Don’t Leave Students in the Dark

Banned and Challenged Books, Banned Books Week, Censorship, Library Bill of Rights

Celebrate Banned Books Week, September 22-28, 2019

By: Jamie Gregory

Censorship leaves us in the dark. Keep the light on.

Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark Keep the Light On ALA Banned Books Week 2019

This is the American Library Association’s chosen theme for Banned Books Week, September 22-28, 2019.  

Banned Books Week is my favorite yearly celebration in the library because it offers so many learning opportunities to students, mostly importantly by opening the door to discussion about intellectual freedom and its role in a democratic, open society.

Different types of censorship create different types of darkness in our society. This year, offer the following topics for teens to consider:


  • Students should learn the difference between a challenge and a ban.
  • Avoid using terms interchangeably.
  • Don’t create fear or paranoia. Use Banned Books Week to introduce students to their First Amendment rights in libraries and schools and how they can be proactive in protecting their rights.
  • Present learning as an opportunity for students to form opinions and discuss/debate.
  • Make learning interactive. We create trivia questions and a writing contest each year and offer challenged/banned books as prizes.


  • Want students to learn about different types of censorship? Consider using the gallery walk format. Students form groups and spend a designated amount of time at each station, reading, viewing, and listening to materials pre-selected by the school librarian. Or groups spend time at one station, becoming “experts,” and then sharing their knowledge with the others. Consider using the following topics:
    • Should companies like Google comply with requests to remove material from the Internet?
    • What are the effects of violence and suffering when displayed on the Internet, in movies, television, and video games?
    • Should schools regulate or monitor student speech on social media off campus?
  • Create an escape room or breakout box activity. Find an example here that we created and has been successful with students. Breakout boxes are an excellent way for students to actively participate in learning and work together to solve puzzles.
  • A great place to start with students who haven’t studied censorship is the Library Bill of Rights. In my experience, it sparks some interesting discussions. For example, if public libraries open their meeting spaces to groups regardless of views or beliefs, does that include hate groups? Read an article here from School Library Journal for more information.(The ALA Council then voted to rescind that change. Read more on the OIF blog.) 
ALA Library Bill of Rights
  • Grab a copy of Radical Reads: 101 YA Novels on the Edge by Joni Richards Bodart. In the appendix, you will find rationale forms. Have students fill them out from the teacher/school librarian point of view. Next, have students fill out a patron statement of concern as if to file a formal complaint. This activity can be completed individually, in pairs, or in groups, as students take on the roles of various stakeholders and construct arguments.
  • Find local sources of book censorship for students to study. Last year, I had students study recent examples of censorship in South Carolina involving Some Girls Are, The Hate U Give, and All-American Boys. Students read newspaper articles, including excerpts from those issuing the complaints, and formulated their own opinions after reading the books.
  • Also find local history that relates to intellectual freedom and censorship. After reading more about mill village history in our area of upstate South Carolina, we connected with author Frank Beacham who wrote Mill Town Murder after discovering his grandfather’s involvement in a deadly mill strike in Honea Path, SC, in 1934. We arranged a Skype visit during which the author shared local resistance to sharing his story. We then connected this story to the documentary The Uprising of ‘34 which contains this same story in the larger context of textile mill uprisings, the General Textile Strike, across the South. This in-depth learning encouraged students to look into local “hidden” history, even interviewing family or community members.
  • Don’t limit yourself to studying books censored for language or violence. We had an author Skype visit with Matt de la Pena, who discussed his own experiences with book censorship related to Mexican Whiteboy. The story is politically complex and filled with anti-American paranoia related to school reading materials. Read more on my previous blog post:
  • Students may not know that their textbooks and learning standards can be biased or include inaccurate information. In a previous blog post, I show how wording can drastically change how students learn about history. 
  • Many students have no idea that books have gone to court. Select some court cases related to book censorship (e.g. Island Trees Union Free School District Board of Education v. Pico, Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District, Sund v. City of Wichita Falls), and have students read about the issue at hand, learning what rights school boards and educators have to restrict students’ reading materials. Use Google Docs for students to share their learning. Consider having students participate in a mock trial.
Google Doc Monteiro v Tempe
  • How did segregation affect the First Amendment rights of African-Americans? Access the School Library Journal article “The Freedom Libraries: a wedge in the closed society” by Frederick Heinze in April 1965; “‘Freedom Libraries’ of the Mississippi Summer Project” by Virginia Steele in the July 1965 issue of Southeastern Librarian; “‘I Want to Become a Part of History’: Freedom summer, freedom schools, and the Freedom News” by William Sturkey in The Journal of African American History. Have students learn about Freedom Schools in the 1960s and discuss how a method of repression is censorship of the contributions of minorities and limiting access to education.

I was privileged to visit Berlin this past March and see the Book Burning Memorial in Bebelplatz Square. Show students a photograph of Nazi book burnings, then a photograph of the memorial. Light versus dark imagery is at work here, although ironically the fire gives light as the books burn, which then leads to darkness. And although the memorial creates space to represent the absence of the burned books, Manning points out that by the end of the war, more books had been sent overseas than were burned. As Roosevelt said, “No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny.”

Book Burning Memorial in Bebelplatz Square

Jamie Gregory

Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.   

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