5 Ways to Respond When You Are Asked to Censor Classroom Material
Imagine the plate spinner at a circus performance. So many intricacies of hand-eye coordination, focus, and practice have gone into making sure that the plates don't fall to their demise and break into thousands of pieces. Censorship in the classroom is best described as the plate spinner. There is an intricate balance that goes into contemporary content, current events and issues, parent and family input, school curriculum, administrative support, and more. Sometimes, you will find teachers not wanting to put themselves in that fight. All of these factors lend to the dizzying effect of plate spinning, but the question is what breaks when we don't present this content to students? Controversial content comes with major risks and rewards. The American Library Association has put together a pretty cohesive timeline of banning content in the past 30 years. Words like "censorship" and "banning" are used with intention in this purpose because often we are asked as educators to keep information from our students.
Personally, I have always dealt with the issue of parents and families grappling and responding to content given or discussed in class. I have also had some practice to this response when it comes to processing critical feedback of writing in my classroom. More often than not, criticism is a form of expressing inadequacy-not progress. I teach 6th grade, so because this is a transition year, it is my duty to acclimate my students and their families to how middle school does business. However, since the 2016 election, this movement of censorship of material has seemingly been on the rise. As middle school teachers, we are charged with those in-the-middle years of childhood to adulthood. This includes learning to accept feedback, talking about world issues, and gaining perspective from classroom discussion.
It matters what we teach in our classrooms. Now, more than ever.
Occasionally, I have a parent or guardian get upset with our conversations centered on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. This is the first book that Advanced English 6 reads together. It sparks some pretty frank conversations about racism in today's American society, as well as my partnership last year to the Jim Crow exhibit in my city's museum caused more emails than usual. The areas that are the point of consideration for Diverse Text Selection are often the areas that cause any type of concern. This is listed, but not limited to: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, political beliefs, and more.
For the sake of this post, I am going to use Uglies by Scott Westerfeld as an example of a book that often gets some "kickback" from the community due to the love triangle in the book, topic of plastic surgery and beauty, and some situations of violence. This book is a dystopian novel. Dystopian books are taking the YA world by storm, and my kids are no different in wanting to be a part of that whirlwind. We even do a literary analysis assignment on Beyonce's "Pretty Hurts" before we read the text (Anytime I can use Beyonce as an example in my class, I will without hesitation).
The entire unit of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld focuses on reading strategies using the signposts from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst's Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, compare and contrast writing, and creative writing where students can begin to conduct some world-building.
Knowing how I set up this unit each year, I also need to focus on the need to have conversations with students. The essential question of this post that should be asked of each parent, family member, and educator is:
Are we the ones responsible for exposing our young people to the issues of the world?
I would answer yes. Now, I am blessed to be supported by my administration that deems it not only good, but necessary to talk to students about these larger thematic concepts in our world, but what if I wasn't? It was in the last part of the school year when I was assigning the Article of the Week that I had the request not to share anything about School Shootings with students. Before I say I sat at my computer confused and angry, I always try to approach situations from a place of understanding. I may not know about this student's situation, and perhaps their parent was advocating on their behalf to avoid something traumatic. The first reaction is always from a place of understanding and empathy. Always.
Here are some options you have when you need to respond to families, parents, and administration if they question any material you present in class. The best way to communicate any of these strategies is by phone, email, or an in-person meeting. Remember, the goal is to diffuse the situation.
#1: What is your end game?
The prepared teacher always starts each unit with the end in mind. I could go into deeper conversations regarding this practice, as I am pretty sure that the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins is required reading for any pre-service teacher. However, knowing the why behind you giving content is key to having the conversation with your school community. What is the purpose of this text? What is it about THIS one piece of text that conveys what you are trying to get across to students? Having the answer to this question saves many headaches when it comes to explaining your intentions and objectives with people.
#2: How does it align with standards or objectives?
Avoiding the conversation of sounding like you are going rogue or are adhering to your own agenda is also an essential part of the conversation. The pacing guide, curriculum, and texts given from your district lend to the explanation because you are teaching state standards and district approved curriculum. When I first started teaching Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, I had to request approval from my curriculum coordinator. I explained the purpose, what that text did, an overview of the text and any concerns I had, and a tie into standards. It got approved because this text serves a purpose and I can voice that purpose tied to standards.
#3: What strategies are you using?
The strategies that you are using with a text are important to an explanation as well. Each year, one of my favorite lessons when teaching Uglies is looking at commercials. I use this is a method of teaching message, purpose, and audience. I also have an extension activity to get them thinking about pathos, logos, and ethos. How we appeal to people is an important consideration in the scheme of trying to form an argument, but also trying to reach people with the power of persuasions. I ask them, "What about beauty drives people?" This conversation alone is worth the use of this text. Scott Westerfeld is also a great author to use for mentor writing for grammar and setting description.
#4: Can there be an alternative?
I struggle the most with this area of choosing how to respond to families and administration. Many parents want an alternative option for their student regarding some material. If you are reading a whole class novel, is this an option? Will the student feel like an outsider if they aren't reading the same book? How about class discussions? This is when this conversation about alternatives can be tricky. Ultimately, I think it is good practice to outline to parents and administration that you are willing to give another option. This shows flexibility on your end. However, I also outline what that might look like for students. Ultimately, I don't think parents want their child to be excluded from the class. I make all of these options available for the parent or family and let them decide. I am choosing to maintain my option to teach this content, but I am also giving them an option to participate as well. When in doubt, get your administrator involved early in any conversations that are not easily resolved.
#5: Are you showing any bias?
Check yourself. The increase of opinions after the 2016 election didn't leave me without having my own opinions about what is currently going on in the United States. I have my opinions, beliefs, and values. I am also willing to understand that explaining to both sides of an issue to students might lend to helping them understand perspective and promote empathy. I am not going to agree with anyone politically, socially, or morally at all times. The goal is to teach students how to have a conversation about their own system of beliefs in a way that promotes dialogue. By promoting an atmosphere of respectful discourse, students learn to participate in an argument instead of being impenetrable forces without reason.
Note: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon book selections.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What texts are you adamant about using in your instruction? How do you respond to censorship issues in your classroom?