Thursday, June 26, 2008

Censorship and Summer Reading Lists

What does a teacher do when that teacher assigns a summer reading book that a parent objects to? I find it amazing that many of the parents at my school have college degrees and therefore, like many such parents, feel that entitles them to be armchair experts on what and how to teach. Of Mice and Men or Romeo and Juliette are considered canon and there are rarely objections to bringing them to an 8th or 9th grade English classroom. All this despite that one frequently uses the "N" word and the other dramatizes teen sex and suicide. Bring in a contemporary young adult writer like Chris Crutcher, and suddenly there is concern for the delicate minds of our children. Our task is to create a situation where students can become comfortable with writing and reading.

Here is how the logic and illogic goes. Nancy Atwell asserts that young writers need to be exposed to a variety of literature, and many of us would agree. But should it be Byron or Bloom? Should we teach the "Greats" as canon - preserve the cultural and historical heritage of the Western World? Or should we teach literature that deals with the individual and developmental experiences of an adolescent? Who would your 8th grader relate more to: Anne of Green Gables or Melinda from Speak? I would argue that Mellville is one fo the greatest American writers of all time, but do I really want my students to write like him? And how do we work with the enthusiastic readers who will take to anything we set in front of them and the reluctant ones who will are looking for any excuse to not read? Anecdotal and real research seems to concur that a strong connection exists between the stuff kids read and the writing they are asked to do (Blasingame and Bushman 2005).

I, for one, decided to follow Dr. Jack Bushman's advice ( to ballance my reading lists in and out of school between contemporary and classical works of literature. For my rising 8th graders I asked that they choose between two contemporary works (one aimed at young women and the other at young men) and to choose any two other books from a recommended reading list that included a wide variety of authors. Two e-mails so far: one because her daughter already read one and was not interested in the other and another parent who felt the material was "too sensitive" for a 13 year-old boy. The former is a student who reads through books the way fish move through water so I gave an expanded list from the American Library Association and the
Greater Boston Cooperative Library Association. Easy enough. The other parent was concerned about the sensitive subjects, how could they be adequately covered, and that she would not encourage him or any other 8th grader to read this book independently. Other than questioning my ability and credibility as a teacher, she got me thinking about how to deal with those parents who will call into question what tools we choose to use for our lessons.

Ultimately, I found out her concerns were more about whether or not the book's issues would be addressed as opposed to objections of the book itself. It still poses the sticky issue of how much say parents have over our choices. If a parent objects to a book for any reason and wants satisfaction ranging anywhere from removal of the book to alternate choices, then does that amount to censorship? How do we respond and still retain our credibility as professionals?

Ultimately, quite a bit has to do with our individual schools, dept. heads, administrators, and communities. Dr. Bushman gave me some very sage advice that I will pass on to anyone who finds themselves in this quandary.

1. Ask the parent if s/he has read the whole book. What parts give him/her problems and why.
2. The the best argument is to site the qualities of the book:
  • Great development of the characters.
  • Plot complex for that age group but not too difficult
  • Topic of the book is of interest to your students.
  • Reviewed by reputable review publications.
  • Nominations for awards.
  • Awards earned.
3. You can also speak to the reputation of the author.
  • Other critically acclaimed novels
  • Achievement awards for the body of his/her work.
  • Additional credentials (e.g. Chris Crutcher is a former family therapist)
  • Widely read by teens in middle and high schools throughout the country.

4. If the parent still persists, have them fill out the NCTE form on censorship: (

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