It catches me by surprise every year: Banned Book Week. A time to celebrate? I don’t think so. Yet, I wonder if we do not need to take a look at this week more seriously.
As a teacher, I believe in the right to read and the right to choose what we read. I do not believe the library or a group of teachers or administrators or parents have the right to dictate what should or should not be in a school’s collection. That being said, though, I respect the right of parents to help students to choose what to read.
Banned Book Week began in the 1980s during a time when there were numerous challenges to school libraries and classroom libraries. Not only were contemporary books challenged, but so were the classics.
So what do we do when a book is challenged? The National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association offer advice to teachers when book selections are challenged.
- NCTE recommends having a rationale for selecting the book for instruction or inclusion in a classroom library. We need to have written explanations of the pedagogy that underlies our selections, and these rationales need to cover all curricular choices we make, not just a few selections. These rationales should be made available to parents and other concerned citizens.
- It is essential to have a dialogue with parents when a book is challenged. These conversations must be open and honest. Recently, a parent challenged a book I had selected for my sixth graders. I had read the book (years ago) and skimmed it before assigning it. Of course, I admit that I was reading the book through the lens of an adult (a senior adult, I might add), not through the eyes of a sixth grade boy. Of course, I was devastated when the parent challenged the book. However, after talking with the parent, I understood his concern. It was not the book itself he objected to; it was that the book was not necessarily appropriate for his son at that age. If the student had been two years older, the book would have probably gone unchallenged. Fortunately, I knew why I wanted to use the book. I also listened to the parent’s concerns. We were able to read an appropriate compromise and made a selection more appropriate for his son.
- It is helpful to have a collection of policies for handling book challenges, such as those from NCTE. NCTE has a variety of publications that are helpful including guidelines for handling challenges to instructional materials. In their publication about the right to read, the NCTE writers include a questionnaire for preparing for a book challenge. It is a set of thoughtful questions for parents and teachers.
Preparation, then, is the key to dealing with a challenge to a text we may select. Having a rationale for the selection, listening to the parent, and understanding the issues will make it easier to deal with the challenge. Of course, it’s also important not to take the challenge personally, something that is particularly hard since often we choose books that we love and care about!
During this week, I will be looking at the books have chosen to teach and share with my students. Right now, I am reading aloud Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down to my sixth graders. They are invested and captivated. I know I have to be careful with this book because of the occasional profanity. Yet it is a story that needs to be told. I am prepared for the challenge.
This week, make a plan for dealing with challenges to your curriculum.