I'm going to start discussing this complex topic by telling a personal story, something that happened to me earlier this school year. If you want to skip right past my story to what you can do when challenged on a book, CLICK HERE to jump down to that portion of this post. Someone who works in my department came in to my school new this year, and has worn their christian religion like a badge of honor all year, even to the point that eventually others began speaking out against this persons preaching at their students and telling other teachers what to do.
If you've read either of my blogs a few times, you probably know that I have major issues with being censored. So, anyways, it was time to read a new chapter book, and I pulled the Lois Lowry classic The Giver off the shelf and started reading it. In a very odd fashion, this teacher came in to my classroom one day and asked if she could borrow a copy of the The Giver. I let her, and didn't really think much about it, until about two weeks later, when the principal sided with the teacher and decided we shouldn't be reading this book to our students.
I quickly fought back, and asked for the reasons as to why this book was being censored in the school. The letter I was given cited concerns over euthanasia, 'sexual themes,' and the books treatment of religion. That was my tipping point. I then asked to have the specific passages given, and of course, this teacher gave them. I was able to cite examples in other literature that is used very often in elementary school that deals with similar issues, and saved the religion thing for last.
Teachers aren't allowed to push religion in the classroom, it's a law. Teachers are only allowed to teach the differing cultural values of religions. In this case, I debated, this teacher was literally shoving her religious views down the throats of both me and my students.
To make a long story short, my supervisor decided this was not a battle worth fighting, and after sitting down and looking at some legal precedents (some of which went way over my head), overruled the censoring of this book. The cool thing was, three other teachers in my building also decided to use this book in their classrooms, so triumph felt good, and my students were able to partake in a valuable literary experience.
Here are some recommendations about how to 'cover your bases' if you decide to proceed with a book that has potential to be challenged, has been challenged in the past, or is a frequently banned book (a list of frequently banned books will be at the end of this post as well).
- Keep your parents and principal(s) informed from the start: I always send home, in my bi-weekly newsletter, a rundown of the activities we're doing, including the content of the current literature we are using. I always leave contact information at the bottom of the newsletter and tell parents to contact me with any concerns. I pass a copy of this on to the principal so that my bases are covered in this way.
- Be ready to explain yourself: Explain in words your principal (and other co-workers who have challenged you) will understand why you have chosen this book. Be able to go into the multicultural and subversive aspects of the book, but also how it will meet content standards and benchmarks, literacy guidelines, and how you will assess 'literacy learning' as well. Of course, most of this is total bull, but it makes people happy.
- Understand beforehand: Don't pick a book BECAUSE it is banned or has been challenged, then you're asking for trouble. In my case, this was a book that I enjoyed very much, and was ready to step up for what I believed in. Know why you picked the book, why you believe in it, and be ready to explain yourself every step of the way.
Personally, the issue I have with censored books is that a lot of times the reasons aren't very good. Of course I'm not going to pull something horribly inappropriate and start reading it to young children. Books are frequently challenged because they offend a persons religion, and we need to remember that this is not a reason to ban a book. Once the doors are open to book censorship, how far is too far? Herein lies the issue with censorship, it can be interpreted to the point that we're banning Dr. Seuss because the characters worship false gods.
Know your rights, and understand that just because you're in the classroom, you haven't lost your freedom of expression rights.
Now, finally, before I stop here, I wanted to give a short list of some frequently challenged books in public schools lately:
- Harry Potter series (yes, all 7), by J.K. Rowling
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
- Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry
- The Goosebump Series, by R.L. Stine
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
- The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer
Good luck if you have any issues arising with book censorship. Please, share your stories, both triumphs and setbacks, and remember, no one (other than an objectionable parent, which you must always work to accommodate), has the right to push you around and censor you, fight back!