This summer my social media has been clamoring about content warnings and safe(r) spaces within an academic community. To what extent do we as educators bear responsibility for how our students respond to the material we may present to them?
I’m sure some educators probably feel that such gestures are a product of an over-coddled generation at best or somehow reduce literature to mere plot points at its worst (spoiler alert: Johnny dies), but I decided that I wanted some way of understanding my students’ emotional lives and some understanding of what topics upset them or get them excited.
On the first day of school this year, I introduced and modeled a traffic light system in response to independent reading:
Green — topics I like to read about and topics that interest me.
Yellow — sometimes I like to read about these topics, and sometimes I don’t
Red — topics that upset me. If I come across this topic in an independent reading book, I stop reading.
I modeled a response for my seventh graders, using touchy subjects that often come up in middle grade fiction. I described divorce as a red topic for me, autism as a yellow topic, and illness as a green topic.
Reader responses were fascinating. Death and illness books were by far the most divisive, with some readers describing death as a green topic and others as a red topic. Holocaust books were similarly divisive. Many readers described enjoying books that were “sad, but not too sad.” Some readers identified red topics that I would have never identified on my own as a potential tough topic (e.g. car accidents, physical disfigurement.)
Also interesting was that what I know about my readers’ personal lives didn’t always square with what they wrote about their reading topics. Some of my readers seem to want to read books that mirror their real-life struggles. Others want to veer far away from those topics.
Based on these responses, I adjusted some of my lesson plans slightly. I had been planning to use parts of Lisa Graff’s phenomenal Lost in the Sun as a whole-class model for character, but based on these responses, I’m not sure all of my readers would appreciate reading about survivor’s guilt as much as I did. Instead, I’ll use parts of Jason Reynolds’s As Brave As You to teach the same concepts.
I don’t see myself swooping in to warn a student before starting a book as lovely and potentially upsetting as Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson or The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. However, I want to continue the conversation about red, yellow, and green topics. As independent readers, we have a right to establish limits, and when we read a part of a book that approaches or goes over our limits, we have a right to put it down and talk to somebody about what’s upsetting us.
Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY. She also reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.