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Thankful for Books: Teaching Students About Censorship

book censorship           

To say that we live in troubled times would be a massive understatement. As if climate change, a pandemic and widespread racism were not enough, we now have book censorship to contend with. This is not the first time in American history that people have expressed the desire to set fire to books they have neither read nor understood. In fact, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explicitly addresses the complexities of censorship. Ironically, his book has also been banned many times, and it has probably also been burned. What can we as teachers do to educate students about censoring books and help them to navigate a society in which they are allowed to access all kinds of social media platforms that often lead to psychologically damaging results while great literature is considered incendiary? Here are a few possible ways to frame this difficult conversation without stepping into territory that takes us beyond the main issue at hand: books.

Annotate Censored Books Lists           

Why are some books considered to be inappropriate, and do we agree with what naysayers say about the texts under debate to any degree? Posing this question to our students can be a valuable critical thinking exercise. Over the years, school districts and libraries have censored books for every possible reason. For example, Harry Potter has been banned for its ties to witchcraft and wizardry, while 1984 has been challenged for perceived communist leanings. As a class activity to frame conversations around censorship, we can find a list of frequently censored texts online and provide a copy to students without including information regarding the rationale behind each book’s controversial nature. As students work together to annotate the lists, they could speculate about why certain books might have been placed on the list, or even do some online research about unfamiliar texts to help drive the conversation. For this activity, including a discussion guide with questions is advisable to help students formulate productive questions and keep the conversation focused.

Once students have had the opportunity to develop their own ideas, they can look at the reasons behind each book’s controversy and engage in a guided, whole-group conversation (perhaps via Socratic Seminar or similar) about the validity of censorship, both for specific texts and in general. The benefit to having this conversation is twofold: one, students engage in discourse, which promotes rigorous academic thinking, and two, they can develop opinions about specific texts and about the process of censorship. For the activity to be effective, the teacher must frame the process as an open dialogue that debates opinions without judgment. Students can even be invited to play devil’s advocate, or to express ideas that are not their own. After all, we learn so much from those who disagree with us, and we can model this process of growth in a controlled environment.

Explore Banned Books Week           

How many of us are aware of Banned Books Week? Every autumn, the American Library Association (ALA) provides materials and resources to commemorate Banned Books Week. Contextualizing book censorship by allowing students to explore the website, which provides both the history of banned books and resources to look at, is a useful way to analyze several components of censorship. Students can do this exploration independently or in groups as they select links to read more about topics that range from equity and inclusion to intellectual freedom. This process has the added benefit of being able to occur in any location, whether students search the site remotely or in-person. Once they have been given time to learn more, they might process their learning by selecting something they took away from the experience. For example, students could share a thought or open-ended question that aims to synthesize what they learned about censored books with the information provided on the Banned Books Week site. No matter how we choose to let them show their learning, giving the class time to make meaning of what they read provides a student-centered approach to a sensitive topic.

Read Guidelines           

When we’re dealing with controversy, we need the guidance of experts. Our school leaders can absolutely help us navigate challenging conversations, and there are also online resources that provide some much-needed support. For example, The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) provides these helpful guidelines for conducting dialogue around censorship in the classroom. The site includes useful information about related content like the First Amendment, but it also has specific advice about how we should approach instruction. Not all the tips apply to classroom practice (some are centered more on leadership), but others are relevant to teaching practice, such as: “Work with school media resource centers to select developmentally appropriate materials for the curriculum from a wide variety of outlets and viewpoints to encourage students’ intellectual and aesthetic development.” This piece of guidance is particularly astute because it takes not just the appropriateness of a resource into consideration based on its potential offensiveness, but it also considers what students may be ready to access from a developmental perspective. Sometimes, students are not old enough to benefit from a text, no matter how valuable we think it is.           

When push comes to shove, we believe that learning can occur by being exposed to ideas and perspectives that differ from our own. While certain texts are more appropriate for specific age groups or areas of focus, broad-spectrum censorship is not something that educators support. If people want to engage in intelligent conversations about which books we teach and why, they should probably read the texts in question before making pronouncements about them that are far from accurate. However, as always, we can maintain our focus on students by teaching them that the path to education is not through burning books. Instead, by shining a light on the history of censorship and the various reasons books are considered controversial, we can reframe these unstable times into a beautifully teachable moment.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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