It’s banned book week, which means many of us teachers are highlighting books that have either been controversial in the past or are controversial now. I love that banned book week gets our students and colleagues talking about what we should all be allowed to teach, read, discuss, and learn about. It makes us all feel smart, in the loop, and empowered.
Because I displayed and highlighted some banned and frequently challenged books, students asked some great questions which have generated some important conversations. They felt smart and important when they learned about banned and challenged books.
When students express an interest in these books, or any book for that matter, I let them know that I appreciate that they are challenging themselves. Maybe they are challenging their thinking about a certain topic, they are exposing themselves to new experiences through books, or they are reading a complex text, but banned and challenged books can be problematic for many reasons, and those problems often lead to new learning and ideas. However, if a book becomes “too much” for any reason, whether it be their hearts aren’t ready for it (I explain that Marley and Me is still too much, several years after the death of my beloved dog, Bart), or the text is too challenging, or the words or situations make them uncomfortable (especially for the middle school students I teach), they can give themselves permission to drop the book or save it for later.
It’s empowering to be able to choose your own book. It’s also empowering to be able to drop it.
These conversations this week started because of a simple book display I put together because I was inspired by the fact that it is Banned Book Week. I used the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books as a resource so I could pull books from my classroom library shelves. A couple of my colleagues shared similar displays in their classrooms, so many students are curious, asking questions, and talking about censorship.
This is the type of display that can be shared at any time. Banned Books Week is a great time to start the conversation, but the conversation might take more than a week. In fact, I think it should.
Because that conversation takes more than a week, I’d like to suggest a unit around research, argument, and banned books.
Last year, a colleague and I did just that. We based it off of a Read Write Think lesson about banned and challenged books, and it went really well. Even thought Banned Books Week is in September, we worked on this unit in May, because talking about banned books is important all year long.
Students researched, read about, discussed, and wrote about banned and challenged books.
They looked at Laurie Halse Anderson’s statement about intellectual freedom and felt empowered.
They read the NCTE statement on The Students’ Right to Read and felt empowered.
They watched Trevor Noah and Jason Reynolds discuss what it means for books to be mirrors and windows and felt empowered.
Essentially, when students researched and read about titles that have been censored, they felt empowered that they were able to access these books. When students saw the display of challenged and banned books, they felt empowered that they could access them in their own classroom libraries.
Teaching students about banned books empowers them. Banning books removes the agency from students and teachers, but exposing that censorship empowers that same demographic. My students feel empathy for those who have been denied access to these important and powerful books. They are also grateful that they have easy access to these same titles.
By exposing censorship, teaching about intellectual freedom, and providing access to all types of books, students, teachers, and communities are empowered.
Aren’t we all about empowering our students?
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua.
Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie