School Counselor Who Defended The Family Book Named GLSEN Educator of the Year

Matthew Beck

Matthew Beck

Last year, the school board in Erie, Illinois, voted to remove Todd Parr’s The Family Book and other GLBT-friendly resources from the curriculum despite a review committee’s recommendation that they be conserved. CBLDF joined with several other anti-censorship organizations in sending a letter of protest to Erie Superintendent Brad Cox and the board. Meanwhile, Erie Elementary counselor Matthew Beck was working from within to keep his school and district as inclusive as possible for all students, even going so far as to organize an extracurricular family reading night during which students and parents could read and discuss materials of which the board did not approve. CBLDF is pleased to note that Beck’s efforts earned him the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s national Educator of the Year Award, which he accepted this past Monday in New York.

The Family Book informs children via simple sentences and colorful pictures about all of the different types of families that exist: stepfamilies, mixed-race families, single-parent families, adoptive families, and so on. But the single page that drew the ire of some Erie parents and led to the ban is the one that says: “Some families have two moms or two dads.” Beck, who was instrumental in developing the diversity curriculum that included the book, explained that he was simply trying to make all students feel welcome in his school:

Professional school counselors serve as agents of change in schools by creating comprehensive and developmental programs that teach children it is okay to be different, that families come in all shapes and sizes and that respect for others is the common goal we can all share and strive for.

After the board voted to remove the book — even from Beck’s own office — he came up with the idea of family reading night, where he organized “retired area teachers [who] read age-appropriate inclusive books and GLSEN materials and led our evening in healthy and respectful conversations.” During the event, author Todd Parr personally read The Family Book to attendees over Skype. “Diverse families exist…in our community,” said Beck. “What message does that send to students when we can’t acknowledge that their families exist?”

GLSEN’s Educator of the Year Award “recognizes an exceptional education professional who has enriched his or her community by ensuring that all students, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, are safe from bullying and harassment.” But Beck, who strove tirelessly to meet that goal, is not earning any praise for it from his employer. Last week Erie Elementary principal Tricia Bianchetta, with the approval of Superintendent Cox, sent an email to all staff forbidding them from discussing the award with students. Cox still insists that the book is not banned at all because “[i]f a kid brought that book from home, he could.”

For his part, Beck continues to work on behalf of all Erie students while keeping in mind the district’s motto “Where Children Come First.” His main wish for those children, he says, is that they “remember to keep celebrating who they are.”

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.