Thursday, August 15, 2013

Censorship in the Classroom and the Choices Students and Teachers Make

The renewed assault on the works of Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson, two of my favorite writers, by the censors among us, has caused me to ponder the ways both students and teachers censor.

Censorship, after all, is a matter of choice.

My definition of censorship in the classroom moves beyond a strictly legal definition of the word: 

The suppression or proscription of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent, or unduly controversial.

Since Plato first suggested banning poetry instruction, self-appointed censors have targeted various texts they deem unsuitable for public consumption. Thus, what began as a neutral term in ancient Roman society has evolved into a highly-charged emotional agenda. Make no mistake, censorship, at its core, is all about suppression and control. 

There is a question that enters my mind each time I hear some self-appointed moralist or member of the thought police propose censoring a book, a painting, a song, a movie, or a television show:

Who censors the censors?

But this post isn't about those who target Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I have taught and will continue to teach Alexie's fabulous YA novel. I keep Anderson's book, and others, in my classroom library and have recommended it to many students and teachers, and I buy more of her books each time I hear about a new assault on her work. It's the way I choose to #SpeakLoudly.

Today I want to talk about the ways students and teachers practice censorship in the classroom.

Teachers First

We teachers make choices to include and to exclude certain texts in our curriculum. This summer I've read many blogs railing against the summer required reading assignment. When teachers assign specific texts for students to read during the summer, regardless of the various merits of those texts, they are exercising control over a students' reading life, even during the months when the student isn't enrolled in a class at school. Do we really have a right to assign homework when we don't even have a student in class? 

Required summer reading smacks of censorship in that, perhaps a stretch, it seeks to control students' thoughts during the warm hiatus. Teachers don't trust students enough to allow them to simply "let my people read," as Donnalyn Miller chants. 

Others, especially bloggers with children battling the required summer reading, have eloquently penned thoughtful arguments against the counter-productive and diminishing returns of required summer reading. In "The Battle of Summer Reading," Gary Anderson describes how required summer reading subverts the reading choices his children make on their own and the on-going battle to get the books read. 

When children must complete summer reading in lieu of their own reading choices, to my thinking that's a form of censorship. 

But it isn't just the summer reading mandate that censors. Teachers also censor in the classroom, and as I write this, I'm including myself. I like being in control. It's not easy to relinquish control to adolescents. Yet I must ask myself: At what cost to students' love of reading am I exercising total control over the reading students do in my classes? 

Sure, I have specific curricular mandates, both in terms of literature and writing. However, my current goal is to use the CCSS, which my state has adopted, not as a way to limit curriculum choices but as a way to expand them to include more rather than less student reading choice. I'm asking myself an essential question: How can the CCSS work to expand student choice rather than constrict it? To answer the question, I'll work to balance the three angles of the CCSS Three-Part Triangle for Measuring Text Complexity: 

Currently, the focus has primarily been on quantitative measures since labeling and leveling books based on lexile scores alone is easy and gives the money changers a way to score contracts and earn profits. 

It's incumbent upon teachers to push-back against this reductive thinking that takes an equilateral triangle and morphs it into a scalene with little to no equality in terms of consideration for texts or students. 

Those who advocate for only prescribed texts, for informational texts privileging imaginative literature, for quantitative measurements that exclude qualitative and reader-task considerations, for eliminating student choice in classroom reading mandates, those who take this narrow position stand with the censors. They are no better than the Wesley Scroggins among us who want to censor Speak. We must ask the question Kelly Jensen asks on Book Riot when she wrote about the latest effort to censor Speak: "What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?" I include teachers and administrators and superintendents and school boards and politicians and pseudo-education reformers and all others who desire total control and prescriptive curriculum in my critique. 

As a new school year approaches and teachers in over forty states implement the CCSS, I'll look for ways to use the standards to give the reader, the student, as much freedom and consideration as possible. For example, I'll be asking myself how I can teach the hero archetype while giving students more choice about the hero myths they read, both classic and contemporary, such as Katniss and others in YA literature. Many will choose to read Beowulf or The Iliad in its entirety rather than just the excerpts I assign if I do my job well. At least that's been the reality of student choice in my classroom in recent years. 

Sometimes student choice is simply a matter of offering students two or three texts to consider and letting democracy rule. I do this when I teach Shakespeare. Last year students chose between The Tragedy of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew. They chose Macbeth. Long live democracy. Long live the freedom to read and to choose one's own reading material. 

Students' Turn:

Early in this post, I said I want to talk about the ways students and teachers practice censorship in the classroom. There is not a teacher who hasn't experienced students who censor. They do it in many ways:

  • tuning out with earbuds in to drown out the sound of the teacher
  • skipping class
  • using Spark Notes and other online cheats to avoid reading the assigned text
  • sitting defiantly in the back of the room reading Eragon, for example, while the teacher talks about a required text
  • teacher shopping for a class that doesn't require any reading (They do exist). 
  • copying work from past students or friends in another class
The ways students get around being told what to read are as varied as their retinal patterns. For those who need more evidence that students self-censor and censor teachers' prescribed reading, consider this infographic Epic Reads shared on Facebook earlier today: 

The censors among us to whom we devote our outrage, those who challenge Sherman Alexie, Laurie Halse Anderson and many other YA writers, certainly pose a serious threat, one we must diligently challenge and speak against. They pose, unfortunately, only one threat to books and reading in our classrooms. Sometimes evil and upsetting forces exist within. Too often, "We have met the enemy and they are us." 

This school year: Start the Choices. Stop the Censorship.

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