I have to admit, I had the absolute best time this week. After all these years in the profession, it is not often that I have the chance to do something new. Yes, that’s right, just this month I was able to check something off my professional bucket list: I had the opportunity to teach about Intellectual Freedom and Banned Books Week.
Teaching about banned books may not be uncommon for some of you, but for myself, working in a middle school, this opportunity doesn’t come along very frequently, and I embraced the opportunity with relish. As the collaborating classroom teacher and I discussed the idea, we respected the age group we were working with and immediately included our administrator in the conversation. We also constructed a plan for advance communication to families to ensure there was awareness of the topic, our instructional purpose, and approach in order to gain understanding and support.
As we planned, we brainstormed and agreed to the key features and student thinking for the unit:
- What is the power of a story? At all ages, but especially middle grades, a story’s power is in reading, rather than living, a story, as well as learning from a fictional character’s mistakes. There is also the glory a reader derives from escaping reality when diving into a really good book.
- Time and place. Many of the books of yesteryear are today considered classics. So what do students need to understand about time and place in order to comprehend how a book considered controversial at its first publication is now considered one of the best pieces published at that time?
- Literature Circles and reading as an authority. Students are assigned a reader’s role. They are tasked to read from the viewpoint of a school librarian, a parent or caregiver, an at-age reader, an underage reader, or a critic. Can the students embrace the opportunity and endure the challenge of reading from a different perspective throughout the whole novel?
- Writing with purpose. Each student writes an editorial, or professional, book review for their intended audience (the perspective from which they were asked to read). From the editorial review students complete a second writing task. They prepare an argumentative piece to communicate the pros and cons of why not/why the book was, or continues to be, controversial.
These classes often have guest speakers from the community, so it was decided that I would introduce the unit to build a foundation of common knowledge amongst the students, but I would present as a guest speaker instead of my traditional, teaching role. As a guest speaker, I would rely on my experience and knowledge as a published writer of Intellectual Freedom, of the selection policy I adhere to as a school librarian, and my past experience as an editorial book reviewer for a national professional journal. As Lauren, my collaborating teacher and inspiration, said, “It was great having Leslie as a resource and the students really benefited from hearing from someone who actually deals with challenged books in the real world.”
So what did we agree to include in the discussion?
- Although a guest speaker, I still aligned with our state instructional standards, which ask students to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions…” and to “investigate and reflect on ideas under discussion…”.
- I began with the image of one of Dav Pilkey’s books and the question, “Why would this book be controversial?” Pilkey was selected as most students remember having read one of his books in their younger days, or are at least were familiar enough to recognize the books, as well as the fact that the Captain Underpants series is often under scrutiny (2015). Classes discussed potential concerns with the graphics, grammar, and specific text provided. Some students even brought forth ideas we educators hadn’t anticipated or predicted.
- We moved into an overview of the history of Banned Book Week (BBW), utilizing information from www.bannedbooksweek.org/about. Also integral to the discussion was a key difference back in 1982 when BBW was established. In 1982, when a book was censored at the local bookstore and libraries, there was no Internet for purchasing, so access was severely restricted.
- Students led a discussion about what Intellectual Freedom might mean by breaking the word down and defining “freedom” first, then moving on to the the more difficult “intellectual” before putting the two together for a preliminary understanding of the phrase “intellectual freedom.” Before we even moved into the formal definition, as provided by the American Library Association at www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom, students often brought what they’d learned from History class about the First Amendment and Democracy.
- Before we could talk about some of the features of the Collection Development Policy I follow, which were also pertinent to this discussion, they had to understand in loco parentis and how that makes a school and school library unique in comparison to a public library or bookstore.
- After all of this background knowledge and discussion, they asked each other “Why do books get challenged?” This discussion was followed with a review of the Office for Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) Challenge Report Form template www.ala.org/bbooks/online-challenge-reporting-form.
As students developed expertise and enthusiasm for the subject, we encouraged them to apply their knowledge. We wrapped up the discussion with an introduction about their role as a reader during this project and what to look for if one was to understand what a past generation might have seen as controversial in a book(s) we now consider a classic. The students developed a basic understanding of issues like reinforcing stereotypes, politically incorrect scenarios, issues considered too mature for the recommended age group (situation, language, etc.), something in the storyline so out of place it startles the reader out of the reading experience, as well as a few others.
Classroom Teacher Lauren concluded, “I really think the kids are going to like this unit because it engages them and makes them think critically about some of the novels they chose to read.” Which is why this was one of my favorite weeks of being a school librarian.
McCabe, Caitlin. “Captain Underpants Creator Urges Parents to Make a Change For Banned Books Week.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. N.p., 08 Sept. 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <http://cbldf.org/2015/09/captain-underpants-creator-urges-parents-to-make-a-change-for-banned-books-week/>.