Why Teach Controversial Books?

NPR's On Point discusses using this text

NPR's On Point discusses using this text

Photo Credit

We’ve been having a great discussion in my ABQ Intermediate English class about great books for Intermediates.  One of the course tasks is to generate an annotated bibliography of a classic text,  graphic novel, cultural, and YAL.  The classic texts that come up the most include Lord of the Flies, Huck Finn, and To Kill A Mockingbird.  A lot of these teachers are concerned about how to pick texts that are suitable for Intermediates.  Some are more forthright in their questions, asking me about things that might be considered objectionable in an Intermediate novel. We are talking here about kids who are in grades 7 to 10, so the top age will be fifteen.  So what do I say?  Do I play it safe and tell them to err on the side of caution? Not exactly. . .

  • I do tell them to be sensitive to the kid, who could be caught in the middle – wanting to read the book like others, but unable to say so.   Be careful not to centre them out.
  • I do tell them to have other books available for students to choose – no one should be compelled to read a book.  Speaks to the necessity of getting rid of the ‘core’ novel.
  • I do tell them to consider the age 16 as sort of a good indicator that students are probably ready for adult content, below that age, choose books with minimal adult content and be prepared to defend the book on its literary merits.
  • I do tell them to offer some persuasive arguments to parents who are concerned about a book choice – here’s the gist:  read the book with your child – here’s an extra copy; my classroom is a safe place for students to explore issues that may be controversial or upsetting;  the reason we are reading this book as a choice is because it offers (fill in the blank here – presumably you have picked the book for a sound reason in terms of the curriculum and for its merits as a piece of fiction); intermediates need challenges in their reading and the freedom to choose some things for themselves – here is a choice that will be guided by me the whole way through the study of the novel – not read out of context.
  • For me, the bottom line is that I am the professional in the classroom and no parent has the right to censor materials for other students. You might be surprised to learn that when parents object, they expect me to remove the book from my curriculum completely.  Not happening.  Then I hope that my administrators will support me.

Just for the record – here are some of the books that I have taught to which parents objected:

  • Dracula (the play, not the novel) – reason given:  vampires are against God – my response – yes and good triumphs over evil in the play – God wins!
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – reasons given:  deals with rape, incest, had the N-word, portrays blacks as weak and inferior – my response – the book was written in the sixties about the thirties, so that is its context  – it teaches tolerance, acceptance of others who are different, how to stand up for what is right.  It has endured – a mark of true art and it is beautifully written.
  • Waiting for Godot (taught at grade 12) – reasons given – one of the characters talks about how being hanged gives one an erection – my response – yes, it does.
  • The Chrysalids – the student came to me and said her mother wouldn’t let her read it – she is Jehovah’s Witness – my response – here’s another great book – you’ll love it or try this one!  (I am assuming the objection had to do with the book’s critical take on fundamentalism of any kind.
  • Of Mice and Men – taught at grade 12 – the pastor read the curse words aloud at church, according to the student – apparently he (the pastor) hadn’t read the whole book because there was no objection to the adultery, murder or mercy killing in the novel. My response – here’s another great book to read instead.
  • Dragonriders of Pern – novel choice in grade 8 fantasy unit – reason given – the main character is physically abused by her father – my response – yes, we talk about this issue and the students are well aware of this issue and what to do if it happens to you.  This class is a safe place to talk about the things in the world that are not very nice.
  • Eyes of The Dragon – novel choice in grade 8 fantasy unit – reason given – author is Stephen King – again, parent had not read the book which is a very sophisticated fairy tale, with no language, sexual content or other monsters usually associated with King novels.  The very appeal of the book to intermediates is that the author is Stephen King.

I often talk about banned books when I use To Kill a Mockingbird in my grade 10 class. I encourage students who want to know more, to go to this web site and check out the banned books. Do I tell them to read them – you bet!

More on the Future

As I embark on facilitating another Additional Basic Qualification course, I am always struck by the energy, passion and enthusiasm that new (and some not so new) teachers have. We will be looking at technology and education in a future module, so the following video recommended by my PLN on Twitter may resonate with them. It is called: An Open Letter to Educators:

The Future of Education – Year End thoughts

Edutopia recently ran an interview with famous futurist Alvin Toffler, titled “Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up”. For once, here is a voice calling for reform of the system that doesn’t call for more and more testing. Instead, Toffler calls for what many progressive educators have been trying for some years now: differentiation. Toffler sees the regimentation of the current school system as a throwback to the industrial revolution, which aimed to train students for the assembly line. Now, he contends, we need to differentiate teaching and learning and the entire education system, to meet the changes coming. This is not new thinking, in my view. Teachers have always known that kids vary tremendously in all manner of ways and that improving learning demands that teachers teach and engage students in a variety of ways, provide a variety of learning activities and assess in a variety of ways. The potential of web 2.0 for delivering these ambitious goals is, to my mind, huge. So why isn’t this happening in a big way across education?

One reason, according to Toffler, is the system itself:

I meet teachers who are good and well intentioned and smart, but they can’t try new things, because there are too many rules. They tell me that “the bureaucratic rules make it impossible for me to do what you’re suggesting.” So, how do we bust up that? It is easy to develop the world’s best technologies compared with how hard it is to bust up a big bureaucracy like the public education system with the enormous numbers of jobs dependent on it and industries that feed it.

How many of us have faced roadblocks to implementing something new? My guess would be just about anybody who has wanted to try something new meets some kind of opposition. A colleague of mine got the opportunity to teach a grade twelve University level English class in a computer lab: she restructured her curriculum to use Edmodo and Ning. She is absolutely on the cutting edge of Web 2.0 use in teaching and learning. Didn’t matter. She got opposition from the students themselves, was viewed suspiciously by other colleagues in her department and was resented by others for having such great access to the computer labs. Has this stopped her? No – but it certainly puts a damper on one’s enthusiasm.

Toffler thinks that teachers need to leave the classroom periodically to renew, recharge and do something else. The role of professional development could be changed to accomplish this, but professional development has to come from within the teacher and be directed by that individual. The best way to foster change is for teaching colleagues to be allowed time to explore new ideas and see how they work in theory and in practice. In Ontario at the moment, all professional development is driven from the top down under the umbrella of ‘student improvement’, a euphemism for improved test scores and increased graduation rates. The frustration with this policy and philosophy within the rank and file of teachers is palpable. Much needs to change within senior administration of school boards before teachers can become change agents – they want to – but many are held back by the system itself.

Alvin Toffler’s School of Tomorrow
These are the fundamentals of the futurist’s vision for education in the 21st century:
Open 24 hours a day
Customized educational experience
Kids arrive at different times
Students begin their formalized schooling at different ages
Curriculum is integrated across disciplines
Nonteachers work with teachers
Teachers alternate working in schools and in business world
Local businesses have offices in the schools
Increased number of charter schools

If you want to see what the future looks like, check out this reflection by a young teacher-in-training – I found her personal reflection via my Twitter PLN and she gave me permission to embed her video. Click here to see her online portfolio:

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning – We will remember them.”

Jim in uniform in Brussels

I don’t usually post personal stuff on my professional blog, but in my capacity as an educator I take Remembrance Day very seriously and this Remembrance Day is special. My dad passed away last month, so this Remembrance Day has an extra poignancy for me. This photo of my father was taken in Brussels in 1941. He was 21 years old. He gave six years of his life over to the Royal Canadian Air Force. When he died last month, my mother who had been married to him for 63 years turned to me and said “It’s just like when he went away to the War, when I said to myself ‘Now what do I do?’ ”

He never bothered to pick up his service medals, so at the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe day (which also happened to be the Year of the Veteran), I wrote away to the Department of Veteran Affairs to see if I could get his service medals for him. They came in time for Remembrance Day that year and Dad wore them with pride to the Legion dinner.


Thanks Dad – for everything.

Learning (and teaching) in the 21st Century

My Twitter PLN provided this video. Dr. Alec Couros of the University of Saskatchewan, provided this Youtube video to his Open Learning course. He posted the link to this class wiki and I picked up the link to the video. He was using the video as a jumping off point for student discussion. The video really defines the potential of web 2.0 for students and points to the future of learning. It seems to me that unless educators embrace the tools for learning that web 2.0 offers, we will be hopelessly behind our own students when it comes to 21st century critical thinking skills. I know that I would be lost without the internet and email, but I also know that I am way behind when it comes to understanding and using the full potential of the read/write web. My philosophy is to take one step at a time in learning all about this. I started with this blog, went on to develop a Twitter professional learning network and have set my sights on learning how to use a wiki for courses I teach. Once I feel more confident, I may even take one of Dr. Alec’s Open Learning Courses – he routinely invites people in the Twitterverse to join the class as a non-credit participant.