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Four Considerations for Book Selection or Rejection

classroom book selection

As a secondary ELA and literacy specialist, part of my job involves facilitating the review of books for curriculum approval. The process includes a lovely perk – after all, who doesn’t love to read? After recently reviewing Ghost by Jason Reynolds, I was so gripped by his writing that I gave my daughter the book, who gobbled it up and passed it along to her grandfather. However, sometimes the books that come across my desk for approval are not ideal choices because they have the potential to cause confusion or harm. I do not believe in book censorship; however, there are times that teachers must be judicious about what they assign to a class. There are four specific reasons a text might not be the best choice for kids. While reviewing any book for instruction, bear the following considerations in mind.

Student Age & Stage

It can be hard to figure out where the line is. Kids are both more vulnerable and more resilient than we think, but we cannot get inside their heads to know how a book will land. For that reason, every decision we make about text inclusion must be informed by how old students are, whether they are developmentally capable of processing content in the manner intended, and how their mental health will fare in the face of challenging or disturbing ideas. If teachers have any doubt about the last consideration in particular, choosing a similar but less controversial text to teach is probably the way to go. Having said that, being too cautious is not advisable. Students are exposed to profane language and inappropriate content every day outside the classroom. With the guidance of a teacher and much-needed context, school is an ideal place to encounter and learn about challenging ideas. Any adults who think they can prevent a child from being exposed to age-inappropriate ideas might wish to go beyond classroom censorship and focus instead on banning cellphones and laptops.

Language Complexity

Recently, I read a dystopian novel with a plot that seemed to perfectly fit a young adult reader – until I saw how complex the language was. Stories can be as appealing as the day is long, but if the text is not accessible, interpreting the meaning of a book becomes onerous to impossible. When students complete reading assessments, teachers identify their Lexile level or range, which is a quantitative measure of student readiness. If teachers use the measurement to maximum benefit, they stretch students slightly beyond identified Lexile levels to provide an opportunity to access more complex texts that facilitate ideal growth for both vocabulary and comprehension skills. However, if teachers rely on guesswork to select a book, students may struggle so significantly that they forego the reading experience altogether. When a book is appropriate in its linguistic complexity, students can both benefit from the text and reach new heights.

Connection to Core Standards

As I argue in this Education Week opinion piece, one of the biggest determinants of whether teachers use a text is not clearly visible to those outside the education profession. When books specifically support core standards of instruction, they are an ideal tool for building student skills in a targeted area. Suppose my class is struggling to write with parallel structure; I might select a text that exemplifies the literacy sub-standard of parallel language in the conventions of grammar and usage, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Anyone assessing the book who is not a teacher might think I made a selection for content when the primary rationale was language. Unlike parents or policymakers, teachers assess the value of a text based on how it can help students grow literacy skills. Content is important as well, but incorporating standards solidifies the link between a text and increased student achievement.

Individual Needs

Sometimes, students have a history of trauma, mental illness or other challenges that make the potential harm a text can cause far greater than the perceived benefits. Part of a teacher’s job is to learn about their students and develop awareness of where a book might cause damage to individuals. Having an alternative text (and related assignments) available for use is the first step; the second is to ensure that students who have a different text are not singled out in any way that makes them uncomfortable. Parents can also opt their children out of learning a specific book, and that is their right. We might not agree with the reasons behind their decision, but it is our responsibility to serve all students, even when we see things differently.

To the four considerations above, there is one more: possible educational or historical value notwithstanding, students do not benefit from texts that are explicitly racist, like Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf. Even a book like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is satirical yet packs a significant punch with an unrelenting torrent of racist language, should be weighed with great care. Blatantly harmful texts aside, books that present tricky conversations should not be under automatic consideration for any kind of censorship. Students learn just as much through friction and dissonance as they do through harmony. I used to teach Richard Wright’s Native Son every year to high school juniors, and they never ceased to be simultaneously gripped by his prose and saddened at the continuing relevance of his observations about racism over half a century after publication. As teachers, our goal is not to hide the world from students, but to be judicious about framing conversations around texts that are misrepresented in the world outside of schools, where people increasingly and shamefully insist on using education as a battlefield for political warfare.  

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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