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Lane Tech Students Protest CPS Stance on 'Persepolis'

By Patty Wetli | March 15, 2013 6:14pm

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Nearly 100 Lane Tech students and teachers stood outside in the rain Friday afternoon to protest the CPS decision to remove copies of the graphic novel "Persepolis" from the district's seventh-grade classrooms, and to reassess whether the book can be taught to upper grades.

Cars, trucks and buses honked as they passed the crowd gathered at the corner of Western Avenue and Addison Street, signaling solidarity with signs reading "Free Persepolis" and "Homework for CPS: Read the First Amendment."

Lane teachers were still smarting from the CPS directive, issued Wednesday from central office, to confiscate copies of the book, and the initial confusion over whether the ban extended to libraries.

"We still don't know who made the decision or why it was made. English teachers weren't asked their professional opinion. Nobody was included. That is not how democracy works," said Steve Parsons, Lane Tech teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate.

"If we had received a message that said, 'After much reflection....' There was nothing. They came in the middle of a school week, in the middle of the day. It was so arbitrary."

In a letter to principals released on Friday, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that the notice to remove the book from the district's seventh-grade curriculum came after "It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use" for that age group.

While saying, "We are not banning this book from our schools," Byrd-Bennett instructed principals: "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."

"I think it's back pedaling. I think they're being spin doctors," said a Lane Tech teacher who asked not to be identified.

In a statement to media, the Chicago Teachers Union noted: “CPS is now claiming 'Persepolis' is banned only from the 7th grade classroom but will be available in school libraries. Unfortunately 160 elementary schools don’t have libraries. We support our educators who are fighting to ensure their students have access to ideas about democracy, freedom of speech and self-image.”

"Persepolis" is an autobiographical graphic novel written by Marjane Satrapi and originally published in France. It describes the author's childhood in Iran in the 1970s and '80s as she lived through the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq.

The book has been taught at Lane Tech for at least the past five years, said another Lane teacher, who also preferred to remain anonymous.

"I think it's an important book" in the way it examines Islam, Iran, culture and history, said the teacher.

"Despite the graphic images, that's what happened. That's history. I think it's always dangerous when an entity decides what people can read. It was a mistake to take the books from classrooms."

Lane Tech seniors Katie McDermott and Alexa Repp studied "Persepolis" at the beginning of the school year.

"It sheds light on a different country and religion. It cancels out the stereotypes and changes your perspective," said McDermott.

Asked whether the content seemed inappropriate for younger students, Repp responded: "I think it depends on how it's taught. That's the difference between education and exposure."

Added McDermott, "We shouldn't have 12- and 13-year-olds who are not in tune politically. We're being sheltered. We're allowing ourselves to be dumbed down."

While "Persepolis" has been banned in Iran, Lebanon and Tunisia, restricted access is a first for the book in the United States, according to a statement sent to DNAinfo.com Chicago from Satrapi's U.S. publisher Pantheon, a division of Random House.

“The book has been read and taught in school districts across the country, without caveat or condition. In addition, Marjane has met with students across the country, including students in Chicago. The fact that Chicago is trying to limit this book’s use in classrooms and curriculums, suggesting teachers need guidance before they can discuss it, smacks of censorship.”

Earlier Friday, the American Library Association condemned the move to restrict the book.

"We believe that removing books from the hands of kids is chiling and is an act of censorship. It reflects the totalitatrian society that this book is really all about, because this book is about the Iranian Revolution," said Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, at a press conference Friday.

"I thought it was one of the most awesome books," said Melisa Blazevic, Lane Tech senior and herself a Muslim.

"She was so courageous to tell her story."

If the response from Lane's students is any indication, the attempt to curtail the book's audience seems to have backfired.

Said junior Terrence Browne, "I would actually like to read the book after this situation."