that should alarm all of us, in my opinion.”

Sanders received a degree in Elementary Education at Missouri State University but didn’t go straight into teaching. He went to work in a seminary for many years in churches and religious education publishing. As he came to terms with his own sexuality and identity, he moved to Florida.   

Teaching mostly fourth-grade language arts at elementary schools and a writer's coach, Sanders taught most of his career in Mintz Elementary School in Brandon, Hillsborough County for seven to eight years. 

Sanders decided to start publishing books again, not for religious markets and has written over 20 books. 

“My books would probably not even be allowed in my own classroom, let alone my school library today,” Sanders said. 

Sanders used to read his books to class as a way for students to understand the writing process, in which the last step was publication. However, four parents didn’t want their children to participate in reading his books so he planned an alternative lesson plan. 

“One of those parents was very persistent in complaining to voice her opinion and my reading of that book was delayed three different times by my district,” Sanders said. 

Later, the administration advised Sanders that a parent can object to their child not reading a book, but they cannot make that decision for other parents.

Elliot is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.