Chicago Public Schools spent Friday tamping down reports that it had banned the graphic novel Persepolis.
Earlier this week, word flew through Chicago schools that principals had been told to remove the book from classrooms and libraries. Many believed Persepolis was being banned.
The graphic novel describes author Marjane Satrapi’s upbringing in revolutionary Iran—and includes illustrations of torture, including a man urinating on another man.
Chicago Public Schools spokespeople were initially mum when asked by reporters what was going on. Meanwhile, Chicago teachers lit up social media. A protest was planned outside Lane Tech High School Friday afternoon. The American Civil Liberties Union contacted district officials about First Amendment rights.
Around noon Friday, Chicago Public Schools released a letter it says CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent to principals saying the district is not banning Persepolis from schools.
Instead, it is ordering the book be removed from the seventh grade curriculum and classrooms.
“It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum. If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms,” the letter states.
This was the first year Persepolis had been included in Chicago’s seventh grade curriculum. It was introduced as part of new Common Core standards the district has adopted.
The district says it believes Persepolis is appropriate for high school juniors and seniors. It says it is exploring whether 8th, 9th and 10th graders should be taught the novel, and is coming up with instruction for teachers.
CPS spokeswoman says books removed from classrooms this week will be returned after teachers receive training “to assist them in putting the content of this book into context for students, so they have a grade-appropriate understanding of these graphic images and language.”
The spokeswoman said the district isn’t backpedaling on anything, and it never intended to ban the book. She said confusion arose because of a “poorly worded communication.”
Many teachers weren’t buying that. The Lane Tech protest went on, and news outlets around the world began covering Chicago’s Persepolis controversy. The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom weighed in.
The Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement saying it hoped the district wasn’t returning to the 1950s, and tied the controversy immediately to its most pressing concern—trying to halt a district’s plan to close what could be a record number of schools.
“The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran,” the statement said. “We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this—at a time when they are closing schools—because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles. “
The union criticized the policy of banning the book from classrooms while allowing it in school libraries, pointing out there are more than 160 elementary schools in the district with no library.
The author of Persepolis told the Chicago Tribune she felt the book is appropriate for 11 and 12-year-olds.
“I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence,” Satrapi said.
Teacher Brigit Callaghan said she had been planning to teach Persepolis soon in her Women in Literature classes at Lane Tech High School. Her set of books had just arrived this week, but she was told by the English department chair that Lane had been instructed by the district to remove all copies of Persepolis from the school. She said the department chair was following the principal's orders, and the principal was following district orders.
“I was told I can’t teach it anymore and that I had to find a new book to teach,” said Callaghan.
She believes seventh graders can handle the book.
“When you have a good teacher who can explain the book and discuss the content and the images and have intellectual conversations about it…. There are video games or movies that seventh graders I’m sure see where they don’t get to have a discussion with an adult to work out that graphic content,” she said.
Callaghan, who first read the book at Lane Tech when she was a student there, says there’s a bright side. Her students, mostly seniors, are very motivated to read the book, she says. Before CPS clarified its position today, some students asked Callaghan if she would teach it to them in secret.
Susie An contributed to this report.