I'm so grateful you've come back!
This series on banned books spans a lot of content. We've covered the basics of the topic and explored the effects of banning books as well as the value diverse and inclusive literature brings to the classroom.
I say it with every post, but I want to say it again. I'm not an expert. I'm researching and learning so that I can make informed decisions, be an educated advocate, and create space for others to engage.
But I still get it. Your kid is assigned a book that does not align with your personal values. It makes your kid uncomfortable to read it. It angers you that a teacher would force your child to read, think about, and discuss topics that your family finds taboo, insensitive, or even vulgar. As a parent, you feel like you have a moral obligation to protect your child from the things that could potentially impact her/him in a negative way. So what do you do?
In this post, I want to tackle some practical steps parents and teachers can take in order to support the right to read - for all kids. Because that's really the crux of the problem when banning books - one person (or one group of people) is deciding what is good for all. So if a book isn't a good fit for your kid, no one gets to read it.
I want to start with teachers by saying, I love, respect, and admire what you're doing. You're pushing the envelop. You're challenging the status quo. You're inviting students to step into a world far different from their own in the hope it will teach them something deep and true they cannot discover in their own little postage-stamp of a world. You're nurturing their ability to be critical thinkers - something we desperately need our society to have.
But in doing this vital work, you're going to get pushback. And I know that you know that. You may even be taking all of the steps I'm going to recommend and still get challenged. Press on...just CYA in the process.
So Teachers, as you select books that reflect your students, that open them up to different worlds, and invite them to engage, think, and dialogue, consider taking these proactive steps to be transparent and provide the most information possible:
Be upfront and candid. Let parents know ahead of time that you'll be diving into a controversial book. Articulate the reasons for reading the book. Share the value you see the book bringing. Explain why this particular book (and not another title) is important. Talk about its literary merit and what you hope to accomplish with your students through reading the book.
Consider providing options. In addition to being aware of your community's values, ask yourself if there is an alternative, less-objectionable book that covers the same topics or provides the same perspective. For example, if you're reading All-American Boys (by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely) as your main text, you might offer Ghost Boys (by Jewell Parker Rhodes) for those who object to the language or violence in the main text. Or if To Kill A Mockingbird (by Harper Lee) is challenged because it's from a white perspective, perhaps you could offer Just Mercy (by Brian Stevenson) as an alternative. Instead of a required reading list, curate a "recommended" list where students choose from a number of text - all accomplishing your pedagogical goals - while providing options that align with varying view points.
Know your policies and procedures. Make sure you're not giving anyone ammunition by choosing a book that is at odds with a district policy or has not gone through the proper vetting procedures in order to be part of the curriculum. Your district (and you!) should have clear guidelines on intellectual freedom, content, and accessibility.
Curate reviews supporting your choices. It's likely you've chosen books for your classroom based on your own reading of them as well as the reviews of other trusted, respected experts. Print those suckers out when you read them and keep them in a file to share with parents who voice concerns.
Being prepared and proactive not only protect you professionally, it supports the right for all students in your classroom to read and access information.
Dear Parents, the first and most important thing I want to communicate in this post is be kind. I have the unique perspective of being on both sides of the classroom door, first as a middle school ELA teacher, and now as a parent of middle and high school students. Your outrage and frustration, no matter how justified, need to be checked at the door in favor of coming up with positive solutions. From an insiders point of view, know that:
No teacher wants to intentionally make you angry
No teacher tries to intentionally hurt or brainwash your kid
No teacher looks to intentionally stir up controversy
Despite your history with teachers (and we all carry baggage from teachers who burned us, myself included), most are not out to get you or your kid. However, when you come at them with brazen assumptions, generalities, and personal attacks, like any other human being, they will go on the defensive. So for starters, when you have a problem, begin with kindness.
When emotions run high, as they do when we're dealing with our kids, it's hard to get an objective perspective. So if you feel like you need to approach a teacher about a book you'd like to challenge, please consider taking these steps:
Read the book first. Don't read the Common Sense Media review. Don't read the Goodreads summary. Check out a copy of the book from your local library and read it. Cover to cover. Before you approach the teacher. Come in with thorough knowledge and understanding.
Do some self-reflection. Be able to understand and articulate your objections to the book. Be brutally honest with yourself. If it's the language, ask yourself why it matters in a book and (maybe) doesn't matter with TV or movie content. Is there something you're afraid of? Might the content trigger a traumatic reaction in your kiddo? Teachers need to know some of this stuff - it helps them be a better teacher for your child and others. Identifying your own reservations is the start of a productive conversation.
Ask questions. Teachers are professionals - like doctors, engineers, mechanics - specifically trained and equipped to do a job. You'd never think of asking a doctor to prove his methods for surgery. You'd never approach an engineer and ask her to change her design because you have a personal problem with it. A teacher deserves the same professional courtesy. Before listing out the number of swear words on Facebook or accusing the teacher of corrupting your kid, ask the following questions:
Why did you choose this particular book for your classroom?
What literary merit does this book offer that another, less objectional book could not provide?
What do you want students to understand or know after reading this book?
Has this book gone through the proper district channels for books selection? Does it adhere to the standards and policy?
How do you plan to address the sensitive topics in this book?
Be willing to consider others. By nature, our gaze sticks pretty close to home. We concern ourselves with what concerns us. That said, what is good for one, is not always good for all. Recognize that you protecting your child does not mean restricting access for every kid. Accept that not all parents feel the same as you. Honor the perspective of others. Perhaps your child shouldn't be reading a book; that is certainly your right and responsibility to decide. But banning or removing a book so that no one has access to it isn't a just alternative.
The best way to serve the needs of your kid is by entering into a respectful conversation with a teacher. One in which you share your concerns openly while listening to opposing points. Once both sides feel validated and heard, solutions can begin to take shape.
What am I missing? If you're a teacher, I'd love to hear about the ways you deal with challenged books. If you're a parent, I want to know about your experiences with concerning books in the classroom. Leave a comment or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. We've got to keep reaching out to each other; we've got to keep doing our best to have conversations; we've got to be open to different perspectives...for the sake of our kids and the sake of our future.