Photo: Fox News has highlighted books on the Belmont Schools Summer Reading List they contend targets ‘Whiteness’
Along with the opening of the Underwood Pool, summer arrives in Belmont when the Public Library releases its summer reading list for the town’s public school students.
Designed to encourage pupils to make reading a habit while raising both their interest in and level of reading, the summer collection runs the gamut from Too Many Cats by Lori Haskins Houran that kindergarteners read with their parents, the fantasy series The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer for middle schoolers and acclaimed novels such as Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits that rising sophomores in the English honors program will pick up.
“The Library and School Department have worked on summer reading lists for many years, long before I arrived in Belmont in 2015,” said Belmont Public Library Director Peter Struzziero. “It’s always been a great partnership that we look forward to every year.”
For all previous years, the list has been the exclusive purview of school-aged students hoping they made a good choice to read on warm summer days. That all changed when late last week, an ominous headline came across computer screens courtesy of the online version of Fox News: “Massachusetts school district pushes grade schoolers to read books about ‘White privilege,’ ‘Whiteness‘.
That district? Belmont, where books, according to the article, that condemns “Whiteness” are in the recommended summer reading list for grade school students “amid a national uproar over race-centric curricula in schools.” The likely furor the article mentions is linked to the teaching of critical race theory, a catch phrase used by conservative groups and right wing media to condemn studying that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
While there is no evidence that critical race theory is taught in any K-12 district in the country – although some teachers who have participated in a professional development sessions have encountered topic – Fox News has refocused its daily coverage towards allegations of students being bullied for being white and forcing them to attend classes that condemn their race. Since March, Fox News programs have mentioned the topic 1,300 times in a little over a 100 days.
The Fox article, authored by Peter Hasson, said the offending books are within a category titled “Race, Culture, and Activism” that are “recommended” for grade school students including one titled Not my Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham.
“The imaginary terms [provided by “the devil” to white children that will] offer “stolen land,” “stolen riches” and “special favors,” explained Hasson. It adds that “WHITENESS gets” “your soul” and “to mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones and all fellow humans of COLOR.” “The end contains a section for signature and notes [l]and, riches and favors may be revoked at any time, for any reason,'” in Hasson’s summarized.
Other targeted titles include Jenny Devenny’s Race Cars: A Children’s Book About White Privilege and Stamped, by Ibram Kendi, who is described by Hasson as a “far-left academic” who has called for “an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals.”
The Fox article came a day after right-wing activist Christopher Rufo tweeted that Belmont was one of 30 communities in the US – five in Massachusetts – using Not my Idea either in classes or are on reading lists. Rufo’s tactics, research and goals have come under increasing fire. As one critic noted, Rufo “takes critical-race theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and repurposes it as a catchall for white grievances.”
Racist email follows ‘whiteness’ claim
Reaction to the Fox article and Rufo’s tweet came quickly as an email saturated with White racist and White supremacist tropes – calling for a “Thank You White People Day” – was sent late on July 8 by a “Brian Jenkins” to each member of the School Committee, the district’s Central Office, the district’s six PTOs and the Friends of Belmont Education.
Responding to the Fox article, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted the reading list is created “in partnership with our Public Library and are not assigned by the school department.” rather, it is made up of “suggested titles for families to use at their discretion.”
At the June 29 school committee meeting, Phelan addressed just how the list is developed, with an acknowledgment that “I know there have been some questions about how this process is conducted each year.” The selected books, including those highlighted by Fox, are a collaboration between Belmont librarians, district’s curriculum leaders, elementary school principals and assistant superintendent Janice Darius. The library begins the process by reviewing the list from previous years and adding notable new reads.
“They send a draft of the list to the curriculum leaders to review so it will align with each grades curriculum in representing the diversity, cultural, language and race of our students,” said Phelan. Books are taken off the list because they’re already part of a grade level curriculum, if they should belong to a different grade level’s list or “they may be too controversial,” he said.
It is school curriculum leaders who add new books to replace those titles taken off. “The list is then reviewed by the elementary principals, the assistant superintendent and, finally, through my office as well,” said Phelan. The list is then sent to out to all teachers, families and posted on the district’s website.
Phelan reiterated that the the K-7 list are suggested books for families, and “they are not required reading in any way.” These are suggestions for our kindergarten through seventh grade families. There’s one book on the list that is required of our eighth graders; The Giver by Lois Lowry. All other books on the eighth grade lists are also suggestions, said Phelan.
Responding to the Fox article with the Belmontonian, Struzziero said the books in the targeted category “teach about some of the history of racial injustice in our country and attempt to give messages about equality, justice, peace, kindness and many other themes that we want to inspire in all our students.”
“We hope this list will inspire discussion and learning among our families, provide a way to better understand history, and encourage us all to better understand each other. This is really only a highlight of the many books we have available on these topics,” he said.
Speaking directly at Fox News which he said “took into consideration a certain point of view” in its coverage, Stuzzierio said there’s no shortage of opinions on literature or on education of the young. “I won’t comment on what’s credible or not, all opinions are valuable, and we are always happy to have feedback on how to make the Library and it’s collections the best it can be,” he said.
Placing the books highlighted in the the Fox article in great context, Stuzzierio said many were selected at the culmination of the library’s first-ever Community Read last year with its central focus on antiracism. Partnering with more than 700 residents and groups as varied as Belmont Against Racism, the Belmont Religious Council, the Human Rights Commission and the Belmont Chinese American Association, “the community spoke loudly about the place that we want Belmont today,” he said. “It was joyful, community building, and a healing expression of how Belmont supports itself to be such a great place to live and work. It’s been one of the most inspiring chapters in my career,”
As for moving forward on future lists, Stuzzierio said “we’ve heard from many citizens with feedback on this year’s summer reading list. Most citizens thought it was wonderful and a great accent to the work we do, some others had feedback on titles they thought should be removed from the list, or others still included names of additional titles,” he added.
Resident raises his own concern on summer list
One such resident who has been made his concerns known for the past three years is David Benoit. The retired law enforcement officer has been critical of one specific book used by the district since 2018; The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by Angie Thomas that Benoit contends “teaches that opposing views justify violent destructive riots, assaults, and arson” to “highly impressionable BHS students.” This month, Benoit called out the district for placing on the 2021 summer reading list the book Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard and Jennifer Zivoin, for elementary grades K-5, which he said is “poisoning the minds of young innocent children.”
Benoit’s letter and a short conversation with him will be published on Saturday.
Stuzzierio said the will use “all the feedback to review our lists and see in what ways we may build upon it for next year. We look forward to working with the School Department on this process,” he said.
Speaking to the Belmontonian, School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway said the committee will continue to listen to and communicate with community members who are supportive of the books and with those who have concerns about some of the books and further discuss these items at upcoming meetings.
While the committee will plan to review the current lists in August, “I do not think that it is the School Committee’s role to select which books are on the list. We will continue to listen to and communicate with community members and share input received with the district and library,” she said.
When asked what the best approach for the school community to confront political-based charges the district is teaching a “race-centric curricula,” Checkoway said everyone needs “to remain focused on efforts that are already underway in the Belmont Public Schools to ensure that all students and staff have the opportunity to be successful and feel welcome, seen, represented, and supported in our schools including through our curricula.”
She added the committee supports a district-wide racial equity audit to be conducted by an outside firm beginning in the summer with a focus on helping to identify what the district and committee are doing well and areas of improvement in a range of areas including school climate, student outcomes, hiring and advancement practices, student discipline, and more.
“I also look forward to welcoming a new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion who will report to the superintendent and provide much needed capacity to advance the district’s equity work and support faculty, staff, students, and families,” said Checkoway.
“There is a lot of good work that is happening and plenty of work that remains.”