By: Kate Lechtenberg
In the past few weeks, we’ve included more than 20 articles in the Intellectual Freedom News about the To Kill a Mockingbird challenge/withdrawal/return-with-permission slips case in Biloxi, Mississippi. None of those articles have taken up what I think is the central issue in this case: teaching students to talk about controversial issues in and through literature.
At issue: Facilitating difficult dialogues
The real parent complaint in the Biloxi case? The Sun Herald quoted Biloxi mother Yolanda Williams: “Students were laughing out loud at the teacher’s response. That’s unacceptable to me … Is there not a better way to teach about that era and the horrors of that era, other than having kids laughing in class when the N-word is said? It should not be required reading for all students. My child shouldn’t have to sit in that class like that.”
Yes, Ms. Williams does say that the Harper Lee novel “should not be required reading,” but the majority of her comment is about the unacceptable nature of the conversation in the classroom. I believe we should make the question of how to support productive dialogue about sensitive topics the starting point of any discussion about this book.
Instead, the fact that a beloved, classic book was banned dominated the headlines and the story became censorship sensationalism instead of a reasoned call for improved civil discourse.
Against sensational censorship coverage
Intellectual freedom advocates need to do our part to reject the sensationalization of censorship. It’s not enough to lament the restriction of a book on social media or grumble about schools’ decisions. Intellectual freedom advocate Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, rejects sensationalizing censorship by providing concrete steps to take in the wake of a book challenge or ban, as she did in her recent post “Banned in Biloxi: What can you do to save ‘To Kill a Mockingbird?'” And some of you may have taken those steps alongside intellectual freedom supporters in Biloxi.
I’m a teacher at heart, so that makes my work as an intellectual freedom advocate different. My work is about students, teachers and the dialogues about literature that happen in classrooms. My work is to take seriously these Biloxi parents’ concerns and to help those teachers find strategies to raise the level of discourse with their students.
Classroom conversations: The problem — and the opportunity
On the same day that Mississippi’s Sun Herald published the article about Ms. Williams’ complaints about the conversations in their student’s eighth-grade class, Arizona’s KPNX 12 News ran a story about two parents’ outrage because their child read about and discussed the history of the N-word in English class before reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
An English teacher at Hamilton High School asked ninth-graders to read a 2011 Teaching Tolerance article centered on an interview with Arizona State University professor Neal Lester, who taught a course on the history of the N-word. Parents of one student spoke to KPNX 12 News, saying that they wished they had been told in advance that the class would be discussing the N-word. “We weren’t ready to have that conversation […] If it’s going to be something sensitive, involve the parents first. Just like if it’s sex ed or anything else.”
In Mississippi, a family was upset by the N-word in the book itself, and in Arizona, a family was upset by efforts to responsibly discuss a controversial word before it came up in literature. Is it possible for an English teacher to avoid controversy?
A controversy waiting in every book
I taught high school English for 10 years, and controversial topics came up almost every day when we read books together as a class, books like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, Things Fall Apart, Catch-22, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Mrs. Dalloway, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, Wit, Rabbit Hole, The Bean Trees, Speak, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, The Laramie Project, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Miracle in the Andes. I’ve read all these books with entire groups of students, and I’m sure that at least one student found something in each of these books to be troubling or offensive — just as I’m sure that at least one student found something beautiful and inspiring in every book.
Every one of these books — let alone any of the dozens of books my students chose to read individually or in small groups — may have raised sensitive issues for my students and their families. It would have been impossible and inadvisable to notify every parent about every potentially controversial topic that might come up in the classroom. We cannot reduce any book to a list of its related controversies or hot-button issues.
Sharing my approach to contentious dialogue
However, I do think I could have been more transparent with my students and their families about the fact that literature may make each student uncomfortable at some point in the year. (And, for that matter, so might history. And science. And art.) In fact, I should do this with my college students now that I’m teaching YA literature to undergraduates and graduate students, many of whom are preparing to be literature teachers.
Yes, next semester, I’ll be including a statement in my syllabus that acknowledges the ways that literature can challenge us all, with a brief description of how I plan to facilitate difficult dialogues in our class. I’ll also include some suggestions for how students can communicate with me and with their classmates when they meet discomfort in a book or in a discussion.
A perfect ending to this blog post would be a draft of my plans for next semester, but I’m going to have to think more about this and do a little more research. In the end, I know that a blurb in my syllabus won’t cut it. I’ll need to model an intentional approach to difficult dialogues in my own class, as well as facilitate a discussion about how secondary teachers can do this with their own students and families as well. Stay tuned for more from me on this topic, beginning in January!
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.