Dr. Sarah Bonner and the Heyworth school district went their separate ways last month after she became the target of a social media frenzy over a book in her eighth grade English classroom.
The book is titled “This Book Is Gay” and explores topics teens encounter as they navigate the road to adulthood: dating, sex and safe sex practices. The debate over “This Book Is Gay” went viral after a student pulled the book from a shelf and images of certain pages were posted on social media.
More than 80 people attended the school board meeting the night Bonner’s “involuntary resignation” was accepted. The reactions to the book expressed during the meeting ranged from views that the book was inappropriate to concerns that limiting students to heterosexual sex education is akin to “institutional homophobia.”
Bonner had a chance to address the board, behind closed doors, after the public session. The educator who also teaches teachers at Illinois State University explained how and why the book came to be in her classroom. Over 100 different books were recommended by sources including the American Library Association, for Bonner’s class project. “Given the nature of the lesson compressed with a heavy list of responsibilities, vetting each and every single text for explicit details was impossible,” she explained.
Bonner goes on to say, “Should the book in question be available to students? Yes. However, should this specific book have been part of the 100 choices during this class activity? No.”
The book is part of the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee List, picked by Bonner with a few others “because I knew students in my class had interests.” Her intention, she said, was never to make students or their families “feel unsafe.”
The Heyworth teacher expressed sadness but not surprise for the way things played out. “Being an innovator in teaching means that boundaries, perspectives, and ideas need to be pushed.”
Children grow up and leave their small-town existence. Bonner realized years ago that preparing students for what they would encounter outside rural communities would require her to push the boundaries of the classroom.
“I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices to embody the needs of today’s world. Our kids deserve learning experiences that prepare them for our world and not just our town,” she told the school board.
Bonner realizes “being a changemaker often comes with a cost….especially if you’re one of the only ones willing to take risks and think differently.”
The cost to Bonner was her job at Heyworth. The cost to her students was the loss of a gifted teacher who will no doubt use the unfortunate experience to educate future teachers. The irony that Bonner’s forced resignation came the same week Illinois legislators voted to withhold funding from public schools and libraries that ban books cannot be overlooked.
Here’s the text of Bonner’s statement to the school board in which she quotes Ted Lasso and Walt Whitman:
Thank you to the Heyworth Board and Administrative team for allowing me to speak this evening. If you know anything about me as a professional, you know that this is not the way I would have chosen to be here tonight. Twenty years ago when I was given the keys to my very first classroom, I knew teaching was my calling. And, while I’ve taught in previous school districts over the years, Heyworth was the place that allowed me to become the professional I was meant to be.
Throughout my time here, I earned both my Masters and Doctorate degrees with the help of district tuition waivers. I became the National Council of Teachers of English (or NCTE) Media Literacy Teacher of the Year in 2018 along with the national Outstanding Middle Level Educator award the following year. I wrote and published a book through Teachers College Press to further the teaching field. Additionally, I hosted and supported numerous future teachers from Illinois State University as they began their journey into the classroom. Lastly – most importantly – I had the opportunity to connect with the best kids I’ve ever worked with in my career.
Our community – or even our nation – may never know the gravity of what teachers bear on a regular basis. For me, I not only worked tirelessly on designing and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for my students, but I also worked hard to maintain healthy relationships with students and families, upheld weekly and transparent communication among all shareholders, contributed regularly to the junior high teacher team, worked a second teaching job at Illinois State University to better support my family, served as the Middle Level Section Steering Committee Chairperson for NCTE, wrote a doctoral dissertation, published a book for teachers, along with being a partner, a mother, and a human wrestling with being newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
With all of this weighing heavily on my plate, I depended on national communities like the American Library Association and NCTE as well as reading communities like Goodreads to help generate texts that engage all readers with a vast collection of interests. The activity my students and I participated in last week was made up of close to 100 different books recommended from these spaces. Given the nature of the lesson compressed with a heavy list of responsibilities, vetting each and every single text for explicit details was impossible. Should the book in question be available to students? Yes. However, should this specific book have been a part of the 100 choices during this class activity? No. Simply put, the title was on the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee list and I picked it along with a few others because I knew students in my class had interests. To make students, families, community members feel unsafe was never the intention of my decision making.
While I’m saddened by how the events have played out over the last week, there’s a piece of me that isn’t surprised. Being an innovator in teaching means that boundaries, perspectives, and ideas need to be pushed. When I realized years ago that our kids who would receive these amazing scholarships to these Big 10 schools were coming back the following year because they couldn’t adjust to life outside of a rural small town, I knew I needed to do something. I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices to embody the needs of today’s world. Our kids deserve learning experiences that prepare them for our world and not just our town. However, being a changemaker often comes with a cost…especially if you’re one of the only ones willing to take risks and think differently.
London’s favorite soccer coach, Ted Lasso – the man who makes us all believe in the power of believe – said it best ”You know, people have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I saw this quote by Walt Whitman. It said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” All of a sudden it hits me. Of all those that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me… who I was had nothing to do with it. ‘Cause if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions.”
As I leave here tonight, I hope you will remember a few things:
- Sometimes things need to break in order to rebuild it stronger. Encourage
As you enter a space of healing, I hope the district and Heyworth community can find a place to listen and understand that you all want the best for our kids. Our teachers especially deserve to be heard and questioned in responsible ways.
- Remember to support your teachers moving forward. If I were them at this point, I would feel scared, unsafe, and paralyzed knowing that I could be next. Our teacher community needs reassurance that innovation is still supported and protected as time moves on.
- And, remember the good I brought to our kids and community by taking innovative risks in Language Arts. While I’ve been here, I have witnessed students stand up for other students with disabilities, fight against racism, organize trash clean ups, create documentaries that tell the untold stories of their community, advocate for safe spaces, strengthen their own beliefs, shape their own personal identities, and critically think about the world around them. With the work I’ve been able to do with students, I’m reminded on a daily basis that our kids will be the hope our future needs.