Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc and destruction in the Caribbean and battered the Southeast, where my in-laws, cousins, and millions of others sheltered like so many sitting ducks, directly in the line of an unstoppable leviathan. Feeling powerless as it happened, we held our breath against the wrath of Mother Nature’s terrifying aggression.
Teachers may feel a comparable sense of helplessness in the face of rising challenges and complaints against our work.
Case in point: I presumed that by now—actually, by the point I started teaching in the late 1990s—banned books would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, they’re not.
While in my district we’re fortunate to have a supportive administration and a progressive approach toward selection and access to a wide range of material, that doesn’t mean parents have ceased to request different titles when they perceive inappropriateness in the match between text and student.
Luckily, the rate of such requests is low. However, rather than decreasing over time, requests are holding steady. I suspect it has something to do with recent shifts in pedagogy to increase the relevancy of texts to our students’ lives and to our increasing desire to dramatically raise the level of student choice in text selection.
These are only two pieces of the puzzle, in my opinion, but they can be rather sticky. In many districts, educators have worked hard to expand their literary repertoire beyond the classics of the past. Catcher in the Rye, The Crucible, Night, and Romeo and Juliet are alive and well still; however, they are no longer the only texts students may be reading. Teachers are exposing students to a diversity of recently published works and giving them choice in what they read. In fact, it’s common in my high school for students to be reading multiple texts for English class, one as a whole-class text and another as an independent, student-chosen text.
This expansion is a result of the dedication to increase the volume of student reading and is inspired by pedagogues such as Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Ernest Morrell, and others. At my high school, we’ve employed several tactics to achieve this goal, three in particular: engage in and encourage independent reading, build classroom libraries to increase exposure and access, and facilitate choice in text selection.
So far these strategies are working well. However, we do still experience parental requests for alternatives. Some recently offending titles include Angela’s Ashes, Night, Radiance of Tomorrow, and Go Ask Alice. Reasons for opposition range from offensive language to sexual explicitness to foreign content to raw descriptions of drug use. In some cases, teachers have been able to convince parents that the scenes and offending components in question ground the stories in reality and create relevance for our teenagers; in other cases, teachers have not been able to persuade parents and instead assigned a different title to that student.
Books are challenged all the time. The American Library Association (ALA) recently published a list of the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016, 50 percent of which were challenged because they contained LGBT characters, themes, and viewpoints. Previous lists reveal similarities and a penchant for challenge in the name of sexually explicit material or scenes.
Defending free expression and access in the classroom may not be isolated to books. These materials may now include films, social media, websites, political speeches, and any other “text” one might imagine, including teaching methods. If you find yourself in a position of defense, NCTE can help. The organization’s Intellectual Freedom Center has resources to equip educators with tools to defend and advocate for choices and pedagogy designed to generate critical and informed thinkers.
English teachers are not alone in this. As political tensions continue to rise, across the country people are exercising their right to freedom of expression by advocating for everything from alternative texts to teaching materials, pedagogical decisions, and school policies, including who can or cannot use a particular bathroom. If our goal is to create an informed, intelligent, democratic, and globally minded society, we must continue to explore topics, ideologies, and texts that challenge us all to see beyond our own lives.
Additionally, the fact that our students are experiencing anxiety and depression at record rates may perhaps be connected to shielding them from some of life’s difficulties and from silencing them. Diverse texts act as mirrors for students who frequently are not represented in mainstream texts, as well as opportunities to help create empathy for others, letting students “practice” hard choices safely as they face a diverse society.
Thus, we work to create citizens who, having processed complex materials and harnessed that power, are empowered to build a better society. We do that by giving them the tools to understand the world they come from and the world they have yet to see. We do that by challenging them, stretching minds and hearts and spirits outside their comfort zones, outside safe havens, and into the maelstrom of their lives. We do that by arming them with sophisticated ideas, a broad understanding of differing ideologies, and an ability to make critical and complex decisions by thinking carefully about what is right and why.
In the face of strife, human made or otherwise, the human spirit always rises up, preparing us to weather the storms of our lives and then to plod on. We hold fast to hope, as more is always on the horizon; our changing world continues to challenge us each day. We must face it together, courageously, resisting the desire to shield ourselves or our students from knowledge and experiences that enable us all to grow.
About the Author:
Michelle G. Bulla has been an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School at the foot of the Catskills in New York for over 20 years, where she also serves as 9-12 Department Chair. She is Past President of NYSEC, the NY affiliate of NCTE, where she continues to serve on the Executive Board. Find her on Twitter @china93doll